How Thoughts Change Your Brain
Every thought creates a neural connection. If you think a thought often enough the neural connection will grow strong, particularly if there’s an emotional attachment to it. Conversely, if a memory has little use, is rarely stimulated, or has no emotional attachment, eventually those neural connections will largely wither away from disuse.
Thoughts also change your brain by stimulating the production of brain chemicals that change the structure and function of your brain.
A good example is what happens to your brain under stress. When a situation you perceive as stressful occurs, it increases your level of the stress hormone cortisol.
Prolonged exposure to cortisol literally excites some of your brain cells to death, particularly in the hippocampus where memories are stored. This alarmingly can cause measurable shrinkage in this part of the brain.
Conversely, stress feeds the amygdala, your fear center, causing it to grow, leaving you more fearful and anxious.
Excess cortisol halts the formation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein which acts like fertilizer to encourage the growth of new brain cells.
Research suggests that chronic stress stimulates proteins that may even be the cause of Alzheimer’s.
Thoughts That Don’t Serve You
Psychologists have labeled certain negative thought patterns as cognitive distortions. These are common ways your mind will try to convince you of something that isn’t actually true.
- See if any of these thought patterns sound familiar to you:
- Obsessively dwelling on an unpleasant event.
- Seeing everything as black or white with no middle ground.
- Using words like “always” and “never”.
- Jumping to conclusions.
- Catastrophizing – seeing the worst in every situation.
- Taking things personally.
- Blaming others for your problems.
- Blaming yourself for things outside of your control.
- Being driven by “shoulds”, “shouldn’ts”, and guilt.
- Going to any length to be right.
Most of us think this way at least some of the time. It’s pretty easy to see how these kinds of thoughts are working against not for you. They can lead to a lot of unhappiness, not just for you but for those around you.
But changing your thinking is hard. Are there any fool-proof ways to make it easy?
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Besides years of psychoanalysis, is there anything that you can easily do to change negative thought patterns?
You can take some wise advice from an unexpected source – a popular bumper sticker that says “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.
Next time you catch yourself falling into one of these patterns, remind yourself that you don’t have to believe it just because you thought it. Recognize a negative thought for being what it truly is – a cognitive distortion – and challenge it instead.
You may recall a popular self-help book from the 90s – You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. The next time you find yourself thinking negatively, remind yourself that this is true.
Your thoughts are powerful.
They create brain chemicals that are either adding to or subtracting from your brain health, ability to cope with life, and happiness.
Quiet Your Mind with Meditation
One of the simplest and most effective techniques to gain control of your thoughts is with meditation.
Over 1,000 studies have been published proving the health benefits of meditation. People who meditate have stronger neural connections between different parts of the brain. Their brains show less atrophy due to age and have more neural synapses.
Regular meditators experience improved focus and concentration, greater creativity, stress reduction, better sleep, and even improved immune function. Meditation can make you happier, smarter, and more resilient to handle life’s ups and downs.
Continually monitoring yourself for negative thoughts and challenging them is no easy task. You have to be vigilante and you must be willing to look at yourself with unflinching honesty.
But being a “mind warrior” is worth the effort. Gaining control of your thoughts is one of the best things you can do to improve your brain, your happiness, and overall quality of life.