The High Five Habit

Affirmations have become a big part of my life in the last year or two. Even though I still find them cheesy and cringe worthy a lot of the time, I know that they work. I’ve seen the roll they’ve played in my own life. Honestly, we all use affirmations every day whether we do so intentionally or not. I guess the word “affirmation” implies intention, but unconsciously we are all repeating beliefs and self commentary every moment of the day. Sometimes it’s only after recognizing the intense emotional reaction we have towards positive affirmations that we realize just how toxic and self harming our own have been all this time.

One of the trickiest parts about affirmations for me is finding one that I can fully believe. Imagine you start off by saying to yourself “I’m perfect just the way I am.” If you don’t believe it, then not only is that affirmation not helping you, it could be hurting you instead by subconsciously reinforcing your disbelief in that statement. A simple reframing can make that affirmation a bit easier to embrace, especially in the beginning. “It’s okay to be imperfect.” “I can love and accept myself even though I am imperfect.” Still, this requires a lot of thought, time, and inner work. A lot of us just are not in a place where we feel able to do that just yet.

This is where the high five habit comes in. I heard about this amazing idea on a podcast the other day. The High Five Habit is also a book written by Mel Robbins. She was the guest on this podcast, and she explained how she came up with the method and how it works in our brains. Her personal story moved me to tears, because I have been the lead in that story many times. She found herself in the bathroom critically observing her reflection above the sink, picking out and attacking all of her perceived flaws. She was exhausted and depressed and for some reason that not even she is able to fully explain, she gave herself a high five in the mirror. Robbin says the woman staring back at her looked like she needed it. She laughed at the absurdity of it, but the next day she found herself excited to meet herself again in that mirrored image. But why?

Robbins discussed this phenomenon with Marian Diamond, the woman who discovered neuroplasticity. (I had no idea this earth shattering discovery was made by a woman, but we’ll circle back around to that another day.) From what we know about neuroscience at this point, the high five habit seems to make sense. The high five is something that we have so ingrained in us as a positive action. We associate it automatically with reward, team building, approval, success, etc. It doesn’t matter who is offering this gesture or in what context, the action alone triggers that reward pathway in our brains.

We’ve all heard the expression “actions speak louder than words.” The high five habit is a particularly powerful example of that. Unlike verbal positive affirmations, it doesn’t really matter what our background thoughts are. We could still be displeased with the person staring back at us, we could be thinking “I don’t deserve a high five. This is stupid. This will never work. I feel like an idiot.” Regardless of our inner critic, this physical movement overrides all of that the moment we make contact with our reflection’s raised hand. Now the “habit” part of it is committing to give yourself this high five at least once a day for five days. Apparently that’s all the time it takes to begin to notice a difference.

This is only my third day of this practice, but I can say that it makes me laugh or at least smile each time I do it. And if that’s all that comes of it, I’d still say it was worth the try. It might feel silly, but that’s another thing I like about it. It reminds me not to take myself and my life so seriously. It also helps me in that moment to realize that I am not just these thoughts and the tyrannical inner critic. I am a human being who is doing the very best that she can. I am the frightened woman staring back at me, asking for reassurance and support. We are all deserving of the compassion and forgiveness we have learned to withhold from ourselves. The high five habit reminds us of that.

Improving Peer to Peer Recognition | Reward Gateway

Paxil (5mg)

I cannot believe I have only been taking 5mg of Paxil instead of 30mg for nearly two weeks now. Back when I was around 22 or 23 I began taking this SSRI every day and only recently found the nerve to try to wean myself off of it at 27. There were many times throughout the years when I wanted to do this, but when you read the horror stories about Paxil withdrawal it’s quite intimidating. A big part of my hesitation to give up the medication was also psychological. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to manage without it.

Before I began taking Paxil, I was petrified of most (if not all) social interactions. It was a monumental task to even call my doctor to set up an appointment or to order food in a drive-thru. Meeting new people was always a nightmare, and I had a very difficult time making friends. After a month on an SSRI though, I was a completely different person. I didn’t think twice about making a phone call or talking to a stranger on the street. I felt like the shackles I had been wearing all my life were finally removed. That ever-present fog of fear had finally lifted.

