Hello! Welcome to my blog this week. It is becoming more and more apparent that the power of positivity in the mind, can have a huge impact on the brain. Today, I wanted to explain this and to give you an insight into the physiology of the brain, about what is happening when we start looking for the ‘good things’ in your life. I will also explain what ‘neuroplasticity’ is and why this is important in relation to looking for the good things.
Definition – the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, experience or following injury.
So what does that really mean? Well, simply put, we have the ability to physically change our own brains. We can retrain our brains and this also means that if you are suffering right now with anxiety disorders or depression, this can change. I know this may sound like a rather big statement to make, however, the neuroscience is there to back this up.
It is being proven time and time again, that the way we think affects the way we feel and this is because of the different chemicals in the brain that are released, depending on the thought process. Or in the case of someone suffering from depression – the chemicals that aren’t being released. This is particularly important to remember too if you are someone who has been put on medication to help with depression. A lot of the first ‘go-to’ medications for depression are called SSRI’s or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This means that the medication recycles the serotonin that is produced, which helps to boost our mood. Trouble is, when we are suffering from depression, there aren’t any chemicals being released to be recycled! More details on this later.
The Brain of a Buddhist
The Dalai Lama challenged neuroscientist Richard Davidson to use the tools of modern neuroscience, to study the effects on the brain of kindness and compassion, instead of anxiety, depression and fear. The Dalai Lama was very interested in what modern-day neuroscience could discover about his monks and in Davidson’s words people who were “cultivating well-being… cultivating qualities of the mind which promote a positive outlook.” Not long after this, Davidson brought a series of these monks to his lab and they were treated to a few hours of the MRI machine.
What Davidson discovered, we nothing short of remarkable. Davidson said “What we see are these high-amplitude gamma-oscillations in the brain, which are indicative of plasticity”—meaning that those brains were more capable of change, for example, in theory, of becoming more resilient.
“The systems in the brain that support our well-being are intimately connected to different organ systems in our body, and also connected to the immune and endocrine systems in ways that matter for our health,” he said. The brain scans showed that “compassion is a kind of state that involves the body in a major way.”
So What does this all mean for you?
We know that the brain and the body are linked, that when we are suffering from anxiety disorders, in particular, blood sugar levels are increased, our immune/digestive/reproductive systems are suppressed. Prolonged exposure to the stress hormones like cortisol, we feel constantly under attack, the fight/flight/freeze response is always activated and so we may feel like our lives are out of control. This puts us at increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression, digestive issues (such as IBS), headaches, heart disease, sleeping problems, weight gain, memory and concentration issues.
This is why it is important to understand about neuroplasticity. Davidson’s conclusion is that the monks had managed to change the structure and functions of their own brains through the hours of meditation. How your brain is structured right now, isn’t the way it will always be. You have the capacity in yourself, to physically change your brain for the better. This does not mean that you need to spend every waking moment meditating! All we need to do is start with small positive changes, that benefit you and the world around you.
The importance of Serotonin
Serotonin is a beautiful chemical that our brains release when we accomplish certain tasks. It is our brain’s way of rewarding us for doing positive things for ourself and for others. Such as positive activities (stuff we like & love to do) and interacting in a positive way with others, sharing and caring. Serotonin has an evolutionary purpose, it is there to ensure our survival. We were rewarded when we interacted with other tribes, gathered food, fed our friends and families. This chemical is wonderfully powerful too! It makes us braver, cope better with daily tasks, less fearful and even reduces pain that is felt. It is truly amazing.
So, if you are struggling with anxiety disorders and depression, how can you release your own serotonin to help?
Small, simple steps can really help boost your mood, ensuring your brain releases serotonin and then your medication (if prescribed) can really help you! The small steps I am talking about are the things you enjoy or love to do. Perhaps you enjoy crafting, reading books, having a long hot bath, fishing, cuddles with your pets or loved ones, movies, cooking, some people even like cleaning!
What small thing could you do today that you would enjoy? Even if it is sitting and enjoying a nice cup of tea, makes a massive difference to us. What has been good about today already? We can often feel like we have had a bad day however, there is always something good that has happened. We just need to train our brain to look for it. When we start actively looking for the ‘good things’, we are changing our brains for the better. The idea is to make your whole limbic system shrink and to grow your prefrontal cortex – that part that you know as you.
Our primitive brain should only be there for when there is an emergency or crisis, and not for every moment of our lives. To feel in control of our lives again, doing these small things will kick start the process. It reduces the amount of time that we spend this area of the brain, which is actually really negative and, giving you intellectual capacity back to think about things more logically again, more positive again – rather than a snap, emotional response.
What small thing are you going to do for you?
Whether it is today or sometime this week, my challenge to you is to create some time for you. Do something you enjoy and take pleasure from. Chat to a friend over coffee perhaps, even plastering a fake smile on your face will release serotonin. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality, so if you activate the muscles in your face from a fake smile, your brain will give you serotonin anyway!
Let me know what small thing you decide to do for yourself. I would love to hear from you in the comments 💜
Solution Focused Psychotherapist & Clinical Hypnotherapist
HPD, DSFH, MNCH (Reg), CNHC (Reg), AfSFH (Reg)