We used to believe that the brain stopped growing when we reached adulthood. However, current research suggests that the brain retains neuroplasticity, or the ability to adapt and change, throughout our lifetime.
Our brains are wired to seek hits of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. Therefore, the brain notices the connection between an action and a feeling of satisfaction, and that makes us want to do what makes us feel good repeatedly. When we learn new things, we create new pathways in the brain. The more we do those things, the more dominant the pathways become, and a main pathway becomes a habit (i.e., nail biting, eating popcorn at the movies, foot tapping when nervous, etc.). Habits are ways of acting and behaving that have become so second nature to us over time that we do them unconsciously or automatically. Our brains store patterns, or habits, in the basal ganglia, the part of your brain that is also responsible for developing emotions and memories. However, this part of the brain isn’t where conscious decisions are made, which is why habits can be so hard to change. A long time ago, this made sense. Seeking comfort helped us survive. Today, what is most comfortable isn’t always best for us, and what is uncomfortable shouldn’t always be avoided.
In order to make changes purposely, we can use self-directed neuroplasticity, or intentionally rewire our brains to create better habits. Doing this can help us change dysfunctional thinking and behaviour. As you can probably guess, this is a lot easier said than done. However, it can be done!
The best way to start the process is with reflection. Think about how both your good habits and your unhealthy behaviours make you feel and write it all down. Then focus on your not so good behaviours and think about what you would rather do instead. Start with something simple. For example, when you are procrastinating, you may start scrolling through social media, which you may feel is a waste of time. Think about what you can do that’s more constructive. Go for a walk? Read the news? Do personal admin? Next time you find yourself procrastinating, choose to read the news instead of looking at social media. Your first thought will still be to turn to social media but try to remind yourself of what you would prefer your habit to be. Afterward, write down any positive feelings you have about your choice. This is important because, maybe just like you, your brain doesn’t like to keep doing things when it doesn’t see an immediate result. Reminding yourself, and your brain, of why you are doing something different, even though you don’t enjoy it as much or it’s hard to remember, can help you stick to it. If you forget to do the new activity that you are hoping to turn into a habit, it’s ok, you will forget sometimes. Try to remember the next time. The more you try, the more often you will remember, and eventually you will form the new habit.
Another thing that can help you commit to new goals is to say them out loud. Although it may be hard to believe that it matters, research has proven that doing this works. Brain scans that were performed while people said positive affirmations out loud showed a significant increase in activity. Saying what you want to accomplish out loud helps your brain believe that it’s feasible.
Don’t start too big. Making big changes is harder than making small ones, so start with easier to achieve goals. It can even help to start by changing one part of a routine before you change the whole thing. You can also do something called “habit stacking”, which is when you add a positive habit to something you already do regularly. If you want to get more activity into your day and you generally take a break from work in the afternoon, start taking the stairs back up to your office instead of the elevator. Ensure that you are making changes that work with your personality and strengths. If you aren’t realistic, it will be harder and demoralising to continue to attempt to make changes. Try not to get discouraged if you don’t make changes right away. If you alter your habit 3 out of 7 days in the first week, that’s great. Anything is a good start! It takes time.
It can be hard to remember new goals and routines. One thing that can help is making associations. If you want to remember to take your vitamins, decide you’ll do it right after you brush your teeth. Then your toothbrush, or the act of brushing your teeth, will remind you to take your vitamins. Also, make things that you want to do easier and more accessible for yourself. If you want to eat healthier, put the healthier food in front of the less healthy options. Little changes can make a big difference. If you push through, you will create new dominant pathways in your brain, and the new habits will become your default. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it.
Although neuroplasticity is viable throughout our lifetime, it does get harder to make changes as we age. One thing that can keep the brain more malleable is physical exercise. Aerobic exercise stimulates the release of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which helps create networks of neuronal correction. That means it gives you more mental and behavioural flexibility. Other things that stimulate and help maintain neuroplasticity are positive social interactions, trying new things, being in stimulating environments, having a sense of purpose, meditation, and mindfulness among others. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Written by Ilissa Howard
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