But what if even after years of living in this newfound freedom, Paxil was still the only reason I was able to do these things? What if that old fear came back to overtake me as soon as I stopped? Not only that, I was afraid there would be no turning back for me once I began this journey away from Paxil. There are many accounts online of people attempting to cut back only to realize they desperately need this drug. However, upon increasing their dosage again, they found the medication didn’t work like it did the first time. I was afraid if I was making the wrong decision, I would be stuck with it.

Despite all these fears, with the support of my loved ones and primary doctor, I managed to start weaning myself off my Paxil. I tried not to think too much about it or look for any negative symptoms rearing their ugly heads. Much to my surprise, everything has remained pretty much the same, even now on practically no meds at all. I have only noticed positive changes such as rediscovering my formerly blunted range of emotions. And I could not be happier or more proud of myself.

The other day as I was driving home from an impromptu meeting with my boyfriend and his family, something incredible dawned on me. I can’t believe I just did that, I thought. I just spent the whole day with my boyfriend and his family. I just met his developmentally disabled aunt and elderly grandfather without having any idea I would be doing so beforehand. Wow. This might not sound like anything out of the ordinary to most people, but imagining how I would have handled that situation before Paxil vs. now is like night and day.

At 21 if my boyfriend had sprung meeting these people on me at the last minute I would have been petrified, angry, desperate to get out of the situation somehow. But that day, it never even occurred to me that it was of any significance. I simply shrugged and agreed when he said we’d be going to see them. I had no problem at all talking with them. I feel like I even managed to make a great impression. It actually brings tears to my eyes to say that. (Tears I now feel forming much more often and easily on my lowered dosage.) I am just so proud of myself.

Even though I’ve been through many similar experiences in the years since starting Paxil, this was the first time I can remember doing something like this pretty much on my own, with no significant chemical assistance. I genuinely never thought I would be capable of maneuvering social situations on my own. This incident has allowed me to more fully appreciate the things I’ve continued to do every day with no problem since lowering my dosage. I’ve still been meeting new clients every day at work, making follow-up phone calls, shooting the breeze with my coworkers, etc. All things I have become accustomed to, but had always given all the credit for to Paxil.

So to anyone out there who has been leaning on an SSRI for support, wanting to venture out on your own again, but are too fearful to try, don’t be afraid. You can do it. (With the help and support of a medical professional, of course.) I had hoped that the new pathways I have been building for years inside my brain would be strong enough to stand on their own after so many years of Paxil assistance, but I couldn’t be sure. Now I am. I know I can do this.

In summation, first I was throwing total support behind psych meds, then I was wavering more towards being against them all together. Now I have a better understanding of how to use these tools without becoming dependent on them. SSRI’s are not a miracle cure. They are also not something to avoid entirely. I finally see that they are like training wheels. Paxil gave me the courage and the confidence to gather new experiences, to learn that social situations don’t have to be scary. It gave me the time to practice better coping skills. My brain used to associate small talk, phone calls, meeting people, etc. with terror. Now I have years and years of conditioning under my belt to remind me that I can do these things and be perfectly okay. There is nothing to fear. Paxil has taught me that, and I am so grateful. Now with my new neural pathways in place and the old self-destructive ones faded and withered, I am ready to forge ahead on my own.

Chemical conversations: The story and science of how medication helped with  my depression | The Anchor

Algorithms

Algorithms, particularly social media algorithms, have been on a lot of our minds lately. But what even are they? Well one definition I found says that algorithms are: a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. So basically they are like an ever evolving blueprint guiding the computer’s actions. This isn’t much different from the way that our brains work, at least from my limited understanding of both.

I was thinking over how strange and ironic it is that we as a society have been struggling so much with technology and social apps. Even though we don’t want to argue, fight, compare, etc. These apps feed us the type of content that will get us to react in that way. This morning the parallel between that struggle, often leading to mental illness, and the struggle to cope with mental illness itself really became apparent to me.

