You Are Not Your Brain

“I’m not good enough. She’s going to leave me. I am going to mess up this presentation. They’re going to think I am an idiot and not hire me…”

■ At one point or another, we have all experienced these types of self-defeating thoughts. Known as deceptive brain messages, these kinds of thoughts can take over our lives and cause us to do things we do not want to do. Perhaps our response has been to feel lethargic, manically check our email, eat too much or overindulge in another unhealthy repetitive act. When we continually respond to negative internal messages in the same unhelpful ways, we unwittingly end up reinforcing them. The more we do this, the more our brains form repetitive, automatic habits that can take over our lives and prevent us from being the people we want to be.

How does this happen? The answer lies in how the brain responds to the environment and our actions. Based on our and other lead- ing scientists’ research, we have realized that the more you focus on something, the more strongly that act gets wired into your brain in automatic, unconscious ways. If our actions are positive and healthy, all is fine. But how many of us respond to negative thoughts with healthy, helpful actions? How about when we are stressed? In more cases than not, we end up repetitively mulling over the negative thoughts (a form of focusing) or doing something that gets rid of the stress for a few moments, like having a drink or eating our favorite snack. Although seemingly harmless in the short term, engaging in over-thinking and repetitive actions can lead to detrimental long-term con- sequences, such as excessively consuming food or alcohol, distancing from loved ones and more.

The key ingredient in whether you respond to negative messages in healthy or unhealthy ways is based on how you focus your attention and what you actually do once the thought or impulse arises. To change the strength of a pathway in your brain you need to keep focusing on or doing the same thing over and over. This is the only way to change which pathway is chosen in a specific situation. Over time, those pathways that are used the most—for example, what you do every time you are feel- ing stressed—become the preferred ones in the brain, and often become associated with specific situations or needs (such as momentarily decreasing anxiety).

So when you take deceptive brain messages at face value and respond in the same manner to them over and over, your brain will make that response the preferred one—even if it isn’t good for you. This is be- cause several biological principles are working together to cause brain centers to “team up” to wire those habits into the brain. Once your brain is wired in a certain way, it becomes very difficult to spontaneously stop engaging in the habits that have formed.

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