If you’re looking for a 2018 New Year’s resolution, I have something interesting to offer. Instead of making unrealistic promises that are hard to keep, learn how to talk to yourself so your brain will listen and change will come naturally. Learning how your mind and brain interact is the cutting edge approach to wellbeing and self-improvement. Mindfulness uses the connection between mind and body and the brain’s plasticity to change emotional responses and behavior. By learning this practice, you can achieve your goals and reduce stress and anxiety at the same time.
I learned this recently while treating a young woman suffering from chronic insomnia. Medication was a temporary fix and behavioral changes to nighttime routine were unhelpful. She became increasingly anxious and upset about her inability to get a good night’s sleep. Her anxiety was counter-productive because it increased cortisol production and made it more difficult to relax. Sleep requires a calm mind, not an anxious one, so I suggested she talk to herself like a good mother lulling her baby to sleep. We visualized and practiced the situation– the soft cooing, cradling and lullabies that have helped babies relax and fall asleep for ages. I suggested she imagine she was being rocked to sleep. After several weeks of practice, her insomnia dramatically improved and she fell asleep easily most nights. She also worried less about feeling out of control.
Research has discovered an amazing aspect of the brain, that it is not only changeable, but it does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Thoughts and actions are processed seemingly interchangeably, and both stimulate physiological changes in grey matter. In a Harvard study, structural and functional changes in the brain were found to occur whether a person is actually practicing an activity (the piano, in this case) or imagining doing so. Another experiment found similar changes whether athletes were practicing, or only imagining practicing, fouls shots in basketball. My patient’s insomnia improved because her brain experienced the imagined soothing of a loving mother as real, and her body responded by relaxing and preparing itself for sleep. The key is to commit fully to the imagination and speak to yourself with kindness, understanding and compassion, not with a critical or demanding voice. Criticism and self-reproach create physiological stress, which impedes changes in the brain. By using kindness instead of criticism, the brain absorbs new information making long-term change achievable.
This knowledge can be applied to a variety of behaviors. To reduce unhealthy impulses, such as eating or drinking too much, or any other habitual activities (even rumination or obsessive thinking), imagine yourself choosing to avoid old habits by asking yourself what you may be feeling when the urge is present and if something is making you anxious or upset. Ask yourself what you need and if there is another way to address feelings besides resorting to old habits. Imagine the uncomfortable feelings slip away and feeling proud that you confronted the problem. Compulsive behaviors are often defenses against painful feelings and we develop habits to avoid them. When we practice inviting those feelings in with patience and understanding, we learn they are manageable. If you face any conflict, or need to make an important decision, visualize the future under various scenarios, and see it in your imagination. Ask yourself whether your decision is making you happy and content, or upset and disappointed. You will feel calmer and more in control. This fascinating research puts you in the driver’s seat of your life. In 2018, resolve to understand your brain as receptive to the imagination, love and understanding you learn to cultivate in yourself.