Sometimes it’s almost as if the universe presents us with clever metaphors to force us to confront the things we try to avoid. Humanity has been running from itself, especially in the last few decades. We’ve submerged ourselves in these digital landscapes as a distraction from our thoughts and worries and fears. The internet, in a way, is the ultimate form of disassociation. Yet, there is still so much we can learn about ourselves through this unlikely medium.

It’s ironic that the very place we’ve gone to escape ourselves has become a mirror of the worst within us. These algorithms online tailor what we see, they filter the world through a lens of violence, outrage, and disgust. As I explained before it’s because we are naturally inclined to react to these things more forcefully than things that inspire joy, happiness, comfort, or love. Even while pointing that out in my post about personal responsibility, it didn’t occur to me just how much these algorithms are actually amplifying the algorithms within our own brains.

This public discussion about social media and Facebook are actually a fascinating parallel to the discussion of neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, no one has the power to change the algorithm in our heads except us, so in this instance, while not our fault, it is up to us to make a change. While that autopilot algorithm does do a lot of the work behind the scenes of our consciousness, we are able to take back the wheel and steer ourselves in a new direction.

Let’s get back to what I mean when I say this is a metaphor though. Think about the internet, for the most part, we all understand that what comes up in our feed every day isn’t all that exists on the web. Yet, somehow the things we take notice of in our everyday lives, start to seem like all there is to notice. We become cynical, or at least I did.

I can still remember arguing with someone when I was in high school. I was insisting that life was mostly negative or neutral events with light sprinkles of happy ones in between. How sad it is to look back at my young self who truly believed such a terrible thing. At the time, that was true though, at least for me. Because that’s what I was looking for, so of course, that’s all I found.

We are always subconsciously looking for evidence to support our beliefs, even when those beliefs aren’t something we are happy about. It starts with a belief, just like our apps start with an interest. Our “feeds” in life then fall into place around that central idea. That isn’t all there is to see, but it is all that we’ll see.

That inner world of ours, our perceptions of life and those around us, seem so real. It’s hard to conceptualize that there may be so much more that we are not aware of, that our view is skewed by the limited scope of what we are taking in. The world around us is continuously colored and altered by our mood, our knowledge base, our preconceptions, our biases, our past experiences, and so much more. These are the “filters” that we use on the universe. But the small amount that we are able to take in, that is not an accurate reflection of existence. Just as our Facebook or Instagram feed is not an accurate representation of the content available online.

So don’t get too trapped in your own perceptions of this life. While we may not be able to make a new account or scrub our hard drive so we can start again from scratch, we can make an effort right now to challenge our preconceived notions. We can practice compiling new evidence to support beliefs that we choose to hold. We can make our mantra each day that the world is good, that there is beauty and happiness all around us. I promise you, no matter how dark the world may seem to you now, practice believing that there is light and you will find it.

AI Algorithm Enhances Brain Stimulation Devices Used for Treatment

It Can Be Different Inside Your Head

Can't seem to focus these days? You could have pandemic brain

Although it may seem obvious to some, it can be a revelation to others when they find out that their inner, mental landscape does not have to be the way that it currently is. For me, that realization came in the form of anxiety medication. I was blown away at the change in thought I was noticing solely from introducing new chemicals into my body. If we haven’t ever experienced a huge mental shift like this, it may not occur to us that it’s even possible to think differently. We assume that this is just the way our minds work, and at least for me, I also assumed everyone else’s mind worked in a similar way.

The universe of experiences you can conceive of really cracks wide open after you realize that vast untapped potential within your own mind. I find it funny that even though change is the only real constant in this world, we all seem to get stuck in the mindset that things will always be the way they are right now. We don’t realize how much change is actually possible and inevitable. It’s not often that we stop and consider the ways in which our own perception of the world around us has the potential to change. Especially if we’ve been stuck in one particular pattern of thought for all of our lives.

I’m writing this post today to help free you from the constraints of your own inner world. Sometimes all it takes is understanding that things can be different. Now, I’m certainly not advocating that everyone reading this start taking an SSRI like I did. That is something for you and your doctor to decide. However, we don’t need medication to experience these brain changes. The same positive results can be achieved with practice and persistence with the help of a therapist or even on our own. These changes may not always be as fast or drastic as the ones noticed after starting a medication, but they are just as significant. We just may have to take the time to reflect on the difference between where we are now and where we were a few years ago.

