Neuroplasticity: Healthy Shortcuts to a Happier Life

Today’s article is by Ashley Davis Bush, a licensed psychotherapist and grief counselor who has just published a new book, Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, which shows how one can find inner peace, even amidst the most stressful, annoying, or challenging situations.  Take a deep breath and enjoy . . .

Neuroplasticity is, for good reason, one of the buzziest buzzwords in the field of mental health.  Every conference, teleseminar, and CEU workshop I attend makes reference to the fact that the brain changes in response to new experiences.  Neuroplasticity is good news because it means that we can change the unhealthy ways that our brain responds to challenging circumstances by intentionally responding in new, healthy ways.

When we continually respond to situations or thoughts with anger, fear and anxiety we deepen the ‘groove’ of those patterned responses in our brain.  But when we learn to repeatedly respond with compassion, gratitude and optimism, we create new grooves that over time become our automatic response.

The trick to changing our brain is repetition.  It’s the new habits in our lives that eventually cement new neural pathways.  Of course, creating new habits is often easier said than done.  The key to building a new habit is having a reliable prompt or ‘trigger’ that reminds us to do it.

Take a great bottle of vitamins, for example. If you forget to use them, then the vitamins won’t help you at all.  However, if your morning orange juice ‘triggers’ you to take them, you will find yourself remembering to take them every morning.  We can use triggers in our daily lives to remind us to bring compassion, gratitude and optimism into our everyday activities.

The following tools are triggered by ordinary activities.  Try to weave one or more of them into your day and you will notice a difference in how you feel right away. You can’t always change your circumstances but you can change your brain!

Freeze Frame

Trigger:  when you drink a morning beverage, your coffee or tea

Tool:  as you lift your beverage, take a deep breath and as you take your first sip, really notice the flavors, ‘freeze the frame’ and think, “Ahhhh, life is good.”  When we pause the spiral of our non-stop thinking and reconnect with our senses, we begin our day afresh from a place of peace.

Stop Drop and Roll

Trigger: when stopped at a red light

Tool:  “Stop”, “drop” down into your heart, and “roll” out some goodwill to your fellow travelers.  Look at the people in other cars in front of you, behind you, passing around you, and recognize that each one of them is just like you: they want happiness and they want to be free from suffering.  To each person you see, say/think something like:  May you be happy.  May you be at peace.  I wish you a good night’s sleep.  I send you joy.  When you open your heart with compassion, you experience a deeper sense of inner peace.

Rest in Peace

Trigger:  when your head rests on the pillow at night

Tool: As you are in bed starting to fall asleep, review your day and list three things that happened for which you are grateful.  Actively recall the experience and let yourself feel the gratitude.  Then, think of yourself as a sponge, absorbing this pleasant memory. Over time, a feeling of gratitude will become your habit.

Using these three simple shortcuts will keep you mindful, open your heart and cultivate gratitude, thereby strengthening the neural substrates that will keep you happy and mentally healthy.

References and recommended reading:

Bush, A. D. (2011). Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity. Berkley Trade.

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4 Responses to Neuroplasticity: Healthy Shortcuts to a Happier Life

  1. Baker January 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Well done post. I was just doing some repetition of affirmations, that I’ve since forgotten and I came out of it feeling aligned again and empowered. Nice reminder!

  2. Ashley Davis Bush January 23, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Yes, affirmations are excellent to help induce a peaceful state AND rewire your brain accordingly. Thanks for your comment!

  3. charlie wills January 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    Great Insight Asley,
    Although I must say that this thinking might work well with children its near Impossble with the vast majority of adults who are on different meications for varous condictions such as sleep, weight, pain anxiety, depression, blood pressure etc.

    While your ideas sound great and are touchy feely, after running trials for years (7) for folks with this issues its % of benefits are small I am sorry to say.

    The mind is the last place anything gets to..
    We need to start with the Whole picture ,,Mind, Body and Soul, or heart brain and nervous system…at the same time…

    Jeremy said “Even in the spa industry (where I work,) although there is much lip service given to holistic healing (“mind, body & spirit,”) the reality is that only a small percentage of spas actually seem to thoughtfully consider how they treat their clients beyond the physical domain. And most approaches to health and wellness seem to focus on nutrition and exercise (fuel and mechanics for the physical “machine.”) Where do the mind and spirit come in?”

    I continue to witness such temporary fixes in the spa, rare to find any long term solutions in a spa other the the old school stuff…yea a great massage I love as much as anyone, but follow that person outside and watch them in traffic or a not so nice email from the boss and they jetison Right back into a state of nervous system Death,,,massage benefits up in smoke just like that….

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