If you knew that every thought you had would change your brain, would you be more careful about what you think? Well, research is showing us just that. Maybe each thought doesn’t have a huge impact, but it does add up.
It’s like a new river that’s being formed: at the beginning there’s just a small stream of water creeping over dry land, but over time the groove of the flowing water gets more pronounced, and as long as the water keeps coming (and depending on how much comes), you end up with a raging river. The same happens with our minds. Everything we do with our minds affects our emotional health.
Emotional and Mental Health: How Stress Affects Neuroplasticity
Our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives, and the way we think and how we work with our minds (as well as our experiences, our emotions, our physical activity, and other factors) determine what shape our brains take. This is what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity.
For instance, if you start a new hobby like learning to play the piano, at first the brain doesn’t have the networks developed for doing it well. That’s one reason why we feel so clumsy at first. But through repetition, slowly the brain reorganizes and establishes the neural pathways we use while playing the piano. Over time, those pathways are strengthened to the point where playing becomes second nature to us.
Neuroplasticity is neutral and always happening, for good habits that we create, but also for the bad ones. Most of the time our brains are forming without us consciously steering how they develop. We often react to our situation based on habits we learned in childhood from our families, friends, schools, TV, or whatever other childhood influences we had. And these habitual ways of reacting can be detrimental to our own well-being, both mentally and physically.
Take stress for example. A stress response is a natural part of being human, and we need it to survive. But how many of us get caught in our habitual way of relating to stress and perpetuate that cycle? What do you do when you get stressed out? Do you start getting snappy? Do you get anxious?
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Learn how to manage it in an upcoming Mindful Daily session!
The way we think about stressors and regulate our emotions plays a huge role in whether or not we’re trapped in our habitual stress responses. Most of us perpetuate our cycle and find ourselves being stressed out all the time. This is becoming more and more prevalent these days with the constant demands of work and family.
And being stressed out all the time means we’re constantly invoking a stress response in our bodies (elevated heart rate, changes in digestive functioning, to name a few) which over time can cause us physical illness. This is just one way that the functioning of our mind influences our physical well being.
Mindfulness Is Key to Creating Healthy Mental Habits
Imagine a boat in the middle of the ocean being buffeted around by the waves and the wind. It’s strongly influenced by the environment with little control over itself. This is how we normally are: buffeted around by our thoughts and emotions, reacting constantly to our external environment based on habit.
Mindfulness is like giving the boat a rudder to steer itself. Suddenly, the boat isn’t so helpless. It begins to choose where it wants to go. Sure, the wind and the waves are still there, and they certainly influence the boat, but the boat now has a say in the matter.
When we start to be aware of our minds and begin training them we are taking control over how our brains develop. The more we create positive mental states (like appreciation, kindness, and compassion) and react with healthy forms of emotional regulation, the more we’ll develop those networks in our brain that support our own well being.
There’s even research that shows mindfulness can help to reduce depression relapse (specifically Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy). It’s clear that mindfulness helps us develop emotional well being, although the research is still just beginning to find out exactly how. This is the first step we can take to forming our brain in a healthy way: becoming aware of what we’re thinking and how we’re reacting and choosing a way that is beneficial for us, not just following the same old patterns.
Make Every Moment Matter for Your Emotional Health
Have you noticed your own emotional health suffering because of old habits? Instead of continuing the same old struggle to improve your external conditions, maybe it’s time to work with your internal world to have greater well being.
Training in mindfulness is the first step in developing healthy mental habits that will help shape your brain in a way that makes you happy. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Check out eMLife for a host of different ways you can start developing your own emotional health, including receiving guidance from live experts, and all from the comfort of your own home (or wherever you want). Try it out and start taking control of your mind today.
About the Author:
Mike Engle has been passionate about training his mind since he was first exposed to mindfulness at the age of 16. Since then, his desire to understand and work with his mind has led him to earn degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, to research attention training in monastic education in Nepal, and to sit four and a half years in intensive solitary retreat.
After finishing his retreat Mike began to teach mindfulness to others, and after starting his own family he became interested in bringing the benefits of mindfulness to parents, children, and families. He currently lives in Barcelona with his wife and sons where he spends his time teaching mindfulness, coaching, and working in the field of Tibetan translation. Mike has worked as an eM Life instructor since 2017.