This New Year, Change Your Brain

Most of the New Year’s resolutions people fail to achieve are about health, wealth and love.  We want to lose weight because it makes us healthier and more attractive.  We want more money because it expands our options and enhances our sense of security.  We want to give and receive love because love makes us happy and reveals the beauty surrounding us.

Here’s something important to know:  Health, wealth and love all start with a healthy brain.  They are innate capacities neural networks produce.  You can catch all three with one net by making 2011 about rebuilding your brain.  It’s easier than you might imagine. Learn to nurture your brain and here’s what can happen:

  •  Regions of the cerebral cortex become larger and more fully integrated, with increased blood flow and oxygen.  Gamma wave activity increases, signaling greater capacity for problem solving, creativity and goal-directed behaviors.
  • Systems responsible for memory, learning, error detection and attention improve.
  • The brain’s emotional set point defaults to positive.  Circuits in the mid prefrontal cortex strengthen to extinguish fear and quiet stress reactions.
  • There will be greater activation in neural networks that generate the social intelligence for constructive and meaningful relationships.
  • Homeostasis locks in (the polar opposite of stress) generating higher energy and greater well-being.

Imagine having a brain that functions like that. It’s a first-class ticket to the “Good Life” that Aristotle, Maslow and Rogers talked about.  Changing your brain to change your life really couldn’t be simpler and positive change can happen faster than it takes to lose ten pounds. The brain has the capacity to rewire, reintegrate and expand higher order brain function in six to ten weeks, if you’re willing to follow a basic practice.  And it doesn’t matter how old you may be.  The brain is neuroplastic; it continues to develop throughout your lifespan, if you take care of it.  So, make 2011 about changing your brain and let your new brain change your life in all the remarkable ways a healthy brain can.   Here are four simple changes you can make that will rewire your brain:

1. Change Your Mind: Become adept at transcending stressful thinking.  We human beings are capable of generating all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads, exciting negative emotions and producing a chronic sense of threat that floods the brain with stress hormones.  Most of these reactions are tied to mere thought. Thus, transcending stress begins with quieting anxious, stressful thinking.  Below are four simple tools that can help you do this.

The Clear Button is a tool that can stop stressful thinking.  Here is how it works.  Starting today, practice monitoring your mind for every negative, stress producing thought it churns out.  Initially, you may be bewildered by how many negative thoughts your brain is producing.  You can’t stop the brain from generating the negative thoughts, but you can stop indulging them.  99.9% of these are not true. Simply eliminate them by doing the following:

Step 1 — Push the Clear Button: When anxious, stress provoking thoughts arise, imagine a Clear Button at the center of your palm that, when pressed, sends a signal to calm the part of the primitive brain that generates anxiety and stress.  Keep pressing the button as you follow through with Step 2.

Step 2 — Count to “3:” The part of your brain that launches stress reactions has the intelligence of a two-year-old, and like a two-year-old, it needs to be distracted.  Counting to three will do the trick.  To further distract your primitive two-year-old from acting out, imagine each number as a color. See 1 as red, 2 as yellow, and 3 as green, taking a slow, easy breath with each number you count.

Step 3 — Let Go: On the final breath, let go. Feel your brain relax. Bring your attention to the present moment. Smile from the inside and then go about your business.

2. Change Your Week: Start the day in quiet. Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life. Set your intention to have a great day, filled with achievement and sustained through an attitude of peace. During the day, every two hours, take a “spiritual” break. Step outside or look out the window for a few minute.  Let your mind go completely. Watch the sun shine, the sky change or the wind blow. Connect with life.  Once a week, before going to sleep, count your blessings. Name three things that happened in the previous week for which you are grateful.  Then name three things in your life generally that you regard as blessings.

3. Change Your Pattern: Studies at Duke University found that novelty helps the brain stay young.  Break the mold of old routines and the brain grows.  Travel more.  Get out and see the countryside.  It’ll slow age-related mental decline. So will learning a new skill, like gardening, cooking, square dancing or yoga. These simple changes excite brain cells to make new connections with one another.  Your brain wakes up and you feel young at heart.  “Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one” says Oliver Sachs, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, “existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.”

4. Change Your Chemistry:  Walking 30-minutes a day, five days a week flushes stress hormones and oxygenates your brain.  Since it’s not strenuous, leg muscles don’t take up extra oxygen and glucose as it does during aerobic exercise. Studies of people who walk regularly show significant improvement in memory skills.  If walking five days a week feels daunting, then start off walking 20-minutes once or twice a week.

Take your walk in a “green” setting like a park.  The psychological benefits of physical activity in green environments are significant.  In one study, 71 per cent of the subjects who took a walk in the country or a park reported decreased levels of depression.  They reported feeling less stress afterwards.  Ninety per cent reported increased self-esteem.  Nature is rejuvenating.  It can lift your attitude and an elevated attitude will light up your brain.

Here’s the way to take your walk: Leave all your troubles behind you.  Quiet your mind as you walk, letting go of thoughts that pull you back into problems.  At the beginning of the walk, imagine each in-breath softens and opens your heart and each exhale expands your mind.  Be present in the moment.  Notice simple things like colors, sounds and smells and feel sensations, such as the wind caressing your cheek.  At the end of the walk, let your mind go completely.