This is where I believe the misconception of “choice” comes in. I used to become so frustrated when I’d hear people say, “You’ve just got to decide to be happy” or “We get to choose how we react to the things that happen in our lives.” Up until a few years ago, it didn’t feel like I had a choice at all. Not only that, I felt as if I was being blamed for the unpleasant emotional experiences I was having even though I didn’t want to be having them.

Even though I can now see the truth in these statements, I still think the language we use to present these ideas needs some tweaking. In the beginning, we may not have a choice in how we feel. After running on autopilot for most of our lives, it isn’t going to be easy to switch off those largely unconscious reactions. It takes a lot of work to train the mental muscles we need to redirect ourselves and start dismantling those automatic responses. Not only that, but it takes a lot of time before that work actually starts to make a noticeable difference. Think of it like a ship crossing the ocean. Even though you’re moving forward and making progress, it is going to look the same for a good long while. One day the shore will finally appear though. You may not even know what to expect in this foreign land, but just keep going. Trust that you will see dry ground eventually.

Without understanding this, a lot of people give up on themselves before even starting or before they’ve taken the time to set the groundwork for visible results. It’s important that we remind people that even though it is a long, difficult journey, it’s worth it, and with consistency and dedication, change is inevitable. The only thing you need to do is believe in yourself and the science enough to take the first step.

Finally, realizing how much the inner workings of our own minds can change has also allowed me to offer others more grace. When you imagine that for the most part we all think in a similar way, it can be downright infuriating when people behave in ways or think things that we cannot understand. It is humbling to acknowledge that we have no idea what is going on in the minds of those around us. Not only does it help me accept the differences I see in others, it also fills me with excitement and curiosity. What might it be like inside someone else’s head?

Wherever you are in life, I hope that you come to understand just how different things could be inside yourself. Whether that inspires you to work for change, helps you be more grateful for the way your mind is already working, or simply helps you offer loving kindness to others, we can all benefit from the reminder that things can be different inside your head.

Exploring the Mind

Still immersed in How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I have been unable to prevent the psychedelic perspective from penetrating my every thought. I am desperate to find some free time in which I can start experimenting with my own spiritually centered trips. One of the things I find most interesting about psychedelics is the revelations people often experience while taking them. It’s not as if these insights are new. They are usually a reflection of things that have become platitudes: We are all one, love conquers all, we have the ability to choose our own reality, make our own happiness, etc. This is one of the reasons I find it so difficult to express the psychedelic experience to those who haven’t taken these drugs for themselves. It’s almost too hard to put into words and make sense of in my own head, let alone translate it to others. It’s similar to the way we can pass along knowledge, but not wisdom. There is something ineffable about the experience that solidifies the truth of the realizations that come with it.

Pollan’s book talks a lot about the seemingly limitless potential of these drugs to treat mental illness, comfort the dying, and even improve the quality of life for average, healthy people. What it hasn’t seemed to touch on yet though is the implications these psychedelic experiences have in regard to our minds in general. Sure we are introducing a foreign substance to our brains, but the pathways it activates are already inside of us, just waiting to be utilized. People have already found ways to access these mental pathways through breathwork alone, without the use of any substances. What does all this mean when it comes to our limited perspectives and perception of ourselves, others, and the world around us?

As a child, unburdened by biases or expectations, the world seems like quite a fantastical place. We’re present, we’re in the moment, we’re open to new experiences and ways of thinking. Understandably, that changes as we age. The more time we spend looking at the world through a certain lens, the more it begins to feel like that’s the only lens there is. We forget that we haven’t always thought or felt the way we currently do, and that others don’t think, feel, or react in the same ways that we do. Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a peak into the mind of someone else for just a few moments? Or better yet, to truly know the full capabilities of our own brains?

