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“: