By Charlotte Tomaino, Special to CNN
July 4, 2012
Editor’s note: Charlotte Tomaino is a clinical neuropsychologist with 30 years of experience. Dr. Tomaino is dedicated to helping patients develop practical solutions for the traumatic loss of brain function.
(CNN) – What does it mean to manage your own brain?
The field of neuropsychology — the applied form of neuroscience — is now offering an emerging consciousness about the brain’s inner workings. As with everything, it is when we know how the brain works that we can have something to say about how to work it.
In my new book, “Awakening the Brain,” I discuss the possibility of managing the brain and the questions of how to do it, and why we should want to.
The billions of neurons and the trillions of connections between them in each of our brains keep changing with every experience, even when we sleep. We are in a state of constant change that can happen by choice or will happen by chance. We are evolving in every moment with the chemistry of each sound, sight, thought and emotion that passes through the brain.
As you begin to understand the dynamic nature of you and the movement of chemistry that never ceases, you glimpse the importance of being conscious and making choices. Change is inevitable. The only question is whether you are going to have something to say about it.
Make your ‘rainy brain’ sunnier
As neuroscience has revealed the functions of those inner structures in our heads that create who we are, the capacity for making a “neurochoice” is now available.
Neurochoices are your options for brain change by choice, because you know enough about your brain and care enough to make choices to focus it in healthy, growth-producing ways.
A key concept that reveals your power of influence comes from Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, who said, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is the neuroscience version of “practice makes perfect.”
Anything you do repetitively will activate the neurons in your brain, which makes the action more likely to be repeated in the future. Neuroplasticity, the adaptability of the brain, is operating at all times. You can have neuroplasticity working for you if you target your outcome, or it can work against you if you allow yourself to just react.
The downside of neuroplasticity is evident in the insidious nature of addictions. Habits that control us start subtly, sneaking up until they take over. The first drink to relieve stress can lead to a need for two drinks to be able to relax. The brain is trained by our choices, and automatic behavior is developed or changed by the neurochoices we make.
However, there are many examples of the upside of neuroplasticity. Engaging in new behaviors to enhance our health like regular exercise will lead to improved muscle tone, cardiac function, stronger bones, better respiratory function, more balanced emotions and calmer nerves, greater mental clarity and a better night’s sleep. Once you start an exercise program, you will notice that after a while, you just feel better on a regular basis and feel worse when you miss a day. Just getting into the habit of regular exercise is a neurochoice that will improve your health and quality of life.
There is no shame in not being Superman
You can manage your brain in times of stress as well. There are three easy steps to keep your balance and stay in touch with your best self to achieve your best outcome.
Shift your focus. As tension mounts and you notice a problem looming large in your mind, shift your focus from a reactive position about the conflict to a focus on the solution.
Ask a question like: How would you like this to work out? The brain loves a question and will search for the answer if you provide the focus. All thoughts produced will then follow a different path if you are seeking an answer to your question.
Breathe, breathe, breathe. As you breathe in and out at a consistent pace, you will notice your heart rate slowing, regulated to a calmer and more even state. As the heart automatically speeds up under stress, it affects the nervous system and hyperfocuses you on reacting to the problem rather than thinking through the solution.
Make a conscious choice. Relax your muscles, which spontaneously tense up in the face of conflict or danger.
In the “fight or flight response,” your body is ready to keep you safe but is often overreacting to events that can be better resolved from a more relaxed state. There is greater creativity and more access to your intelligence in ease.
Remember, you invent your own life. The more aware you are of the outcomes you are creating, the more you can achieve the life you want. Stay smart in life by managing your own brain.