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Retrain your Brain


Before you roll your eyes at the title of this piece, hear me out. This isn't just another self-help article with a catchy title like The Success Principle, The Power of Positive Thinking, or You Can Heal Your Life. While it is absolutely true that you can do all of these things, I'm not going to make you purchase those secrets for a low, low price of $18.99. The secret to having a happier healthier life is simple; we need to retrain our brains to have a more positive outlook. Research suggests that changing the way we think about a situation can actually rewire our brains to release more of the pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. Now, reordering your thinking is often easier said than done, so I've included some simple ways to help guide your reformative thinking for a more positive life.


If you've read any of my previous articles, you know that I try to include some scientific research in each of them. I absolutely believe that spirituality and science go hand-in-hand to build a happier, healthier individual. So what does science say about retraining your brain? According to a study completed by the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking has an amazing assortment of health benefits including increased lifespan, lower rates of depression and stress, greater resistance to common illnesses such as a cold or the stomach flu, increased resilience, and decreased risk of heart attach or stroke. Simply by changing the way you think can help you lead a longer, healthier, and happier life!


The first step in changing our outlook to be more positive is to identify where and when we let negative thought patterns into our psyche. Our brain is actually pretty sneaky about this! One of the ways your brain perpetuates negativity is by focusing on the negative aspects of a thought, situation, or memory and filtering out the positive. This filtering is really a defense mechanism for our own survival and well-being. Think about it; if we are aware of the negative (that which can hurt us), we can be ready to run or fight if necessary. Another way our brain allows negativity to grab hold is through over-personalization. This phenomenon occurs when we take on entirely too much of the responsibility for a negative occurrence. For example, perhaps your boss schedules a meeting with you, and you automatically assume it is because you've done something wrong or screwed up somehow. This easily leads into the next negative thought pattern which is catastrophizing--the belief that one incident will ruin all other experiences for the day. This, coupled with a thought process called polarizing where our brains determine that a situation is either good or bad, creates an impossibly deep hole of negativity that even the most talented psychotherapist will have difficulty pulling us out of.


So how do we address this type of negative thinking now that we are aware of what we are doing? The answer is actually pretty simple. Instead of focusing on the negative of a situation, we purposefully look for the positive. Again, this can sometime seem like an insurmountable task, so let me give you three easy exercises to help retrain that thought pattern.


1) The Power of "Yet": one of the simplest ways to retrain your brain is to add the word yet to negatively derived statements about progress. For example, you might be struggling with writing an article and think, "I can't narrow down this topic enough." This thought is created in an absolute. Right now, it suggests that no matter what you do, you are incapable of narrowing down your topic; however, by simply changing that thought to "I can't narrow down this topic enough yet," you provide your brain with the idea that this is an ongoing process and if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed. Take it from me...the drafts page on the blog is full of WIP articles that haven't sparked my creativity...yet.


2) Exercise: Wait! Did he just say "Extra Fries?" I wish! Actually, research suggests that fifteen minutes of medium-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk is enough to increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain enough to clear out the cobwebs and help with focus. Exercise also releases endorphins which have a natural mood-lifting tendency. Believe it or not, exercising can give your brain the little boost it needs to start thinking more positively.


3) Build your positivity dictionary: when we're feeling a bit down or struggling on the day-to-day, it can often be difficult to come up with some positive thoughts. One way to combat this is by creating a list of words or phrases to help retrain those commonly-thought negative phrases. For example, instead of saying, "This is too difficult." Try saying, "I like a challenge." Instead of saying, "I've never done this before." Tell yourself, "Here's an opportunity to try something new!" Instead of saying, "I'm not good at this," think, "I'll give it another try." Having these stock responses prepared will ensure that you don't continue to fall into the pattern of negative self-talk. Eventually, it will be come habitual, and you will notice the negative self-talk automatically being replaced by the positive.


By being aware of our moments of self-doubt and negativity, we can immediately work to correct that thought pattern. If we continue to correct this, eventually we'll notice a shift in our thought pattern; we will begin to focus on the positive. Once we start to focus more on the positive, we will notice all of the little joys in our lives that exist for us to celebrate. It really is a chain reaction! One last tip: I often find identifying the negative thoughts difficult because they are so engrained in my way of thinking that I find it helpful to have a positivity buddy. Ask someone you trust to point out when they hear you express negative self-talk and then work together to correct that behavior immediately. You'll be surprised how often it actually does happen without you even realizing it! While these positive changes do not occur overnight, don't get frustrated. Remember, you are working to be more positive' the process is ongoing. It may seem like a long road to changing your thinking; it might even feel like a losing battle, but remember, you're just may not be there...yet!

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