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April 2024

Overcoming the unexpected: Retrain your brain to embrace change in your life

Embracing Change. Retrain your brain to help us focus on the positives in life and to ensure we keep moving forward.
Source – Reflexions; June 2021 – Written by Sally Earlam FMAR, BSc -Head of Training AoR

The pandemic has certainly taken its toll on many people’s mental health, and as we begin to move out of lockdown it is perhaps more important than ever that we and our clients take some time to reflect on what positive things we have learnt about ourselves and our lives over the last year. We need to focus on the positives and ensure that we make changes in our lives to capture these moving forwards.

Retrain your brain
To be able to make changes, we need to pay particular attention to our brains. The brain has evolved to primarily look for negatives to ensure survival. However, our lives have dramatically changed, so the stress hormone cortisol is now more often change in your life released due to emotional reactions such as disappointment, fear of failure, comparing ourselves to others, etc. rather than watching for a lion. The limbic system remembers situations that caused cortisol to be released and the brain scans for these triggers hence the brain is programmed to focus on looking for the negatives to ensure survival. We do, of course, have ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain that create a sense of pleasure or satisfaction, e.g. Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin etc. – but our body only releases these in short bursts and these are metabolised quickly. Thus the body needs to keep seeking ways to stimulate these chemicals for the brain to remain positive.

The good news is that you can retrain your brain to look more for the positives in your everyday life. Positive Psychology and the Science of Happiness movement have both shown that true, lasting happiness is created from focusing on cultivating and utilising your strengths and virtues doing something you are good at and love, enhancing positive feelings and experiences, and fully engaging with all that life throws at you.

There are many activities that can help retrain your brain and I have listed some below:

  • Look for positives – Three times a day, every day, spend one minute looking around for something positive that makes you feel happy or grateful. This helps to retrain your brain to look for positives. This is also a really useful exercise to do when you start worrying about something: Stop; take 3 deep breaths and look around for something positive, then focus on it for a minute – this helps to flood the brain with ‘happy’ chemicals
  • Three Gratitude’s – similar to the above, but actually write down 3 things every day that you are grateful for, as this again helps train the brain to start looking for the positives. These can be really small things such as appreciating clear blue skies, a chat with a friend (even if over zoom), making a healthy food choice, etc.
  • Acts of Kindness – This can be as simple as giving an honest compliment to someone or shopping for vulnerable neighbours, through to partaking in regular volunteer work. Not only does it help others, but it increases your sense of purpose and can help you feel happier. Let people and clients know that you appreciate them.
  • Make Time For What You Love – We are hopefully all becoming busier with work and social commitments, but do make sure you leave space in your life for the things you love – what makes your heart sing? Think about this and block time out in your diary for it, and don’t let other commitments get in the way. Without this, you are more likely to become downhearted and pessimistic.
  • You are what you eat – Look after your gut microbiome, as these respond to the food we eat and then interact with the body. Poor diet can make us feel lethargic, anxious and depressed. If we feed our bodies well, it can lighten our mood – so try and replace processed foods with colourful, plant-derived wholefoods. Take an honest, critical look at how you treat your body and what you put in it.
  • Meditation – There is good research evidence that by practising mindfulness meditation regularly, we can stop our subconscious minds from doing the driving and sabotaging decisions and actions. When the conscious mind is in control, it will help enable positive, focused thoughts to drive decisions and actions.
  • Sleep – This is essential for maintaining both physical and mental wellbeing. An average adult needs 7-9 hours per night, and a good night time routine can be helpful in achieving this.
  • Reframe negatives into positives – Reframing is a technique used to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. This is a useful approach for our clients as well. When something doesn’t turn out as you expected or wanted, try and find a positive in the situation – is there another way to think about it? Try to find a specific thing you can learn, rather than viewing yourself as a failure. Could it be that the universe has something better waiting for you? This approach takes practice, but over time your brain can start doing this without being prompted.
  • Cultivate positive people in your life – Emotions are contagious, so surround yourself with positive people who inspire, empower and motivate you. Someone else’s negativity can also bring you down.
  • Exercise – This can improve your brain’s “plasticity” – a positive cerebral quality that has been shown to improve memory, motor skills, and the ability to learn. Exercise also releases ‘happy’ chemicals and helps to boost self-esteem and self-worth. Exercise is thought to be one of the most important factors for physical and emotional wellbeing; just 20 minutes a day is the best way to release endorphins for improved mood.
  • Walk in nature – Spending time in outdoor green spaces has been linked to improvements in mood, concentration and creativity.
  • Find Purpose – what makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning? This is something that will change over time and will constantly need to be readdressed, especially when there are major life changes such as children, leaving home, retirement etc. This is not about happiness in the moment, but about experiences that connect us at a deeper level and give us a purpose for living e.g. friends, family, pets, hobbies, work etc.

Choose one or more of the above to try for 21 days and see what difference it makes to you or your clients.

Elements of Change

Life brings with it many challenges, and the more we are able to positively embrace change and look for opportunities, the more this enables us to achieve our goals. Change might not come easily and goals will change, but try and train your brain to look for positives and then start to embrace change as another way of helping to keep you moving forwards in life.
We often associate ‘change’ as being a negative thing, but there are activities we can do that can help us start to be proactive about change as a way of progressing. It can take time to even get to the point of recognising a change could be beneficial; it is rarely straightforward and it can be easy to deny that a change is even needed.

To be successful in bringing about change, there are some questions you need to ask:
1. What change do you want to make?
2. What is your driving force for the change? How will you benefit?
3. Do you have the motivation, resources and knowledge required? Where can you get help?
4. Are there any barriers that might prevent this change? Are there ways around these and can they be avoided?
5. Is the investment you are going to make going to be worth it? E.g. time, money, emotions etc.
6. Is this change going to be sustainable for you longer term?

To help you get started, use a vision board of what you are aiming for and include any actions you need to take to help you on your way. A vision board must use images, as this helps send messages to the subconscious to start looking for opportunities rather than taking on a sabotage role. Also write down your goals and create motivational statements that you can use on a daily basis. Think about the resources or support that you will need even encouragement from friends can be invaluable.
Try and break down any goals into small, achievable, bite size pieces – and remember to congratulate yourself on every small achievement that you make – these are extremely important in maintaining steps towards the end goal, as reinforcement is essential.

If you are looking at changing a behaviour, it is key to look at ways to avoid temptation – but if you do falter (which is common) don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t give up. It is merely a minor hiccough. The key to success is to not let setbacks undermine your self-confidence, and to acknowledge that you have done the best that you can at this point in time. Then reflect on what triggered the lapse and if there is anything you can do to avoid that trigger in the future. You may want to start again looking at motivation for change and return to the questions above.
I hope there has been something that has triggered a spark in this article; retraining your brain can be the first step to making a positive change in your life. On a final note, don’t forget the Law of Attraction, which states that the power of the mind can translate our thoughts into reality.
Simply put:
Step 1 – retrain your brain to focus on the positives to change your outlook on life.

Step 2 – decide on the change you want to make and your motivations.

Step 3 – open your positive thoughts to the universe and see what is attracted into your life. It is unlikely to happen overnight; it takes work, but can make life so much more rewarding.