Thursday, December 13, 2012

Take Charge of Your Brain by Taking Charge of Your Thoughts

I have been covering the ways we can control the brain which then can have tremendous effects on our health and well-being in all ways, not just mental health, but physical as well.  Diet, physical activities such as exercise, sleep, and breathing, and finally self-regulation as was discussed in the last 2 posts are a great start.  In this post, I will discuss thoughts or cognition.

I have covered previously how the brain creates connections to what we are spending our time doing and thinking.  The more time we spend thinking about math, the more connections the brain creates for math functions.  In essence, the density in areas of the brain where math functions take place, increases.  This then makes some math tasks automatic, maybe even unconscious.  What I am saying is that the more time you spend thinking and doing something, the easier the brain makes it to think about or do!

Another good example is learning to drive.  The first few times we get behind the wheel require conscious thought for every single basic step - put the key in the ignition, which foot goes where, where's the blinker?, the headlights? Etc.  Now, the only time you think about those things is if you are driving someone else's car.  If we had to consciously think through every activity we did throughout the day, we would get very little done!

This is important to understand, because it brings home the message - if you spend a lot of time thinking about negative things, reading and doing negative things, the brain makes it easy, unconscious and automatic even, to be negative.  Not only that, but the brain is automatically better at finding stressful, difficult, dangerous stimuli, because it is in the business of survival!  So, it more easily tunes in to and tracks those things that cause stress, fear, or anger.  We have to work harder to train the brain toward the positive.

Is it realistic to think positive?  This is a common question that baffles me.  I am not talking about walking down a dark, scary alley at 3am singing, "zippity doo dah" and thinking safe thoughts.  On a daily basis though, we expose ourselves to a great deal of unwarranted danger signals that the brain is unable to distinguish - is it real danger or the usual stress?  Is it real danger or is it news of some far off place? Some political shanannigans? The bad behavior of a co-worker?  All of this is information that might be important to know, but spending too much time worrying, reacting, and getting frustrated about it isn't serving you.  Letting your brain hang out with all this bad news and negative input compromises mental health and physical health.

How so?  When the brain thinks a stressful thought, it floods the body with stress hormones.  These feel yucky and creates poor physical health over time.  Plus, this stress reaction gets to be automatic (as explained above) and these hormones and messengers are always in your body, messing with your health, your sleep, and your sense of well-being. It becomes your norm to be in this state and gradually your digestion, circulation, heart activity, and more are compromised.  Not to mention, depression and anxiety disorders become easier to slide into and from there addictions....

So, what to do?  Change your thinking.  Change what you spend your time on.  To begin, journaling can help.  It helps to take the thoughts that tend to go 'round and 'round in the head, move them out of the cyclic pattern and into a new space in the brain.  This can help us let go, re-frame  or see things in a new light.  For some who struggle with cyclical thinking at bedtime, journaling the thoughts and closing up the journal to let those thoughts go for the night is helpful.  Journaling can be used to help us see our thoughts as separate from who we are.  When we think a certain way, we sometimes see that as something that defines us.  YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS!  Journaling helps create distance.  If I can think about my thoughts enough to be able to write them down, that is evidence that who I am is separate from my thoughts.

Another way you change your thinking is to create affirmations.  Yes, this sounds hokey.  However, it is easy to automatically wake up in the morning and groan about how tired you are, how you wish you had the day off, etc.  We easily create complaints. Wouldn't it be nice if it were easy to smile at seeing another day?  To start the day feeling an expanded sense of gratitude for life, for your job, and for the health of your loved ones?  It's easy to point out flaws in ourselves and others.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to see the strengths?  I often ask clients to list their strengths.  Most often this is a really challenging task.  They can list 5 flaws for every strength.  Why is that?  It's not more realistic.  We are not inherently more flawed than we are gifted.  Why not focus on the strengths and the gifts we carry?

Gratitude is an easy cognitive focus to make.  I wrote about this in a previous post as well.  Use gratitude to change your brain in a positive direction!  Instead of the constant focus on what is NOT right in your life, gratitude helps us to see all that IS right.  Very important, because there are things not right, but why spend so much time on them?  There are many things that are right.  Coming from a place of strength allows us more power to then deal with those things we think need fixing in this world.  A "cup half empty" focus lowers the energy to take on the changes we need and want to make.  I see clients all the time completely overwhelmed by their focus on all that is wrong in their lives and in the world.  Is it more realistic?  Absolutely not, because there are many things that are wonderful and right in the world as well and paying attention to them serves us much better!

