Neuroplasticity is the term for the brain’s capacity to physically adapt to the environment. This is modulated by sensory input and chemical changes. It has been well-documented that prolonged exposure to the stress hormones adversely affects the brain structure in addition to causing it to physically shrink. Having a chronically negative outlook is one way of keeping these chemicals elevated. Becoming aware of your life view and making a conscious decision to modify it can have a significant impact on improving the quality of your life, as well as your chemical makeup. There are what I have termed “The four R’s of neuroplasticity”:
Here are a couple of stories I would like to share with you about reframing.
When my daughter, Jaz, was about 13 we were helping my wife host a tango party (milonga) at her dance studio. Once a month she held an all-night milonga for about 100 people. Jaz and I were not that happy to be there and she was already in a bad mood. After much encouragement I was about ready to give up when I had an idea. I said, “Look, I will give you twenty dollars if you can be happy for the next hour.” Much to my surprise, she not only took me up on it but she had a great time the rest of the evening since she knew many people who were happy to see her. (she still took my twenty dollars) Even now when she dips into a negative state of mind I will remind her about that experience.
“I decided to enjoy what I do”
Another story that comes to mind is about a friend of mine who was in dental school the same time I was in medical school. We remained close friends after graduation. He set up his dental practice in a small town and was reasonably successful. However, he was not happy. He was too isolated. It was hard to consistently hire good help. He wasn’t living where he really wanted to be and the list went on. About a year later, I spent the weekend with him and he was a different person. He was energized and excited about building his practice, which was now thriving. Nothing else had changed. I asked him, “What happened?” He replied, “I decided to enjoy what I do.” That was it. He continued to grow the practice to the point where he could and did sell it and moved back to his hometown.
Reframing is not positive thinking
Positive thinking, along with its associated thought suppression, is detrimental to your mental health and secondarily your physical health. In fact, one recent study showed that it damages the hippocampus of the brain, which is the short and long-term memory processing center. (1) Reframing, is different in that you first become aware of your negative thinking and then you make a conscious choice to substitute a more functional thoughts or outlook. Positive substitution is the essence of the stimulating neuroplastic changes in the brain. The Dangers of Positive Thinking
“The Choice Theory”
William Glasser was a well-known educator who authored, The Choice Theory, (2) well before the possibilities of neuroplasticity were known. It’s an excellent book about how to effectively relate to adverse circumstances. One choice would be to change the circumstances. If you don’t have that choice, though, you can change how you relate to them.
In a prior post I have used the metaphor of a hurricane in addressing life stresses. The extreme winds of the hurricane can represent your racing thoughts or circumstances. You cannot control your mind and most circumstances are also out of our control. You cannot stop a hurricane and you will also waste a lot of energy trying to slow down your mind or control your situation. The intent of the DOCC process is provide you the tools that can pull you into the center of the storm and remain there. The above stories involved situations that could not be changed but each person had a choice about how to relate to them. The Eye of the Storm
I attended a two-day seminar at “The Pacific Institute”, which was founded by a football coach, Lou Tice. He had a remarkable outlook on life regarding how to be both personally and professionally successful. One important concept he presented was that our brains are continually pounded by negative thinking, which will create deeply etched-in unpleasant neurological pathways. He pointed out what now seems obvious, “Why not program your brain by substituting positive thoughts?” You again have to be aware of the negative thoughts in order to substitute.
Another problem in maintaining a negative life outlook is that your brain and body is already negatively pre-primed with stress chemicals so when you do encounter adversity you are more quickly apt to over-react and be in an even worse mood. How do you think a baseline negative state of mind helps your quality of life? How well do you think you will be able to come up with creative solutions for problems at work and home? From Reactive to Creative
You always have a choice regarding how to view your life? What is yours?
- Hulbert, JC. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2016); 7:1103.
- Glasser, William. The Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins, 1998.