It’s frustrating and fascinating to realize that no one will ever truly know what it feels like to be anyone else. We take for granted that as human beings we are pretty much the same, but how alike are we really? So much of our experience of life is private and uniquely personal. The way our minds work are too complex for us to fully grasp, despite how far science has come. One of the issues psychedelic researchers have is how to quantify and categorize such personal, subjective experiences into usable data. Science has been relegated to the very limited realm of objective facts and observable behaviors/phenomenon. It seems we haven’t quite figured out a way to explore and understand subjective experiences, despite what a huge impact these things have in the world.

I suppose subjective subjects are better left to philosophers than scientists. However, one thing that is mentioned in Pollan’s book is the suggestible nature of a psychedelic experience. Whatever you are primed to experience is most likely what you will experience during your trip. Just like in a lot of other ways, in this way psychedelics seem like a hyper-intense reflection of reality in general. Our perceptions of everyday life are also highly suggestible, especially in childhood when the rigid patterns in our minds that psychedelics break down, haven’t yet been formed. If you wake up each morning and tell yourself you’re going to have a bad day full of tedious, tiresome activities, you probably will. On the other hand, if you can make yourself believe you’re going to have an amazing day filled with smiles and laughter and new adventures, you probably will! The external circumstances can be exactly the same.

It is impossible to imagine just how many different ways of thinking exist in the world. I believe we are each capable of experiencing all of these perspectives. More than any physical barrier, what holds us back most in life are our own limiting beliefs. Changing them can seem impossible at times. We don’t usually choose to believe what we believe. It’s an amalgamation of so many different factors that manifest as a belief system. Challenging those deep-seated ideas is no small task, nor is there a clear place to start. Part of the issue comes from realizing how much these beliefs limit our ability to even imagine alternative ways of thinking.

Looking at it that way really underscores the importance of finding time for focused creativity as an adult. Creativity isn’t about what you produce. It’s about expanding the limits of our own minds so that we are better able to come up with creative solutions to our problems and allow ourselves access to more options in our inner lives. Creativity is a muscle that is not exercised nearly enough. It is completely undervalued in our schools, offices, and communities. Studies have shown that adults are drastically less creative than children. Longitudinal studies that follow the same participants over decades reveal that despite being very creative at one point, they lose the vast majority of that creativity as they grow older.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, like the world has lost it’s luster, you’re not alone. The panoramic view of existence we all enjoy in childhood becomes narrower each year. For me, it’s extremely comforting and reassuring to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know. There is so much I am incapable of even imagining. So when I begin to apathetically ask myself, “Is this all there is?” I know the answer is a resounding, “No.” There is so much more waiting to be discovered.

Some St. Louisans Find Therapy, Meaning In Psychedelics As Researchers  Study Benefits | St. Louis Public Radio

Psychedelics

Alex Grey 2 - Hads Trippy - Image via Thingstolookathigh com

Yesterday I watched a Ted Talk discussing the effects of psychedelic substances on the brain. I clicked on this video absentmindedly, not really expecting it to tell me anything I hadn’t already heard before. To my surprise I was given new insight into why my psychedelic experiences have been the way they are. It also gave me even more reason to believe that psychedelics really do allow us to connect to some deeper consciousness, a divine connectedness. It is a glimpse beneath the veil of our earthly illusions, and the things we think and perceive in these altered states are perhaps more real than the reality our sober minds produce.

I knew that taking psychedelics altered the way our brains perceive the world. I knew that they break down our biases and inner walls so to speak. They remove the shackles of our well worn neuronal connections and allow us the freedom to explore the vast possibilities of our consciousness and perception. What I didn’t know is that this brain state is very similar to one we’ve all experienced before: childhood. Apparently a child’s brain works in a very similar way to a brain on psychedelics. Isn’t that fascinating? I had often described my experiences with LSD as being a child again in a new world. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything is fascinating and new. There is so much joy and curiosity and discovery to be had.

As children none of us were too enmeshed in certain ways of doing things or seeing the world. There were many more possibilities open to us. As we age, our brains naturally start to sink into patterns, strengthening certain neural networks while allowing other, less used pathways to shrivel and shrink with disuse. Eventually we begin to feel trapped in our ways of thinking and seeing the world. It feels impossible to change or view the world from a fresh perspective. And in reality, while it is still quite possible for us to change, it will be much harder than it might have been when we were younger.

