Our brains are powerful things. With approximately 86 billion neurons, 500,000km of neural pathways and almost a litre of water in them there is a lot going on. Not to mention all the learning, adapting, and changing as our brains and bodies grow. This doesn’t stop when our bodies finish growing though, our brains are constantly changing and taking in new information.
Our brains feed off of the decisions we make. The decisions we make are made by our brain. It’s a bit of a loop.
The neural pathways in our brains are becoming more defined as we do things again and again, making something habit. The reason we go on autopilot or fall back into repeating patterns isn’t because we are failures. It isn’t because we are useless or stupid. It’s because it’s the path of least resistance for our brains. It’s the easy choice and the one we have subconsciously trained our brains to feel rewarded by.
This is a design feature of our evolution, we do more of what keeps us alive (or safe) and take less risks. It’s less risky for us to do something over and over, time and time again than it is to try something new or do something different.
I like to think of our neural pathways as ski slopes, as you go down the ski slope for the first time it’s a little bumpy, the snow is fresh and fluffy and you aren’t sure of the best way to the bottom. The next time it’s a bit easier and so on and so forth, before you know it, you are skiing down that slope blindfolded! Your neural pathways act the same, the first time you do something is like going down that ski slope for the first time. By the time you have repeated that task, say, 60 times, it has become second nature, you can do it without much thought.
Like driving a car. Do you remember learning to drive? Key in. Seatbelt fastened. Ignition on. Check the gear stick is in neutral (Yep, I learned to drive a manual here in the UK). Ok. Check mirrors. Clutch in, first gear. Check mirrors again. Handbrake off. Engage clutch and ease the accelerator. Mirrors, again! Sheesh. It’s exhausting before you’ve even moved from parked. But now, you do all of these things without as much as a second thought. You can thank your neural pathways for that.
You can also thank them for the urge to smoke a cigarette after a stressful afternoon or the urge to eat cake when the day has been endlessly long. You can thank those pathways for the 3 hours you spent watching cat videos on YouTube because you weren’t in the mood to do work today. You can also thank them for the way you speak to yourself internally and how you externally represent yourself. You get the gist.
How many times have you indulged in the cake [insert whatever fits for you], knowing you shouldn’t be eating it, but it tastes soooo good and you know you will enjoy it whilst it lasts. Nevermind the guilt you feel later for emotional eating again. Your brain has got this down to a tee. You feel stressed, it reminds you that cake is good. You get the cake craving bad, then act on it and indulge in the cake. All the while, ‘Brain’ over here is having a pat on the back because it gave you what you wanted.
This is the habit loop. Created by your brain, without you even realising it. It works on a 4 step process of cue, craving, reward and response. So even if you feel guilty after eating the cake, it’s all part of the loop. Next time you find yourself and the cue for this habit together, you’ll get that urge to eat cake!
But I’m not here to talk to you about cake. You can utilise this wonderful brain of yours and literally change your life. Just from your thoughts. Yes, you read it right. Our brains are so powerful, sometimes we don’t realise just how powerful they are.
I want to let you in on a little secret, our brains can’t determine what is truth and what is not. If we tell it something ‘as truth’ it believes it. So, if we spend our time internally chatting away that we are ‘useless’, ‘stupid’ or ‘not cut out for this’, our brain believes it. It then uses something called our Reticular Activating System (RAS) to show you more of the same, backing up what you think.
It works in the same way when you want a certain car, you see that make and model everywhere. Trying for a baby? Pregnant women and buggies around every corner! Worried you aren’t good enough, you notice everyone around you seemingly ‘winning at life’. This is your RAS at work. It’s backing up what you tell it by finding more ‘proof’, a bit like a researcher who is collecting more data to prove their Professor’s theory.
You can use this to your advantage. We can use our brains ‘ski slope’ habit building ability to change our thoughts. Then our RAS will look for data to back this up!
Focus on telling yourself only good things for a while. “I am good at what I do”, “I always get back to clients when I say I will”, “I am a kind person”, “Clients that work with me are happy and satisfied” etc etc.
That negative internal chatter that you are used to will surface as your brain's counter argument. Remember this is normal, it's a habit and it’s your brain trying to keep you ‘safe’ and risk free.
Pay it no notice. Continue with your kind thoughts and kind words and your brain will A) start to believe it, B) quieten the negative counter-chatter and C) back it up with more data using the RAS (remember it looks for data to back your thoughts up.)
You can try it with things you do already too, like going to the gym or drinking water. If you tell yourself you go to the gym (more like drag yourself to the gym) or you drink water because you “have to” your brain isn’t particularly interested in those things because you aren’t particularly fussed either. If you consciously tell it “I get to go work out at the gym to stay healthy” or “I drink water to keep me hydrated and energised so I can do my best work” your brain will work with you! It will then look for opportunities for you to stay healthy, hydrated and energised. Try it!
Of course, we now know about the ski slopes, our neural pathways, so we expect some push back first, whilst our brains adjust. Remember it’s normal. It’s totally normal for our brains to give us some backlash, we might even revert back to what we used to do because our brains are excellent at trying to keep us ‘safe’. If that happens, we get to decide to try again. We are building up that repetition so the new way of thinking and being becomes the only way, the more consistent we are and the more we tell our brains the way it’s gonna be, the faster this change comes about.
A really good way to use your thoughts to change your life is not only to ‘think it’ but to write it down too.
Try journaling. A really good way to start journaling each day is to spend a few minutes writing down 3 things you are grateful for. Looking for good in each day (even those days where it seems like everything went wrong) helps our brain look for more good in our future days rather than focusing on the fact you were late, a client requested a refund and the printer broke! Remember, that’s your RAS working with you to back up what you’ve told your brain.
Next time you catch yourself putting yourself down or being critical, take a breath and tell yourself the truth. “I may have got this wrong but I’m awesome and I’ll get it right next time.” or “I noticed I was being cruel to myself when really I am just tired so I will take a look at this project in the morning.”
Remember, your thoughts change your life.
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