Written by Emily Phan, LMFT
This title does not refer to changing the world around you, but rather changing your own perspectives, thoughts, feelings and interactions which will in turn change your own personal world. The brain is the most powerful and intricate organ that we have. Challenging our brains to create new and different neuropathways can provide an incredible benefit. Our typical responses develop over time and become ingrained in our brains as automatic or impulsive reactions or thoughts. That knee-jerk angry response or non-verbal roll of the eye or sigh, or even the automatic negative thoughts that we struggle with such as “everyone is judging me” have all become written in our subconscious making us believe that those thoughts define us. It feels as if we can not escape them even when we do not like them. We believe our automatic responses because they exist within a developed and reinforced neuropathway.
It is important to remember how powerful our brains are; if our developed neuropathways contain automatic responses, then we can also develop new neuropathways to provide responses that we desire. The first step in this process is to recognize that it will take a little time to develop a new automatic response, meaning that we will have to consciously think about the response that we desire before we start providing that response more impulsively. Give yourself some grace in this process and know that you will revert to your reinforced thought patterns at some point; we are all human and we will have moments when habits show up.
I find myself often talking with individuals about how important our language is because of how much it affects for us. We can start creating a new neuropathway by changing one word that I find to be key for many people. A lot of us have a habit of saying “I really NEED to…” but in reality the task that is filled in by those dots is not usually an actual need; it is often a WANT. Changing this one word can make an incredible change in our daily lives. When we create a task list of all the things we NEED to do then we have already started a chain reaction. First, many of us are rebellious in nature and we may rebel against ourselves. Once I say I NEED to do something then I am already telling myself that I am not going to listen or follow through. Then when I lay my head down at night, I start punishing myself with my thoughts because I did not do all of the things that I said I NEEDED to do for the day. I start to feel as if I failed. However, if I start challenging myself to focus on my language then I am creating a new perspective for myself. When I say to myself, “I really WANT to…” then I immediately feel more motivated. I am setting myself up to follow through because this is a task that I WANT to do.
Now when I lay my head down at night my thoughts are more positive and relaxed; even if I did not get to everything on my list, I can be more forgiving to myself because while I did not get to everything I WANTED to do I can still put that WANT on my list for tomorrow. Challenging our language changes our automatic response, our mood, our motivation and perspective as well as our productivity and interactions. The more consciously we think about this process, the more reinforced this will become and in turn the more likely we will be able to develop a new neuropathway.
We can experience a similar process for other automatic responses we have as well. For instance, our automatic negative thoughts seem to happen quickly and spiral out of control. A thought such as “everyone is judging me” can turn into a thought such as “I’m never going to be good enough” and then to “I do not deserve to have friends” in an instant. This happens so quickly in part because it comes from our reinforced patterns or our subconscious neuropathways. We can begin challenging these thoughts by first recognizing them and holding on to one thought at a time and picking it apart; really slowing down that automatic process. Sometimes, I will spend up to 45 minutes on one thought in order to provide it the attention that it deserves. This is a conscious process to counter a subconscious thought. Often our automatic negative thoughts come from a positive place and then they just misfire with worry. What does this thought say about your values? We worry about things that are important to us. Now look for the evidence to support this thought as well as evidence to the contrary. Is this a true thought, based in reality? If this thought is determined to be accurate then what is the worst case scenario? What is the likelihood of that worst case scenario happening? What would you do if it did happen? What is more likely to happen? Finally, what would be a better, more accurate statement? This process slows down the momentum of our automatic thoughts and interrupts the cycle. By challenging your thoughts consciously, you are able to start creating new neuropathways.
One of the other scenarios referenced in the first paragraph is the automatic angry response. I often hear about this response in relation to driving. Individuals have referenced feeling incredibly angry at other drivers and then having a difficult time redirecting and calming back down, leaving the passengers in their own vehicle to deal with their angry outburst. Building in a filter and practicing a different response is key in this scenario. Start this process by first recognizing certain scenarios that seem to trigger an angry response for you. Once you know some of your triggers then you are able to create a plan to respond differently in that scenario thus creating more new neuropathways. It may be helpful to pause and filter through some questions before responding. What is the intention of the other person in this moment, could they have made a mistake or are they intentionally trying to upset you? Is your emotional response helpful or hurtful; will the person who committed the offense even know that you are bothered or have they already driven off leaving you and your passengers to deal with the consequences of your response? Is this an offense that will continue to be important in the next hour? All of these questions can help redirect the amount of attention you provide a particular scenario.
The common strategies for redirecting our thoughts and creating new neuropathways include recognizing triggers and negatives thoughts, slowing those thoughts down before they spiral out of control by moving them into our more conscious stream of thinking, questioning the validity of those thoughts and then providing ourselves with a more controlled and accurate restatement to address those thoughts. This conscious process does take some time and some effort but with consistency it will start to create new patterns of thinking in our brain. Those new patterns will in turn have a positive effect on our perspectives, our moods, our interactions and ultimately our personal worlds.