Imagine a cart being pulled over the soft earth. Once you’ve made tracks in the dirt, it is easier to follow those tracks again. The more you follow those particular tracks though, the deeper they become. Eventually it will be quite difficult to make new tracks or break out of the ones we have been taking. A child’s mind is an image of virgin land, no tracks, no footprints even, just a great expanse of possibility and wonder. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that adults tend to enjoy children so much. While our own minds may feel incapable of breaking free of our patterns on their own, spending time with a child is sure to be full of surprises and new experiences. Children have the ability to pull us in new directions we would have never considered on our own. Kids are funny. Kids are weird. Kids are surprising, unpredictable even. That is the magic of a newly developing brain. That is the magic we may all experience again for ourselves with the help of psychedelics.

This comparison to a child’s mind helps explain a lot of the experiences I’ve had with LSD. The idea that psychedelics are able to break down our preconceived ways of seeing the world only strengthens my conviction that the feelings and truths I’ve experienced in that altered state of mind are real. LSD isn’t making me hallucinate or become delusional. LSD helps me to break through the illusions that I live inside of. It helps me see the world for what it is again, through fresh eyes, with the innocence and imagination of a child. I don’t for a second believe it’s a coincidence that one of the reoccurring perceptions people come away from a psychedelic experience with is that we are all connected. There is a powerful feeling of connectedness, contentment, joy, peace, trust. It is reconnecting with the wisdom of the universe, a deep sense of reassurance that everything is as it should be. There is also the ever present image that everything in life is a cycle, and that it’s okay to have faith in and surrender to that cycle. Now more than ever, I feel confident in that belief.

Alex Grey's “Gaia” | Pinkocrat

I Choose

The longer I live, the more I realize just how much about our lives and the way we experience reality is a personal choice. Our upbringing, our genetics, and our environment definitely contribute to how easily we are able to choose one thing over another, but we all have a choice. Some people may be naturally inclined to view things more negatively than others. For these people, it will always take more effort and practice to see the good in other people and situations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.

I think I was born a with a friendly, happy, and positive disposition. Even so, as I grew older I began to lose touch with that lighthearted, open nature. Encounters with heartache, pain, and rejection caused me to close my heart little by little in an attempt to protect myself, to shield myself from the world. I started to view myself as a pessimist. I was the stereotypical “emo” kid throughout high school. The longer I stayed in that “woe-is-me” mindset, the more I started to identify with it. Suffering became an essential part of me. For years now I have been working to redirect myself back down a more positive path, a path that feels more true to who I was meant to be, and who I want to be. (I plan to keep that emo aesthetic though. I love me some black clothing.)

Currently, I am at a stage where I am able to clearly see both sides of that coin. I can see the negatives, the pessimistic viewpoint I would have once had, but I can also see the positives, the option I have to view things in a different way. I used to think one way was more true or honest than the other, but now I see that reality is all about perception. There is no right or wrong way to experience the world. It is always a choice. At times this can lead me to feel frustrated as I struggle against that doom and gloom voice I spent so many years feeding and building up inside my own head. It can be easy to get stuck feeling hopeless, feeling unable to change, a lost cause.

When these doubts begin to bubble up I try to remind myself just how far I have come. I never could have imagined that I would be able to become the person I am today. All I can do is keep moving forward and trust in myself. It may be a slow and arduous process, but it’s worthwhile. Truly, it is the only kind of self-improvement that matters. You can tell yourself you will be happy once you get a promotion, make more money, lose more weight, build more muscle, move somewhere else, but even after reaching all of your goals, you are still the one you have to face at the end of the day. It is easy to think that changing external circumstances will change the way we think and feel inside. That inner voice loves to complain and blame this or that for all of our problems. However, those upsetting and limiting thoughts are the real problem. This is always where we must start our journey, inside ourselves.

