We hear a lot these days about the power of positive thinking, but can changing our thoughts really have much of an effect? Research in neuroscience suggests that it can.
Our brains build new neural pathways by repeatedly firing sets of neurons that wire together. When we start learning something new, such as taking a course or the first few weeks of a new job, we can feel like our brain is full and overloaded, and for a while it really is. As we keep repeating the new information input, or practicing a skill, the brain starts to make these pathways more robust and efficient, rather like an information super-highway.
At the same time, the brain is also de-cluttering by getting rid of old pathways that we are not using anymore, or in effect pruning and making space, as the underused pathways literally get marked for removal by a protein that attaches to them.
This has important implications because as we become aware of the how the brain works, we can begin to take advantage of this process and actively label which pathways are for growth, and which are for reassignment to the trash. Habits of mind reinforce new skills, behaviours and thinking patterns, so what is important is the combination of repeated practice along with the mindfulness to be aware of what you are focusing your thoughts on. And that is vital, because if you choose to focus your thoughts on ideas of revenge against your boss at work, or all the reasons why your spouse upsets you, or you constantly ruminate on why your life isn’t working out, then guess what? You are wiring yourself up to be more practiced and successful at the very things you need to avoid.
The research therefore seems to lend strong support to the idea that keeping your thoughts focused in a positive direction can indeed help to create a consistently more hopeful mood and a greater sense of vitality. To further aid the process, it is important to get a good night’s sleep. During sleep the brain rejuvenates itself and clears the toxins; it also does its important work of growing and pruning, although that procedure is far from understood at this point. Even a quick nap of 20 minutes during the day will give the brain some downtime to focus on these background tasks. When we are sleep-deprived our brain is overloaded and unable to repair itself, which is why the day after a poor night of sleep can feel like wading through treacle.
So, if you want an easy and fundamental way of taking care of your mental health, keep building those superhighways of positivity and get plenty of good quality sleep. Your brain will thank you for it!
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.