Our ‘plastic’ brain supports the feelings we choose
For centuries we believed that the brain was hard wired. That we were born with a brain limited by the genetic makeup of our relatives. It was assumed that the brain at some early point in life, was a “done deal.”
In the last few decades research has revealed that the brain is not hard wired. Not only that, the brain is constantly recreating itself up until the day we die — literally building new structure — based on the mind state that we maintain on a moment by moment basis.
If we are in a positive mind state, our brain builds neural pathways to support that mind state. Conversely, when we are in a negative mind state, our brain builds neural pathways to support that negative state of mind.
By staying in a negative mind state we are encouraging our brain to support that mind state.
This is what the brain does. It is constantly creating new neural pathways to support the state of mind we are experiencing right now. If we are depressed it will support that mind state and create new pathways, or support existing neural pathways that encourage the negative mind state we have chosen.
This phenomenon is known as neural-plasticity. Understanding neural-plasticity reveals the importance of having strategies to take advantage of the brains ability to support whatever mind state we choose to be in.
The word “choose” is critical. It implies that we can choose our state of mind in “the moment.”
In fact, life only happens in the moment. The past is gone, and the future has not arrived. The only power we have is right now, in this particular moment. Ever ything we do happens in “this” moment. No matter how much we agonize over what happened in the past we cannot change it. And our only possible chance of effecting the future is to take action now.
Chronic runaway stress that I spoke of in my last letter to the editor, keeps us in the negative mind state of regretting the past and feeling anxiety for what we fear the future will bring. When stressed, we have lost our ability to operate in the moment.
Understanding the progression from stress to chronic runaway stress to depression gives us the insight and motivation to learn and use skills that allow us to create a new normal for our physiology and to understand how to choose how we feel from moment to moment.
In the next letter, we will examine the practice of mindfulness, including a simple mindfulness skill that helps us to be mindful in the moment and live stress free. Mindfulness skills allow us to take charge of our physiology and choose how to feel from moment to moment. These skills are used by Navy Seals to operate at their highest and best under the most challenging conditions.
John Staples, Bryans Road The writer is the program manager for War On Stress, a project of United Charitable, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.