by Kalpana Murthy, LPC
Your brain is a muscle that needs to be worked out just like the other muscles in your body. The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to our brain too. The good news is that at any age, the brain has the ability to create new neural connections and to grow new neural networks as a result of experience. The brain’s ability to do this is referred to as neuroplasticity. Here are some easy ways you can tap into neuroplasticity to take care of your brain and improve your emotional health.
Emotional Engagement in Relationships
Our mind is shaped through our interactions with others. Beginning in infancy and throughout our life, the mirror neuron system in our brain takes in sensory information and creates sequences and maps in our brain based on what we see, hear, taste, smell, touch and feel.
Research shows that when we observe another person’s action, like yawning, or smiling, or picking up a cup of coffee, the mirror neurons in our brain associated with that action get activated as if we were doing that activity too. That’s why we sometimes yawn when we see someone else yawn.
Mirror neurons allow us to sense and mirror other people’s behaviors, as well as their feelings. That’s why other people’s moods are contagious. If you spend a lot of time around someone who has a negative attitude or is anxious or depressed, or someone who is optimistic, peaceful, or full of joy, you’ll start feeling that way too.
Energy and information flow between people, so our relationships are essential for keeping our brain and mood healthy.
Focused Attention or Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation is brain science not religion. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of paying attention to the present moment and noticing, without judgment, how your mind wanders away from the present moment.
This practice of spending short periods of time focusing our attention on the present and then bringing our attention back to the present when it wanders helps the part of the brain that regulates mood to grow and strengthen. This leads to emotional resilience, emotional flexibility and equilibrium.
Mindfulness quiets the amygdala, the part of the brain that is wired to scan our environment to protect us from danger. If you feel anxious often, your amygdala is in high gear and creating a state of arousal to prepare you to fight or flee from danger. Mindfulness quiets this area of the brain and activates the area of the brain that is important for learning, the hippocampus.
New Experiences with Optimal Challenge
Trying new things or changing your daily routine a bit is another way to activate new neural connections. Simple things like listening to a different type of music, driving a new route to and from work, or trying a new activity are ways to activate parts of your brain that haven’t been used in a while.
For learning to occur from these new experiences, we need just the right amount of challenge associated with that activity. If the activity is too stressful, your brain moves into fight or flight mode which makes it hard to learn. If there is no challenge as you engage in the new activity, then your brain gets distracted and new neural connections are not being stimulated.
Physical and Mental Exercise
Aerobic exercise mobilizes proteins called neurotrophic factors which promote brain cell growth and enhances neural connections. Without neurotrophic factors areas of the brain atrophy. Chronic stress decreases these proteins. That’s another reason it’s important to get physical exercise to offset stress.
Weight training improves cognitive functions, like decision making, resolving conflict and improving focus. If you have a physical condition or other circumstance that prevents you from exercising, engaging in intellectually challenging or stimulating activities (for example, crossword puzzles, math problems, learning a new language) also increases neurotrophic factors.
Resolve Traumatic or Upsetting Events
Our brains are wired to hold on to upsetting or traumatic experiences as a way of protecting us from similar experiences in the future. When we are experiencing a traumatic or upsetting event, neuroplasticity is also at work laying down maps or memories of all the sensations associated with the distressing or traumatic event, as well as how the event makes you feel about yourself and other people.
These memories and all the related associations can affect your self-esteem in certain situations or contribute to problems in your personal relationships or career.
That’s why it’s important to work with a Certified EMDR therapist to engage your brain in a way that new learning and associations with the memory can happen and the negative impact of the trauma can be resolved.
Here’s how one of my clients felt after our brief therapy work to resolve some traumatic events: ” Kalpana, the therapy I experienced with you was life changing. Physical and emotional abuse during my childhood led to a life that was shadowed with sadness and despair that kept me from enjoying my life. Your skill as a therapist coupled with the EMDR has allowed me to move beyond the traumas of the past. I literally feel lighter! Thank you Kalpana, you have truly found your calling!”
To learn more, contact me or make an appointment.