Here's my 5 steps to rewire your brain to live the life you desire:
1. Manage your thoughts
By changing our thoughts, we can begin to rewire our brains to see the world in new and different ways. This process takes time, effort and intention but know that it is achievable with practice. I think of it like learning to drive a car – in the beginning it takes a lot of concentration and effort but over time it gets easier and easier, and today you drive with virtually no effort. When we repeat new ways of thinking, at first it takes effort but over time it becomes who we are with little effort required.
The thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves and our world play a huge role in how we feel and how we behave. Releasing yourself from negative thoughts is dependent on your ability to change unhelpful beliefs, by getting rid of old ones and replacing them with new and empowering ones – which rewires your brain.
How do you know which beliefs to change? Sometimes it is obvious, like you say to yourself, “I’m useless, I can’t even make a cup of tea” – you can hear that is a negativity. However, sometimes it’s subtler, like keeping yourself really busy in the kitchen at parties because that behaviour protects you from having to interact with people which could tap into a deeply held fear of being disliked. In this case you can’t hear any direct words in your head, but deep down you really know you’re avoiding having to talk with strangers.
To help uncover unhelpful beliefs, it may help to ask yourself:
- How does this thought/behaviour make me feel?
- What would things be like if I didn’t hold this belief or behaviour?
- What caused me to believe this in the ﬁrst place?
- Where did I learn this?
- How does this belief guide my actions and choices in life?
- Is this thought considerate, kind and reasonable towards myself and/or others?
Once you’ve been able to establish the negative thought or behaviour, you are ready to begin shifting it and replacing it with a new, more realistic and functional belief.
We do this by gently stopping that thought or behaviour as soon as it begins, and then ‘reframing’ it.
Let’s use our two examples above to demonstrate how you do this. If you think to yourself “I’m useless, I can’t even make a cup of tea” – you can reframe that into something like, “No one can be perfect all the time, I chose to look at how much I have accomplished, and I am still progressing”.
Or you notice that you’re keeping yourself busy in the kitchen at the party, so you gently challenge that avoidance behaviour by saying to yourself, “This is an opportunity, instead of a threat. I will use this experience and my kind nature to learn something new, to change my direction, and to try a new approach”.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
Self-critical minds can be very busy minds, and it can feel exhausting. To help break the cycle, you will benefit greatly from doing daily Mindfulness Meditation. Try to do 10 minutes each day. I use an App called Mindful Creation which I really like, or there’s a good free one called ‘Smiling Mind’ with some very short ones which can be good for starting out. Doing this will help to quieten your mind and eventually enable you to observe your thoughts/feelings, rather than being a slave to them. It also gives your ‘busy’ mind some restful time. Don’t worry too much if you find it hard to stay focussed when you first start, this is natural. Try not to judge how you go, rather just do it as best you can and know that with practice it will get easier.
3. Be Grateful
Start using gratitude to build new neural pathways that are alert for the good things in your life, to counter-balance our brain’s negativity bias. You do this by writing three things that you're grateful for in your day (or thankful for, or went well). These don’t need to be big things. I could simply be being grateful for a friendly check-out person at the supermarket. Also reflect on what was your contribution to that good thing happening. Here’s a good article here that explains the science of gratitude if it interests you.
4. Set goals
Setting goals can be a very positive practice. There has been a lot of research on the benefits of goal setting to help maintain a happier and healthier life. Your dopamine system, which is a chemical that is released every time you experience a reward, is reliant upon goal setting and achievement. So as dopamine is released into the part of your brain responsible for positive rewards, you are essentially motivated to repeat this occurrence. When you set goals and accomplish them, you and your brain are rewarded (Mehta, 2013). Read here about how to write a goal that you can achieve.
5. Have more fun
Dr Barbara Fredrickson is best known for her Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. In this theory she proposes, “that the positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary mindset, and by doing so help to build enduring personal resources (Fredrickson, 2003, p. 332).” The experience of positive emotion leads to novel thoughts, activities and relationships, which in turn provides more personal resources, such as social support, improved skills and resilience to overcome obstacles.
Here's some things that you might like to try to build your positive emotions:
- Watch a funny movie and laugh
- Listen to an upbeat song and sing along to it
- Engage in an activity or hobby that provides you pleasure
- Have fun and talk with friends
- Read an inspiring book
- Play board games instead of watching television
There is no quick fix to a happier, more empowered life. However, thanks to the benefits of neuroscience, we now know it possible to rewire your brain to live the life that you desire. I wish you every success with that. And remember, if you need some help along the way, I am only a call away!