Just a few decades ago scientists believed that the brain was fixed and unchanging. Thanks to the discovery of neuroplasticity, we now know that the brain is actually plastic and malleable. In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. states that the brain has the capacity to rewire itself and/or form new neural pathways. Neuroplasticity not only applies to actions, but to thoughts as well. There are two types of plasticity–positive plasticity and negative plasticity. As you can guess, positive plasticity is connected to positive changes in the brain. Repetitive positive thought and positive activity can rewire your brain and strengthen areas that stimulate positive feelings. Our patterns of thought and how we view our life can contribute to a powerful trait called adaptive competence. In a recent NPR segment, commentator and gerontologist Dr Mark Lachs described adaptive competence as our ability to bounce back from stress. According to his research, this ability, and a person’s outlook on life and aging plays an important role in longevity. The perception of aging that we create, and the life we build can increase our lifespan, as well as help us maintain our cognitive abilities.
So, if negative thought patterns can be detrimental to our physical, emotional and cognitive health, how can we rewire our brains in a positive way? Changing habitual thought patterns can be difficult. Here are some suggestions:
• Psychologists recommend paying attention to your thought patterns. When you recognize a negative pattern, work to gradually change your thoughts. Try to restructure the negative sentences that you repeat in your mind to something more positive. Meditation or prayer can also help counteract negative thoughts. Learned prayers or mantras that are repeated over and over can help calm your mind and focus it in a positive way.
• Exercise can help release endorphins which lift our mood. When you feel yourself overwhelmed by a situation take a walk, ride your bike or do some yoga.
• Build a support network in your life. A strong social structure can keep you active and lend support. Isolation can keep you locked in your negativity.
• Volunteer. Get your focus off of your own life and help others. Seeing the circumstances of people who are less fortunate than you can help you gain a better perspective on your life. Helping others can also give you a sense of purpose.
• If you struggle with issues of anxiety or depression, seek help. Find a therapist or counselor that can work to help you discover the roots of your issues and how to change negative patterns.
• Spend more time doing things that make you happy. Listening to music, reading, spending time in nature, watching a baseball game…fill your life with activities that you enjoy.
No matter what your age is, you can use these tools to make positive changes in your life.