Archana Law explains how life experiences impact the way our brain functions

The way we think determines many outcomes in our lives; but thinking is hard work and that’s why we don’t do it often enough! Helen Keller said it best: “People don’t like to think; if one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.”

Science has confirmed that our brains are shaped by the lives we lead. Our experiences, behaviour and feelings physically change the form and function of our brain from birth to death. Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate an experience of the world around you… and yourself within it!

According to neuroscientist Anil Seth, we’re all hallucinating about our own ‘reality.’ As Rick Hanson says in ‘Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,’ “one way or another, our mental states can easily become our neural traits.”

Every minute of the day, your body is reacting physically, literally changing in response to the thoughts that run through your mind. Simply thinking about something causes your brain to release neurotransmitters, which allow it to communicate with parts of the brain itself and your nervous system.

So as your body changes, your brain changes; and as your brain changes, your body changes – like a continual feedback loop. Your brain first interprets the input received from the world around it emotionally and subjectively to produce feelings. So if you change what’s happening in your brain, it can alter how you feel physically and mentally. In fact, your thoughts precipitate changes all the way down to your cells and genes.

Around 95 percent of who you are by the time you’re 35 is a set of memorised behaviour patterns, skills, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes that function like a subconscious computer programme – so most likely, the thoughts you have today are the same ones you had yesterday.

The conscious mind’s small capacity is constantly working against this predominant unconscious programming, which is largely made up of wounds, fears, negative memories and past experiences.

So if you want to change the way you feel, you’ve got to change the way you think. Here are some guidelines.

SELF-ANALYSIS Byron Katie’s The Work provides a framework for self-analysis and helps turn your thinking around so that you experience the opposite perspective. Asking the following questions can be helpful in the process of analysis – Is it true? Can you be sure it’s true? What happens when you believe that thought? Who would you be without that thought?

THOUGHT PATTERN Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s four step therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) also works in changing any thought pattern that is addictive, self-critical or negative. Relabel, reattribute, refocus and revalue are ways of reframing thoughts.

EMOTIONAL SCALE The Abraham-Hicks scale has an emotional guidance metric, which ranges from joy, appreciation and love at the top as the best to fear, grief and depression at the bottom. The exercise asks you to determine where you’re on the emotional scale about a troublesome subject and choose a thought that’s higher on the scale to promote better feelings to engender a sense of peace.

IN THE PRESENT Several times throughout the day – especially when you’re anxious or grappling with distressing thoughts – bring your awareness into the here and now, and realise that you’re all right regardless of whatever else is going on in the world or what you’re thinking about.

NOTICE THE GOOD No matter what your current state of mind is or your immediate circumstances, there’s always good to be found around you – even if it’s something as small as flipping a switch for the lights to come on or bright sunlight streaming through a window.

VISUALISE GOOD See mental images of how you would like to be, situations you want to create or how you’d like events to play out and really let yourself feel the accompanying positive emotions. Your body and nervous system are constantly reacting to your thoughts, no matter whether it’s to your benefit or not. Use it for your good.

MEDITATE DAILY Practise meditation daily to strengthen your mental health and feeling of connectedness. Meditation has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, and can physically change your brain so that you are calmer at all times.

REMAIN MINDFUL Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Mindfulness teaches you to assess your thoughts objectively, not react to them, and then consciously decide how to respond.