Building New Brain Pathways

When we talk about change —real sustained change, such as creating a happier and healthier existence, what we’re actually saying is we want to create new brain pathways. All human behavior exists in the brain first. Unfortunately, we often try to change human behavior (ours and others) by focusing on the behavior rather than the brain. We use pain in the form of shame, blame, denial, etc. as a way to motivate behavior change. However, our brains simply do not function well on a steady diet of pain. When we gain an understanding of our brain and what it really needs to create and sustain positive change, we are much more likely to reach success.

Where I live in Oregon we have Interstate-5 (I-5) connecting us to California and Washington. It’s generally four lanes wide, has zero stoplights, and is the first to be cleared in snowstorms. If you are traveling North or South and wish to do it with the highest speed and greatest efficiency, you take I-5. Consider I-5 to be the brain pathways you use on a daily basis. Your pathways to procrastination, fear, anger, self-criticism, etc. can be likened to I-5 – fast, easy, and efficient. Say you want to get in-shape, eat healthier, or start meditating. These activities are outside of your norm. Since you don’t do them regularly, they are time consuming and take great effort on the part of your brain because it requires creating new brain pathways. It’s as though you want to go from California to Oregon, and rather than taking I-5, you decide to take the back roads. These back roads are slow, winding single-lane roads that are much, much more time consuming —but do in fact, take you to your destination. About day seven, your brain (which prefers efficiency) says screw this and jumps on I-5 —you skip the workout, pick up some fast food, and decide meditation is a waste of time. Without real conscious choice, you find yourself cruising down the all too familiar freeway at top-speed. You’re back to your old habits.

And how does this process serve us? Not so well. In fact, over half of those who set New Year Resolutions will not succeed. Even worse, 1/3 of us won’t even make it past January. However, if you can stay on the back roads long enough, they become your new habits —you can successfully move from conscious daily choice to unconscious habits. When that shift happens, you succeed. You unconsciously drink enough water every day. You automatically take deep breaths when you feel stressed. Without any effort, you go for your daily walks —it just becomes the thing you do. The back roads become your new I-5.

Three powerful ways to build new brain pathways are:

  1. Practice Self-Compassion
  2. Prepare for the Obstacles
  3. Stay Present through Mindfulness

 

Self-Compassion

Most of us believe that true motivation consists of making ourselves feel so bad that we have no other option but to comply with our goals. If we guilt and shame ourselves enough, we’ll just have to feel motivated to actually do the thing we strive to do. Right? Wrong.

According to research, not only is self-criticism less likely to help you succeed, but also it is more likely to cause larger setbacks and cause you to give up completely on reaching your new goals. Why? Because shame, blame, and self-critical messages activate your own survival system —you become your own threat and activate your lower brain fight, flight, and freeze mechanisms. This area of the brain is not a thinking region —you can’t problem-solve, plan, or get creative.

Conversely, when you use self-compassion such as messages of safety, support, and empathy, you activate a very different region of the brain, your thinking brain, and in doing so, set yourself up to succeed. Studies show that using messages of self-compassion allow you to be more open to hearing feedback, problem-solve, and to consider your behavior and its alignment with your goals. Vitally imperative to transformation, this brain state allows you to reconnect with your goals if you find that you have strayed.

And here’s the great part —you don’t even have to believe your self-compassionate language. You just simply need to start using it. Research shows that even participants that felt inauthentic in using self-compassion reaped the same positive rewards.

 

Prepare for the Obstacles

That long back road with its sharp turns and narrow lanes is bound to have obstacles. How you view those challenges will make or break your success. In fact, Positive Psychology research tells us that only 10% of success is based external factors – the rest, a whopping 90%, is based on internal factors, or how you experience those problems.

To better overcome obstacles —prepare. Assemble your support team, become intimately aware of your triggers and how you might approach them WHEN they arise, read and research tools and techniques, and lastly, understand that success is not a straight-up trajectory. You will experience failures. The opposite of success is not failure, it is apathy. Failure is an opportunity to gather data and course correct.

 

Stay Present through Mindfulness

Change can be hard and emotional. Emotions are normal and negative emotions are healthy. Mindfulness is not about living in an eternal state of happiness. Rather, mindfulness practice brings awareness to your ever-changing emotional state and allows you to choose a response. By naming and experiencing your emotional state in the present moment, you prevent the denial and packing of intense emotions that nearly always result in less than ideal situations, while inducing illness and festering into larger (and more painful) situations.

Say for example your goal is to eat less sugar. You’re at the coffee drive-thru and the Snicker Doodle Mocha Frappuccino with extra syrup is calling your name. You are really struggling. Rather than allowing your self-critic to tell you how terrible you are for even considering the drink, putting your car in reverse and peeling out as you speed angrily away, or simply jumping on that old brain pathway and ordering the drink — Take a deep breath (or five). Come into the emotion. Recognize that this is difficult and name your emotional state —angry, sad, and frustrated, etc. Allow yourself to just feel that —without the need to act on it. Honor that change is an emotional process. Next, brainstorm what you can do to support yourself in that moment —call a buddy, take more deep breaths, read a powerful quote, restate your affirmations, etc. This process keeps you in your thinking brain. It allows you to respond to the moment rather than react. You are able to experience your emotion rather than allowing it to rule the moment.

For most of us change is hard. It’s hard to begin, and it is even harder to sustain. Understanding that our brain is literally under construction during times of change may help in understanding and overcoming the challenges. To support your brain on this project, be self-compassionate in your inner dialogue and motivation techniques, prepare for obstacles and how you experience them, and develop a daily practice of mindfulness allowing whatever difficult emotions arise and supporting yourself during those times.


Tiffany’s life coaching, writing, and teachings focus on changing human behavior through the lens of neuroscience.

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2 Comments

  • Kathy Levy says:

    Thanks, Tiffany! Great article – so well written. The I-5 visualization really helped me understand how the pathways in our brain work. I loved the self compassion and mindfulness parts too – I want one of those Snicker Doodle Mocha Frappuccinos with extra syrup! Thanks again and see you soon. Kathy L.

    • Tiffany Grimes says:

      Ha ha! You can tell what I was craving as I wrote that. LOL! I’m so glad you connected to this article. Thanks so much for your positive feedback!

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