Simple Exercises to Rewire the Brain and Change Your Life
For a long time doctors and scientist believed that once an individual reached adulthood the brain was not able to change, unless a person was exposed to a disease or aging. We now know that this is not true. The brain is plastic and incredibly dynamic. It potentially has an unlimited ability to change throughout a person’s life. Science now says that at any age new neural pathways can be created and refined, and gray matter can actually be thickened. This means that we can move from habitual negative feelings states to an expanded experience of emotional well being and happiness in our lives.
Below are three ways that you can start right now at home or with a practitioner to change the architecture of your brain and rewire it for healing and happiness. However, there are many more activities like yoga, art, writing, EMDR, working with a counselor, to just name a few, that can be used to rewire the brain. This is just a list of places to start that don’t cost a thing and are easy to learn.
Mindsight is a very powerful exercise to help build specific circuits in the brain, it repairs neuroplasticity and helps to grow connections among neurons. These activities help create energy in our brain. This energy helps to reconnect areas of the brain that are less connected due to adversity and trauma.
“"Mindsight" is a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel to describe our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others. Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us get ourselves off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses. It lets us “name and tame” the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.”
You can think of Mindsight as the ability to see and truly know your brain. When you are practicing mindsight you learn how to cultivate three things, insight, empathy, and integration. The first, insight, is the idea of having the ability to sense your own inner life, it’s the self-awareness or self-knowing piece. The second, empathy, is the ability to understand how another person is feeling by sensing his or her inner life. The last, integration helps a person approach challenges reflectively and this helps a person interact in healthy ways. Integration also helps a person to connect the past, present, and future in a coherent way.
Mindsight is important to cultivate because when you are aware of what you are feeling and are in tune with your inner world you are able to recognize when you are getting activated, upset, or reactive. You notice that your heart rate is going up, your hands are sweating, and your muscles are tensing. When you see these signs within yourself, you are able to pause, take a breath, step away, and do whatever self-care practice to help you calm down.
Dan Siegel says, “Mindsight enables us to go beyond ‘being sad’ or ‘being angry’ and to recognize that we have these feelings of sadness or anger, see that they are not the totality of who we are, accept, them for what they are, and then allow them to transform so they do not lead to depression or anger or rage.”
To begin building mindsight, simply start reflecting on your inner life and feelings during conversations. Randomly throughout the day close your eyes and ask yourself. “What am I sensing in my body? What feelings are inside me right now? Any physical sensations?” If you get angry pause, tune into the body, where are the sensations of anger in your body. Notice your thoughts and try to simply take some deep breaths to calm yourself down and slow your thoughts.
Meditation helps to change our brain and bring it back online. People who meditate are able to recover faster from stress and are less reactive to stress. Meditation can help you learn to calm your mind. It also increases emotional and physical well-being. It has been shown to help individuals regulate emotions, respond flexibly to others, evaluate options, and make appropriate decisions. It increases empathy, self-reflection, and helps relieve feelings of fearfulness. Also, meditation can help repopulate the brain with gray matter and neurons that get prune when you are a child faced with stress and trauma.
When you breathe deeply and bring oxygen into your lungs, that oxygen travels throughout the body, into the cells, where it supports all life-giving biological pathways. As you breathe in and out with long slow breaths through mindful breathing, you also strengthen and recharge the activity of your underactive parasympathetic nervous system. This is important because there is no medication you can take to boost the parasympathetic system. This system controls large amounts of automatic processes such as digestion, respiration, and heart rate. With the sympathetic nervous system it conserves the body’s energy by bringing bodily functions back to homeostasis, especially after a fight or flight response is activated.
To establish a simple regular meditation practice try to find a consistent time of day that you can sit for at least 5 minutes. In the beginning meditation is not about doing it “right.” It is more about developing a regular practice and getting used to whatever technique you choose. Which leads me to the second suggestion, find a technique that you are drawn to and stick with it. I prefer a simple mindfulness meditation. However, there are many techniques all are powerful and effective.
Here is a mindfulness meditation.
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths. With each breath consciously let go of the day and any thoughts. Relax the body, face, shoulder, neck, hands, belly, and legs. Scan the body for anyplace you are holding tension. When you find a tight area consciously release body tension by breathing into that area. Take as long as you want for this first part. No rush. This is about relaxing the mind and tuning into the body. Now tune into the sounds around you, open your senses, feel the space in and around you. Don’t judge, just tune in, notice. Now choose to anchor your attention. This anchor can your breath, the rise of your chest, your heart beat, sensations in your hands or feet, sounds around you, choose anything to anchor your focus on. Stay focused on your anchor as you breathe deeply. If your awareness shifts or you start thinking just come back to your anchor. Try not to judge what is happening around you or inside your body, simply notice it and let it go, coming back to your anchor and back to your breath.
Guided Visualization (also called guided imagery or creative visualization) is the technique of focusing your imagination on healing your past or present, or focusing on behaviors or events you’d like to have occur in your life. It involves using visual, auditory, olfactory senses, memory, mood, emotions and imagination.
The practice is based on the idea that your body and mind are connected. By providing positive pictures, creative imagery and self-suggestion, visualization can change emotions that subsequently have a physical effect on the body. Guided visualizations change your neural structure. This happens because when you practice guided visualizations you engage mostly the right hemisphere of the brain. This is an important area to work with because it is responsible for mental processing to rewire old patterns.
The other important part of visualization is that your brain does not know that it isn’t real. It will experience imagery as if it is really happening. Therefore, these experiences can be used to enhance your life or any performance. Essentially, mental imagery fools the brain into believing you are actually doing the thing you are imagining. It is thought that this happens because it creates bodily memory within us, which creates physical and neurobiological changes.
An easy way to integrate visualization practice into your life is to add it to your daily meditation practice. Towards the end of your meditation take a couple minutes to visualize what it is you are wanting to create in your life. If that feels too much at first then at night while you are lying in bed take about 5 minutes to visualize. Whenever you do it, try to focus your energy on something you really need to change in your life or something you want to call into your life.
As an example let’s say you want to change your negative reaction to your spouse’s behavior. As you are lying in bed think about what you are wanting to create, heal or change in that situation. Close your eyes, calm your breath and start to visualize being faced with the situation that upsets you. See yourself, see your partner, notice your surroundings, bring as much of your senses on line with the visualization. Now see yourself reacting or behaving in a way that would feel better for you. Don’t over think it. Don’t try to say “but…” Get out of your thoughts. This is about being playful and curious. When you see yourself behaving as you would like, what happens? Whenever you visualize try not to control the outcome, just see yourself doing what it is you would like to do. Try to bring in as much information from your senses and your body as possible, while being open to whatever information comes. When you feel complete open your eyes and trust that you are creating new neural pathways for change.