How to train your brain and reclaim the present moment
Life is a Brain Game. Our brains cannot tell the difference between reality and what we imagine reality to be. What we think or the story we are telling ourselves about what is going on in any given situation is what activates our emotions and reactions. Most of the time emotional dysregulation is the product of our thinking rather than the product of our reality. Let’s train our brains to be better gatekeepers by not allowing our fear, shame, and distortions in to hijack our reality.
In a study published in 1995, called Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills with 3 groups of volunteers. One group was given a simple sequence of music to practice on the piano for five consecutive days, while a second group was given the same piece of music and asked to imagine practicing the music on the piano for five consecutive days. The third group of volunteers did a hard hang and didn't think about or play any real or imagined pianos. Each group member had their brains scanned every day, the results clearly depicted that the first two groups had almost identical brain activity (shown above) where the third group of volunteers had no activity.
What we imagine, or the story we tell ourselves about our life situation, our beliefs about who we are, and the way we think about ourselves creates our reality. Think about this for a second. Our brains can't tell the difference between something we are thinking about and something that is actually happening. That is so wild! Lisa Feldman Barett, a neuroscientist at North Eastern University, and author of How Emotions are Made suggests that emotions are not objective states of being that are consistent across all people, rather something we learn and our brains construct. Our brains drive most of the physiological, emotional, and behavioral domains which pretty much means they are the hub for processing all our human experiences. My brain can imagine there is danger and then my body produces cortisol, adrenaline, and other psychological symptoms associated with the fight or flight response in the same way it would if there were an actual lion chasing me (maybe not the same, but close).
On one hand, I'm like “Hey brain, you're so primitive and basic, be better at discernment and life please.” On the other hand, if we all knew this and challenged our realities more by visualizing positive experiences and planning on things going well instead of worrying, this can be a huge window for intervention and change. What we believe to be true about ourselves, real or imagined is the same as far as our brains are concerned. So, what if we started training our brains to focus on more positives or heck, even neutrals? We will have to practice a lot and it will not be easy.
4 Steps to training our brains to be better gatekeepers:
- Be mindful of your language: The actual words you use, paying special attention to “can’t”, “never”, and “always”. Your brain doesn't know when you are exaggerating or awfulizing. Use nonjudgmental language about yourself and others.
- Stick to facts: What do you know to be objectively true. Focus on evidence instead of fear or shame stories, identifying in the moment, “What is the story I am telling myself about?” Look at the story like you are a detective and fact check it. I have clients who will tell me the story and then we will sit for a second together in silence, we don’t even have to do anything else, because they smile at me with a knowing glance and say, “No, I don’t have any evidence and now that I hear it out loud it doesn’t sound as true.” Sometimes they say swear words too.
- No labeling: When thinking about yourself or something you want to work on or change, stay away from labeling yourself, "I am late to work because I am lazy," or "I just don't care enough to change this." Your brain is like "Yep, welp- there's that," and then we are STUCK. Using language like "It is really difficult for me in the morning," and "I am really struggling with why I don't seem to be able to change this,” leaves room for problem solving.
- Check your thoughts at the gate: You are the gatekeeper! It is like having a fancy guest list, don't just let any thoughts in. Where did this message come from? Who's voice is this? Is that objectively true, and what's the evidence? What else is true? So much of how we operate comes from false core beliefs. We are wired to create certainty or confabulate in the face of uncertainty. Be #curious and #gentle with yourself, don't let your thoughts pretend to be you!