Even after seeing so many people achieve the things I want to achieve in life and continuing to be miserable, I find myself thinking those same accomplishments will bring me happiness even if it didn’t for them. We always think we are the exception. But those things we desire are ultimately just distractions. They are excuses for why we aren’t able to be happy right now. It can be difficult to admit that we are the only reason we aren’t happy. Happiness comes from within. It has been ours since the day we gained consciousness and it will be available to us in each and every moment until the day we die. Even when it feels impossible for you to allow yourself to be happy, just know that it’s because you haven’t spent enough time practicing. Sometimes I even think of this practice like a game. When I find myself facing something exceptionally upsetting or challenging, I ask myself: are there any positives I can find in this situation? Just like the hag stones I scan the riverbank for, the more time you spend searching for certain things, the easier it becomes to spot them. When I first tried to find those special stones, I felt like I would never find one. I wasn’t even sure if there were any to find. Yet now I am easily able to pick up two or three as I walk along the shore without even trying. At first it might feel like there is really nothing good about different parts of your life, but the more you practice looking for the good in things, the easier it will become and the more abundant those good things will seem.

It can be hard work, training ourselves to be happy, but it is possible. Don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. Keep trying. I say these words for myself as much as for anyone who happens to be reading this. We are capable. We are powerful. We have everything we need inside of us. Don’t be afraid. You are safe. You are loved. You are enough. Even if at first you don’t believe it, keep repeating these uplifting, empowering words to yourself. Eventually they will become as true and real to you as that negative inner dialogue that many of us have become accustomed to. It may not be easy, it may take a very long time, but I promise you, it will work. And it will be worth it.

Finding Joy in the Smallest Things

This post is to remind me that today is a beautiful day. I am grateful to have it laid before me. Why should I waste these precious moments of life worrying about the distant or even not so distant future? I am here now. I want to enjoy it.

I got to stay home and sleep in on a cold, snowy Friday. What a perfect start to the day. My silly little pup got out of her collar and had a run around the neighbors yard this morning, which gave me a laugh. It also always warms my heart when she so loyally returns to me upon my call. I also decided to finally try some chocolate flavored coffee grounds I got myself for Christmas. They make a delicious cup of coffee as expected.

All of these small joys are usually forgotten as soon as they happen. Over the years I have trained my mind to overlook such simple moments of bliss. It makes sense. The brain is focused on keeping us alive. It is hard-wired to hone in on threats and danger so that we may avoid it and live to see another day. It is up to me to work on that wiring. I must teach my brain that we are safe. We don’t have to waste our energy on fear-filled vigilance. We can focus on the good in this life instead.

Even a lot of the things that I become anxious about, don’t have to be negative experiences. I can choose to focus on overcoming the fear rather than the fear itself. For example, I have to make some phone calls for work today, which always gives me a lot of anxiety. But rather than concentrate on how afraid I am, I can focus on how wonderful it is going to feel once I’ve accomplished this quick, simple task. How proud I will feel. How relieved. How glad I will be that I did my job well for an organization that I dearly love.

Even as I write these words, I realize that directing the mind toward positive things is much easier said that done. A small voice in the back of my head always scoffs at these hippy-dippy positivity posts. But I have let that part of my mind have full reign for long enough. I am ready to wrestle with it from now on if that is what it takes to steal away some small moments of happiness. I won’t give up. This is my life. And even if it isn’t always easy, I am going to keep fighting for the freedom to enjoy it. I will keep nursing these pools of love and gratitude within my heart until they are as vast as oceans. I will let their rhythmic tide carry me.

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How Understanding Neuroplasticity Changes Everything

There are few things that I’ve learned about that have completely changed my life, but neuroplasticity is one of them. I’m just as excited about it now as I was when I first heard the term in my psychology classes at university. Up until that point, I was mostly resigned to the fact that, being in my twenties, my brain had already passed through the formative years in which it had any real potential to change. I felt that even though I was young, my brain was already set to mostly continue on the path it was placed on by my genetics and my experiences in my childhood/teen years.

I can still feel how thrilled I was to learn that wasn’t the case. As someone who is very data driven and fact focused, I would have never implemented yoga or meditation into my life if I hadn’t learned about neuroplasticity. Before that I wanted to believe in the healing potential of these practices, but as far as I could see, there was no hard evidence to show it did anything at all. (Granted I must not have been looking very hard.) But I learned that by mindfully practicing stillness, compassion, love, peace, focus, anything really, you are strengthening those neural pathways in the brain just like a muscle. What could be more incredible?

