While we may never understand the brain in its entirety, neuroscience has begun to map it to the point where we can unravel many of its mysteries and turn its inner workings to our direct and conscious advantage. The brain, as part of nature, is governed by scientific laws whose themes can be seen reflected throughout the universe. Likewise, as is true of most entities in nature, the brain can restructure and heal itself.
In previous decades, science did not give the brain half enough credit in this area, and assumed that it was far more “static” than it is, unable to heal itself or adjust itself significantly after a certain age. This is actually quite false, giving new hope to those suffering from the lasting effects of trauma and mental illnesses.
This newfound ability of the brain, dubbed neuroplasticity, shows we all have an innate ability to restructure the gray matter of our brains with directed, conscious action, i.e., through what we think, say, and do. This reshapes our emotional responses on a molecular level, teaching them how to innately respond to the same situation when it arises again; in effect, changing how we feel about an event, our “felt experience” of an event, physically restructures the gray matter of our brains.
This allows psychologists today a more direct and effective way of treating even the most stubborn of behavioural problems, such as addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), by literally “re-wiring” the brain to respond in a more neurotypical way—more like a “normal” brain would respond to the same stimuli. When it comes to treating OCD, for example, neuroscientist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz has crafted a four-step “response prevention” cognitive-biobehavioral treatment approach which aims to alter the body’s rigid fear-based response patterns.
These methods are not merely useful to those with OCD and other serious mental illnesses, however; most of us have problematic behaviours we would like to change, and the four steps outlined below can therefore help anyone seeking to regain mastery of his or her self:
The first step is to “depersonalize” your poor behaviour patterns; you are not weak, inferior, or defective as a person. Thinking these learned behaviours are a mark of poor character and “just who you are” keeps you trapped in them. Such judgment is unfortunately validated by the opinions of many in our society who are overly concerned with making moral assessments, of deciding good vs. bad people, so it may take you some time to remove yourself from such bias. Once you do, however, you’ll see that your brain, which is built to thrive on solving challenges, has simply solved them in less than ideal ways for too long, and gotten stuck in certain patterns.
Usually, these strategies evolved because they seemed to protect you, though you may not have been consciously aware of them doing so. This explains why so many people with childhood trauma go on to develop mental “disorders”; in their desperation to cope, their brains learned certain repetitive, deeply ingrained mechanisms. As these develop so early, they can come to seem like part of “you” when they are really just learned strategies. They are abnormal because they developed in abnormal circumstances.
You are not your thoughts, emotions, or actions—these are things that happen to you, which you have the power to shape and control. You can resolve the “misunderstandings” between your mind and body that tell you a coping pattern that is actually harming you is protecting you. Once you learn this self-mastery, you will find you have much less fear to deal with, so less need to “protect” yourself anyway.
Once you learn to master yourself, you will no doubt find renewed zest for growing, discovering, and developing yourself, no longer feeling like a victim of yourself. Your mind will open to new possibilities and have a broader view of what you are capable of as a person.
So much of the path towards inner peace in life lies in separating what you can control from what you cannot; by learning to separate yourself (and others, for that matter) from your behaviour, you will be able to ascertain to the reality of situations far better. You will come to see what you can change and what you need to simply let be.
Begin the processing of re-labeling your thoughts; thoughts that say you aren’t good enough can be called intrusive mistruths rather than an inherent low self-esteem or who you are. If you have an addiction, you can call it a “thief” out to steal money and health from your life, and so on. Make these things outsiders to protect yourself against, not part of yourself that shows you are lacking.
This does not mean you excuse your behaviours and look the other way; quite the opposite: You must take the reins, retain a strong will, and master the automatic reactions of your brain until the intruders are locked out, until they no longer feel like they have come into your mind to ensure your survival, but are the enemies of it.
To manage all this takes a great deal of mindful awareness of your life and will not be an easy task, but it’s sure to be worth it if you stick with it.
Having a clear vision for your life which revolves around that which you most value is key to focusing your emotional energy so that it creates better thoughts, ideas, and actions. When you are acting in accordance with your true will and deepest yearnings, the mind’s reward system kicks in and allows it to be more easily rewired.
Most people do not clearly define their goals, and retain only vague ideas of what they want in the short term and long-term, but success comes when you have a clear strategy to implement in navigating your way from the short term to the long-term until you see your most valued dreams come to fruition. You must articulate your vision to yourself and consciously affirm it to achieve this, as this will embed it in your subconscious mind and direct your thoughts, feelings, and actions toward it. You should picture, smell, taste, and hear this vision and all it has to offer you, immerse yourself in it and make your brain feel it as though it were already real.
This will train your mind to thrive, not just survive. To be truly goal-oriented is to be no longer pushed around by fear, such as the fear of others’ judgement or anger (a survival-based reaction), which your subconscious may have become hypersensitive to in the past and which now limit your growth by keeping you in a state of cowering down and guarding yourself against perceived threats. You must align your conscious and subconscious mind to agree on what it means to thrive and why it’s so important to get to that stage, and promise your mind a clear path to reward.
This step is the hardest work of all because it’s where telling yourself what you need to believe and do becomes actually doing it. Getting over whatever mental “blocks” you have in place and changing the patterns that will in turn change your brain chemistry is often very challenging at first.
As you create new neural pathways, however, it will get easier and easier—old behaviours will gradually be replaced by new ones, more and more often as you learn to resist the “false messages” of comfort and survival that are carried by your old coping mechanisms. You’ll also learn to resist the negative perceptions of yourself that were their inevitable result. As you do more and more of this, you’ll begin to feel a true awareness of the conscious control you now possess.
The more you use action to affirm to the subconscious mind that you can handle fear as it comes up, that the trigger is not actually a life or death situation that requires the old, limiting reaction, the easier it will become to rule your subconscious mind rather than having it rule you.
By opposing your learned emotional response, you are consciously directing real, physical changes taking place in your brain, ones which will create the roadways which allow better actions to flow into place when you need them. The more you practice this, the more roads you build for those positive behaviours to zoom in to the rescue faster than the old, negative ones can. Eventually, it will become automatic.
When this happens, you will no longer be the prisoner of your body’s “fight or flight” response, allowing higher logic and reason to dictate your actions—a much more optimal state in which to maintain your mind and body, as well as achieve your goals.
Taking the helm as captain:
Extensive studies now show that when you use conscious determination to change your mind, you cause physical changes to your brain. This means that we do, absolutely, have the ability to change our lives with the power of positive thought, and that our natures are not set in stone.
We can choose to eliminate compulsive patterns, take our lives back from addictions, and correct problems with our finances, relationships, and health. Change and healing is possible in any area of your life in which you decide to sit down and change your mind.
Science has now shown that, without a doubt, the brain is structurally altered by changes in our behaviour patterns. Ergo, you are not trapped in toxic thinking patterns and problematic, limiting beliefs. Any vision for your life that you truly believe in can become a reality, so long as you direct your thoughts, feelings, and actions into realizing that vision. In the words of Lao Tzu: “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”