BLOG BY Dr Tara Swart

How To Train Your Brain

With effort and by keeping our brains in peak physical condition, we can forge fresh ways of thinking, strengthening our higher-level brain functions — such as making good decisions, solving seemingly insurmountable problems, planning for the future, and self-reflection—and learning to master our primal brain responses like the fear or uncertainty we may be going through now.

People often ask me how long it takes to form a new habit. Of course, it makes a difference how complex the habit is. For instance, it takes a lot longer to improve emotional mastery than it does to embed a new gym routine. But neuroplasticity promises that with dedicated effort, change will come. This principle of neuroplasticity—the power to create new pathways in the subconscious and conscious parts of our brain—underpins all the research and case studies in my book ‘The Source – open your mind, change your life’, and is the key to any deep and lasting shift in our habits and thinking.

It’s important not to overcomplicate it. Everyday examples of neuroplasticity are all around us. Simply recalling something, like what you had for lunch last Tuesday, strengthens the connection for that memory. This may seem like a tiny thing, but it is a simple example of how we strengthen connections in the brain with every thought or memory.

Try it yourself, right now. Call to mind a day: the first day you went into isolation for example, or a memorable day further off: new year or your last birthday. Think through it in sequence. What happened? Where were you? Who else was there? How did you feel? Is this a happy or a difficult memory? By recalling it, you have fired up another connection between the neurons in the memory area of the hippocampus deep inside the brain. The more you relive a memory and/or the more intense the emotions associated with that memory, the stronger the connection becomes. This is a result of repetition as well as the intensity of emotion, making it either a fond memory that easily floats to the front of the mind or a fearful memory that you want to forget but keep reinforcing by mulling over it, or repeatedly watching the news. Either way, remember the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” For better or for worse.

The first step in embarking on training your brain in isolation, is to understand that the brain is dynamic, flexible and capable of rebuilding its pathways with dedicated effort, even in surreal circumstances. Whenever I hear somebody say, “It’s just the way I am” (I hear this a lot when I ask people what’s keeping them stuck or limiting their goals), I try to help them challenge this belief. It’s so important that you fully grasp what neuroplasticity means; in particular, what it will mean for you. It needs to make sense to you personally. This is more important than ever now when guilt and shame can mean we feel we need to keep up with others who are learning a new language or building their brand. If, for you, training your brain right now means embedding good little habits such as sleep hygiene, regular movement, good hydration, taking care of your gut, or becoming a little more creative in the kitchen, then congratulate yourself for knowing your body and understanding your needs, as these will serve you being able to sustain your resilience far more than any grand gesture.

What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think about what you would like to change about the way your brain works? Imagine what life would be like if you operated from a different paradigm—greater trust, abundance or flexibility. Would you be happier, healthier and have better relationships? Can you see a particular area of your life in which your brain is set into negative habits and pathways?

Neuroplasticity, at its most positive, is the key to self-empowerment. It ensures that with effort, we can overcome deeply entrenched negative behaviours and modes of thinking, including addictive and destructive habits and relationship patterns. I’ve seen people rehabilitate from the physical effects of strokes and brain tumors, from addictions to drugs and alcohol and eating disorders—and, just as importantly, the more everyday challenges of life such as divorce, heartbreak, bereavement, redundancy, relocation or career change.

Neuroplasticity also ensures we can achieve forgiveness. Letting go of a past loss or hurt can be the hardest change to make in the brain but often this very pathway is the one that is driving the shame, mistrust and inability to forgive that keeps us stuck. Our brains are constantly evolving, refining and learning in response to everything that we experience—events, emotions and people—and we need to be aware of this and manage what we expose our brains to and how we deal with the impact. We can do this in real time, overwriting past hurts and cleaning up what is present.

Brain scans show that all sorts of activities can induce change in the brain, but three factors in particular have the most impact. Ask yourself how much of each of the following factors you currently have in your life, and how you might be able to introduce more of them:

Novelty: new experiences such as a form of exercise you’ve never tried before, learning new ways of doing things, and connecting with people in different ways. Novel experiences can even stimulate growth of new neurons. When was the last time you tried something totally new?

Aerobic exercise: this has been found to increase oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain and allow us to release brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the endorphin that allows the growth of new neurons. Are you still managing to get your 5-10,000 steps per day, even if it is pottering around at home, and how are you using your daily allowance for outdoor exercise?

Emotional stimulation: the more you experience something and the more intense the emotion associated with it, the more powerful is the effect on the brain. This is why even having shared a traumatic event can be very bonding. Emotions have a neuroendocrine effect. For example, sharing laughter with your loved ones has a beneficial effect through the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin which is associated with trust. For similar reasons, break-ups can have extremely negative and long-lasting consequences on your mental health because the high levels of emotions related to the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which literally locks in connections that loving and trusting someone leads to pain and loss. Can you think of any examples of strong emotions, good or bad, that have locked in strong memories for you? Can you use this self-knowledge to curate how much you should be watching the news right now, scrolling social media or spending time with certain people?

Neuroplasticity is directed by repetition, for good or ill, so it’s worth remembering that negative thinking and addictive behavior can become self-perpetuating, serving to further embed anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking and aggression. Once you fully grasp this fact, you can see why it’s so important to harness the power of neuroplasticity to work in your own best interests.

Developing metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” means becoming aware of one’s awareness, rather than functioning on autopilot. Metacognition encompasses all of our memory-monitoring and self-regulation, consciousness and self-awareness—crucial capacities to regulate our own thinking, maximize our awareness, and ultimately, our potential to learn and change. Journaling is a great way to capture this during isolation.

This post was written by, Dr Tara Swart who is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information. You can find Tara on Instagram @drtaraswart and more information on her books here.

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