Science has unequivocally confirmed that your life shapes your brain. Over your life, your experiences, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions physically change the form and function of your brain through what is known as neuroplasticity.

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Every second of your life, every single thing of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you’re not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – can be directly mapped to what’s happening in your brain. Over time, patterns evolve which determine your brain’s form and function. What you do, experience, think, hope, and imagine physically changes your brain.

It used to be believed that neuroplasticity only occurred during critical periods in childhood. While it’s true that plastic change happens much easier in youth, your brain is capable of making alterations until the day you die. Harnessing the process of neuroplasticity in adulthood isn’t quite as simple, but it can be accomplished under specific circumstances.

Neuroplasticity Can Work For or Against You

Because of neuroplasticity, your habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world –- good and bad –- get etched into your brain.

Neuroplasticity has allowed people who have had strokes and brain trauma to recover functionality. Because of neuroplasticity, congenitally blind people’s brains have figured out new ways to see, and children with cerebral palsy have learned to move more fluidly. People with autism have made cognitive strides once thought impossible, because of the ability of their brains to rewire themselves. Neuroplasticity has also been used successfully to ease chronic pain. The examples go on and on.

But it can also work against you.

Your brain actually wires itself and forms neuronal connections based on what you do over and over in your life. Vegging out in front of the TV. Having a sugar fix. Sipping soda. Fixing a cocktail to unwind after work. Smoking cigarettes. Biting your fingernails. These activities literally become wired into your brain.

In this way, depression and anxiety become established patterns in your brain which only perpetuate more worry and depression. Your brain is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The same neuroplasticity also allows you to use your mind to interrupt the loop and establish new patterns in your brain to overcome the conditions.

Use Your Mind To Change Your Brain To Beat Depression And Anxiety

Research shows self-directed neuroplasticity can make positive changes in your brain, but it’s not immediate or effortless and requires motivation, intention, and persistence. Science shows that intense focus is required to alter desired brain circuits and make new connections. Most neuroplastic change is incremental, not dramatic. Because neuroplasticity occurs for whatever’s in your field of focused awareness, your attention is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking its contents into your brain. Directing your attention purposefully allows you to shape your brain and life over time.

Here’s what the experts have to say about using your mind to change your brain to overcome depression and anxiety.

In his book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and psychologist, writes:

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest  your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.

In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb Ph.D. and neuroscientist, explains:

Pay attention to the things that are happening now, and don’t pay attention to the things that aren’t happening now. Focusing on the present helps reduce anxiety and worry, because it decreases emotional, self-focused processing in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Attention to the present also increases dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal activity , allowing these regions to calm the amygdala. Improving your ability to stay present, a practice known as “mindfulness,” helps enhance these activations and leads to long-term improvements in anxiety and worrying.

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D, author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation says in the video, “Dr. Dan Siegel- On How You Can Change Your Brain“:

We now know the brain is open to change throughout the lifespan and what some people don’t realize is that not only can the brain change but we can learn to use the focus of the mind to actually change the connections in the brain itself. You might ask how in the world could attention change something like the physical structure of the brain and answering this question is exactly the way we illuminate a path toward well-being because the brain gets set up by our genes from something we call temperament and also by just chance. Our experiences actually sculpt synaptic connections in the brain itself but here’s the key – when neurons fire you can get them to rewire and experience stimulates neurons, the basic cells of the brain, to fire in particular patterns…[A]mazingly when you learn to focus your attention on the nature of the mind itself you actually can rewire important parts of the brain that help regulate how your entire nervous system functions.
Science has shown that a steady practice of mindfulness induces real changes in the brain. For example, in one study, when two groups extremely sad forty-five-second movie clips from Terms of Endearment and The Champ (arguably two of the greatest cinematic tearjerkers ever), fMRI scans showed the group that practiced mindfulness for eight weeks exhibited less activity in an area of the brain involved in negative rumination and increased activity in other areas known for awareness. The mindfulness group also scored significantly lower on assessments measuring depression. Other studies demonstrated the ability to reduce activity in the areas of the brain that light up when we feel pain, and increased activity in areas that are active when we feel happy. This neural activity is the opposite of what we see in depressed brains. 
The practice of mindfulness can train our brains to have a new default. Instead of automatically falling into the stream of past or future rumination that ignites the depression loop, mindfulness draws our attention to the present moment. As we practice mindfulness, we actually start wiring neurons that balance the brain in a way that is naturally an antidepressant.
Among the first studies to emerge on the effects of meditation came out in 2005 when researchers at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital published an imaging study; particular areas of the cerebral cortex were shown to be thicker in people who meditated on a regular basis. Since then numerous studies have documented that “thick-brained” people tend to be smarter and have better memories. These cortical areas are involved with attention and sensory processing and are used for planning and complicated cognitive behaviors . There are studies showing that people who’ve meditated throughout their lives maintain their cerebral thickness in certain areas of the cortex that would have thinned out otherwise over time. It appears that meditation is truly exercise for the brain, as if it helps it grow stronger muscles in the areas used…. Through meditation, you remain a quiet observer of your neurotic mind and eventually the chatter that can fuel and aggravate depression begins to fade into the background.
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  1. I love the idea of a new default mode for the mind Debbie…one reason I use affirmations A LOT!
    They totally move my mind out of it’s old unconscious patterns of thought and train it to create new patterns of conscious thought all the while reframing the old unconscious ideas.

    • I alos use affirmations, and visualizations, thought reframing, meditation. There are lots of useful tools in my mental health tool box.

  2. Love Kelly Brogan words: Meditation is such a powerful healer. i am just reading my healing journals and saw how much I used and wrote about meditation Thanks for the insight ful piece. xx

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