Our thoughts affect our brains. More specifically, “… what you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you work with your reactions to things sculpt your brain in multiple ways,” according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D, in his newest book Just One Thing: Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. In other words, how you use your mind can change your brain.
According to Canadian scientist Donald Hebb, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” If your thoughts focus on worrying and self-criticism, you’ll develop neural structures of anxiety and a negative sense of self, says Hanson.
For instance, individuals who are constantly stressed (such as acute or traumatic stress) release cortisol, which in another article Hanson says eats away at the memory-focused hippocampus. People with a history of stress have lost up to 25 percent of the volume of their hippocampus and have more difficulty forming new memories.
The opposite also is true. Engaging in relaxing activities regularly can wire your brain for calm. Research has shown that people who routinely relax have “improved expression of genes that calm down stress reactions, making them more resilient,” Hanson writes.
Also, over time, people who engage in mindfulness meditation develop thicker layers of neurons in the attention-focused parts of the prefrontal cortex and in the insula, an area that’s triggered when we tune into our feelings and bodies.
Other research has shown that being mindful boosts activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which suppresses negative emotions, and minimizes the activation of the amygdala, which Hanson refers to as the “alarm bell of the brain.”
Hanson’s book gives readers a variety of exercises to cultivate calm and self-confidence and to enjoy life. Here are three anxiety-alleviating practices to try.
1. “Notice you’re all right right now.” For many of us sitting still is a joke — as in, it’s impossible. According to Hanson, “To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved an ongoing internal trickle of unease. This little whisper of worry keeps you scanning your inner and outer world for signs of trouble.”
Being on high alert is adaptive. It’s meant to protect us. But this isn’t so helpful when we’re trying to soothe our stress and keep calm. Some of us — me included — even worry that if we relax for a few minutes, something bad will happen. (Of course, this isn’t true.)
Hanson encourages readers to focus on the present and to realize that right now in this moment, you’re probably OK. He says that focusing on the future forces us to worry and focusing on the past leads to regret. Whatever activity you’re engaged in, whether it’s driving, cooking dinner or replying to email, Hanson suggests saying, “I’m all right right now.”
Of course, there will be moments when you won’t be all right. In these times, Hanson suggests that after you ride out the storm, “… as soon as possible, notice that the core of your being is okay, like the quiet place fifty feet underwater, beneath a hurricane howling above the sea.”
2. “Feel safer.” “Evolution has given us an anxious brain,” Hanson writes. So, whether there’s a tiger in the bushes doesn’t matter, because staying away in both cases keeps us alive. But, again, this also keeps us hyper-focused on avoiding danger day to day. And depending on our temperaments and life experiences, we might be even more anxious.
Most people overestimate threats. This leads to excessive worrying, anxiety, stress-related aliments, less patience and generosity with others and a shorter fuse, according to Hanson.
Are you more guarded or anxious than you need to be? If so, Hanson suggests the following for feeling safer:
- Think of how it feels to be with a person who cares about you and connect to those feelings and sensations.
- Remember a time when you felt strong.
- List some of the resources at your disposal to cope with life’s curveballs.
- Take several long, deep breaths.
- Become more in tune with what it feels like to feel safer. “Let those good feelings sink in, so you can remember them in your body and find your way back to them in the future.”
3. “Let go.” Letting go is hard. Even though clinging to clutter, regrets, resentment, unrealistic expectations or unfulfilling relationships is painful, we might be afraid that letting go makes us weak, shows we don’t care or lets someone off the hook. What holds you back in letting go?
Letting go is liberating. Hanson says that letting go might mean releasing pain or damaging thoughts or deeds or yielding instead of breaking. He offers a great analogy:
“When you let go, you’re like a supple and resilient willow tree that bends before the storm, still here in the morning — rather than a stiff oak that ends up broken and toppled over.”
Here are some of Hanson’s suggestions for letting go:
- Be aware of how you let go naturally every day, whether it’s sending an email, taking out the trash, going from one thought or feeling to another or saying goodbye to a friend.
- Let go of tension in your body. Take long and slow exhalations, and relax your shoulders, jaw and eyes.
- Let go of things you don’t need or use.
- Resolve to let go of a certain grudge or resentment. “This does not necessarily mean letting other people off the moral hook, just that you are letting yourself off the hotplate of staying upset about whatever happened,” Hanson writes. If you still feel hurt, he suggests recognizing your feelings, being kind to yourself and gently releasing them.
- Let go of painful emotions. Hanson recommends several books on this topic: Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and What We May Be by Piero Ferrucci. In his book, Hanson summarizes his favorite methods: “relax your body;” “imagine that the feelings are flowing out of you like water’” express your feelings in a letter that you won’t send or vent aloud; talk to a good friend; and be open to positive feelings and let them replace the negative ones.