‘With neuroplasticity, extraordinary change is possible.’Â Rick Hanson
The human brain is fascinating to me. I love the fact that although we are all very different, we are also very much the same. One of the ways that we are the same lies in our potential to train our brains to rewire themselves and form different loops of thinking. This for me is an important aspect of mental fitness training. Being able to train your brain to work well for you links directly to mental health. Doing this can really support us to work out how to manage anxiety.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Knowing about neuroplasticity matters because it is a step towards self-awareness and this is central to good mental health. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. We have neurons in our brain and they join up and link together to form thoughts. Everything that we experience, whether it is a thought, a sound, a sight or a feeling, all requires underlying neural activity, and so how we interpret our experiences across the board, all contributes greatly to how we think and feel.
Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness
While this rewiring or reconnecting of neurons happens more easily at a younger age, it is something that is possible at any age, once we make an effort to focus our attention on it. We canâ€™t take our brains out of our heads in order to try to understand them, but we can come to know our brains in various ways by gaining knowledge and by becoming self-aware. By being aware of the neural activity in our brain, we come to know that the more our neurons fire together and join up in particular ways, the more patterns within or brain (like patterns of thinking) develop. These patterns become â€˜the normâ€™ in terms of what our brains routinely do. And if â€˜the normâ€™ is to feel anxious or low, it is possible that focussing on neuroplasticity could help.
We get into habits with our thinking, each developing a style. And just as we can develop a particular style of dress that becomes â€˜comfortableâ€™ for us to wear, we can develop ways of thinking that become comfortable for us to fall into. The â€˜comfortableâ€™ thinking is akin to our fall back option, the way of thinking that we tend to fall back into when we arenâ€™t really focussing on where our thoughts might be going. For some, this fall back option regarding thought is a really positive or optimistic thinking style. But for others, this fall back option can be more negative, more anxiety-provoking and perhaps very self critical. So if you think a lot or if you tend to worry a lot and become anxious, it can be good to know how to put this neuroplasticity into action in order to make it work in your favour.
One way to take the concept of neuroplasticity and make it work in your favour is to understand what happens to these neural connections during mindfulness practice. When you are practicing mindfulness, your thinking style is interrupted for a moment and that can be a very good thing. The loops of thinking stop running at full speed, your brain gets a chance to slow down and the neural connections loosen. Because the connections loosen, you are making it possible to break out of old â€˜comfortableâ€™ habits regarding the way you think, perhaps a thinking style that is contributing to feeling anxious. By practicing mindfulness, you are slowing the connecting of neurons down. You are, in that moment, setting the scene for neuroplasticity to work itâ€™s magic.
My Why for Mindfulness
People have many reasons for practicing mindfulness. When I spoke at the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit last week about how to incorporate mindfulness into your life if you are super busy, I spoke about the importance of knowing your â€˜whyâ€™. When super busy, things need to really matter in order for you to make time for them. For me, the reason why mindfulness matters relates to neuroplasticity. Mindfulness is enjoyable, calming and nourishing for the soul, but it matters because of neuroplasticity. I want to be mentally fit. I want my mental health to be good. I believe in the power we each have to influence our own thinking styles and I know that mindfulness creates the potential for neuroplasticity to happen. Work out your why for mindfulness. You will then find the time to work it into your day!
By:Â Anne McCormack
Anne McCormack is a Psychotherapist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland. Anne is passionate about adolescent mental health. Her first book on preparing young people for social media is due to be published this year.
To sign up for more information from Anne on the topic of young people and social media, go to www.annemccormack.ie and follow Anne on Twitter @MentalFitnessXX!