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!
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.