In the previous two posts (Why am I so anxious and stressed? Is it possible to change? and Gaining influence over my mood) we concluded that our brains have an innate tendency to scan for and register negative thoughts and that a calmer brain is more able to identify actual threats from false alarms. It then becomes possible to deal more effectively with such threats because it is less panicked and distracted by manageable or fictitious alarms. The process which makes it possible to create a calmer brain for yourself has a lot to do with something called, brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity, sometimes called neuroplasticity by neuroscientists, has less to do with Tupperware or cling film and actually refers to the brain’s ability to change over time without losing its essential structure and any stored useful information. Our grey matter actually shrinks or thickens as a result of our networks of neural pathways being forged and refined, or weakened and severed. These changes in our physical brain structure manifest as shifts in our abilities and understanding and likewise, shifts in our abilities and understanding, changes our physical brain structure.
For example each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a structural change in our physical brains: new sets of neurons start to fire together (creating neural pathways) which controls our bodies to perform the particular sequence of steps. These sets strengthen every time we use them in unison. As a result these sets become easier to trigger because neurons which fire together, wire together. Therefore over time creating new neural pathways which are more easily triggered the more they are used.
In a similar way when we struggle to remember a name, it’s indicative of a similar structural brain change — unused neural pathways degrade overtime so connections to a memory (or dance step) fade or eventually sever completely.
The first point to consider here is that given the capacity of our brains to change, we can learn to be better at noticing when our mood drops as a result of our negative bias causing unhelpful anxiety and stress. This can be achieved by calmly paying attention to our thoughts and associated feelings as these ebb and flow over time.
The second point is that we can counterbalance the negative bias by:
- developing our ability to create new, positive neural pathways
- learning how to trigger these positive pathways more frequently
As a result our average mood improves because the frequency of positive experiences increases to create a better balance between positive and negative awareness – so the brain’s natural bias towards the negative is ‘manually’ or deliberately re-calibrated. As these neural pathways become more active our thinking habits shift because what started out as a deliberate action to find, trigger and maintain a positive set of thoughts becomes easier (more spontaneous) as the neural pathway strengthens and becomes more sensitive to be triggered by smaller input. Habitual efforts build and sensitise the neural pathways (literally re-structuring our own brain) which then reinforce the habits as our mood improves and the negative bias is counteracted.
Most people who manage to live seemingly calmer lives with a more balanced outlook were not simply born into a charmed life. Rather, at some point, they successfully created, and keep nurturing the necessary perceptive neural pathways to sustain a re-calibration of their inherent negative bias. In this manner they keep on personalising their brain to suit their lifestyle and living demands.