One of my favorite cognitive change tasks is to wear a bracelet each day.  Some people choose a specific bracelet that stands for something like those bracelets that we can buy to support breast cancer or heart disease or other causes.  Set a goal:  I will not gossip all day.  I will not refer to myself negatively in my thoughts or my words.  I will not engage in thinking that undermines my success.  Then, every time the negative thought happens, the bracelet moves to the other wrist.  The goal is to get through a day without moving the bracelet.  Then, get through a week.  Then a month.  It is a great reminder and a life changing exercise!

Changing your brain requires changing your thoughts.  It is easy to begin, but challenging to maintain.  However, it may take just a few weeks and the results can then trigger a domino effect in which you see multiple thinking patterns topple and fall to the strength and power of your new positive mindset!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Self-Regulate? Yes, You Can! Continued.....

What did you learn over the past week?!  Did you try some self-regulation techniques? Last week I wrote  about ways to regulate the mind and body, adjusting to internal and external stimuli with awareness and skill.  Self-regulation is being aware of the nervous system, thoughts, and physical reactions enough that you can make adjustments and take some control.  It is knowing what triggers reactions in the mind and body enough to control the reactions, cope with them, and/or turn them up or down.  Whatever reaction is triggered in your body or mind, you are aware and ready with a skill or tool to react in response.

One topic covered in the last blog was meditation, which teaches us to control the mind.  It can be in many forms, so don't assume you know what meditation is until you start trying all the variety of forms.  Another topic from last time was breathing.  Breathing is an involuntary physical function that we have some voluntary control over.  So, it is especially powerful in helping us to control our physical reactions.  Learning to control the relaxation response can involve the breath and other techniques as well and teaches us to shut down stress reactions.

This week, let's move on to other techniques with the exact same goal in mind.  Grounding techniques are great self-regulators.  These are strategies we use to detach from the mind and the physical reactions we are having.  Once the detachment is created, there is a clarity and a relief that then allows for better coping mechanisms to be used.  It can be done anytime, any place, anywhere.  It is very "present moment" which is similar in that way to mindfulness (discussed in the last blog).  It is also similar to relaxation in the response the body often has.

Grounding can be physical or mental.  Some mental grounding techniques are to look around the space you are in and describe.  Describe the shapes, the colors, the smells, etc.  You can also play a categories game similar to the car game some families play on long trips.  Think of a song for each letter of the alphabet.  Come up with a list of every car you can think of or food or TV show.  Think of some mundane activity you do and walk yourself through a step by step process of that activity.  Create a safe and present moment state:  I am _____.  I am here at ______.  Sitting on the _______.  The date is ________.   And, go on until all the details of the present moment are covered and you feel better.  Read something backwards - there's no meaning, no interpretation, just an activity to focus on and get the mind busy elsewhere.  Count or say the alphabet, slowly, or backwards.  Create a mantra or affirmation and repeat it to yourself over and over.

Physical grounding brings the body into awareness.  Run water over your hands or take a shower or bath and just be aware of the feel of water on the skin.  Squeeze something - a squishy ball or the arms of the chair and feel the tension, then let it go.  Press you feet firmly into the floor and feel a connection to the ground.  Rub a stone or soft fabric.  Jump up and down!  Do some yoga.  Walk mindfully, noticing each and every step.  Once you are focused on the physical sensation, your awareness on the body allows you to change and control the reaction the body is having.

While a walk or yoga practice can be used as a grounding technique when needed, they, and other exercise, can be powerful self-regulators.  30 or more minutes of exercise 3-5 days a week alleviates anxiety and stress, helps with depression symptoms, and creates a physical awareness and sense of well-being that can aid in self-regulation tremendously.  See the "Let's Get Physical" blog.

Begin to think about yourself as that furnace or faucet and regulate the temperature throughout the day.  Take the techniques from previous blogs and insert them into your daily life.  Make some techniques something you do every day, no matter what you feel.  The routine is like maintenance.  You are keeping the system in good running condition with a regular routine.  Make some techniques the ones you use when needed.  These are the quick and easy grounding or breathing techniques typically.  Make them a habit.  Every time I feel stress, I take 5 long, slow breaths, for example.  Finally, make some techniques what you use after the fact.  Let's face it, sometimes life is hard and stressful.  We get through it and use a self-regulator to help move the mind and the body moving forward.  Some of techniques might work for more than one, some might overlap.  Try to have 5 or more go-to self-regulators, gradually building your skills and your routines to include the most effective techniques until it is a habit.  Your awareness grows, your coping improves, and your daily life becomes do-able, easy even until you realize that you are happy and joyful most of the time on most days!