For the first time in my life, I saw, and truly believed, that I could be anything I wanted to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy or fast, but I was guaranteed to change if I put effort into it. I didn’t have to be that sad, angry, troubled, teenager anymore. I could be anyone. I could be cheerful, optimistic, friendly, loving, calm, kind. I didn’t have to feel like I was “lying to myself” by trying to change, like I used to. I knew it would work. I had the science to support me.

Even though it’s been years since I started intentionally redirecting my brain, I’m not quite where I want to be yet. As we all know, progress is not linear. I’ve encountered many setbacks along the way, especially this past year. But still, I have made some incredible progress. I never would have imagined at 18 that I would be the person I am today at 27. I still have a long way to go, but I am so much closer. A lot of the negative neural pathways that I maintained as a teenager, have all but withered away. And realizing all of this, remembering all of this, has reminded me that I can change. I’ve done it before. And it’s that belief in myself that ultimately makes it possible. I have neuroscience to thank for that belief.

I have been strengthening some pretty unhealthy pathways in my brain in 2020. It won’t be easy to redirect myself from those powerful urges and habits. But I’ll do it. I’ve already had a huge success yesterday. It may not have been perfect, but every little bit of progress counts. I feel so much better this morning. More awake, more energetic, more positive, more loved. That’s how I think of this effort, as an act of self-love. It keeps me motivated, happy, excited about the process. It feels so good to step away from this strange auto-pilot I’ve defaulted to and really be present with myself again. I have a long road ahead of me. But for the first time in a long time, I am eager to continue on this journey.

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Shifting Your Focus

One of the main things I have been trying to cultivate this year is a stronger ability to focus on the positive. Now that I’ve learned the mind is like a muscle and can be strengthened with the repetition of exercises I have been using this knowledge to improve my life. Whether we set a conscious intention to do so or not, our minds are always doing these exercises. It’s up to us to decide what we want our experience in this life to be. The things you focus on and the habits and patterns you repeat each day make your brain “stronger” in these areas. It’s important that we spend our time nurturing positive mental states rather than dwelling and feeding negative ones.

Before I knew what I do now about the way our brains work, I thought I was basically in the passenger seat when it came to my reactions to different things. I thought that my genetic code and my past experiences left me basically no choice in the way I felt and experienced the world around me. I used to roll my eyes at those overly positive, happy people that would say things like, “You have to make yourself happy, you can make your own happiness. You can love yourself.” It seemed utterly impossible to me. I always thought it just didn’t feel right. Why should I pretend I’m happy if I’m not?

Now I see (and have also experienced) that there is actually power in “pretending” for awhile.  It’s actually more like practicing. And don’t get me wrong I’m still practicing every day. What I didn’t understand before and what I feel I need to share to help other people like me understand is that it gets easier. At first it may seem dishonest, but what you are doing is creating and strengthening new pathways in your brain. It can be quite difficult, especially if you have very strong negative pathways your brain has been using for most of your life.

However, I think that it’s a good thing even beginning to notice when I am practicing negative self-talk and catastrophizing a situation. Now even when those thoughts inevitably come up I’m able to distance myself from them somehow. I try not to buy in to those thoughts. I keep myself from being caught in that current and spiraling deeper into that harmful cycle. More importantly I’m learning to nip those thoughts in the bud and use them as a signal that I need to be there for myself in those moments. I see myself struggling and I know that instead of allowing myself to wallow, I need to comfort myself. It’s a moment to take a deep breath and think about what it is you’re wanting from the world in that moment, the lack of which is causing you distress, then give it to yourself. Because you already have the potential for all of it in your amazing brain. All the confidence, all the beauty, all the love, all the creativity, all the abundance, all the gratitude, all the happiness. They are all yours to create. All you need to do is practice them. It’s just like learning a new language. You just have to keep practicing.

This year when I catch myself thinking things like: I’m stupid. I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m lazy. I’m worthless. I’m unloved. I’m unhappy. I’m going to stop and instead change that dialogue to: I’m grateful. I’m safe. I’m beautiful. I’m intelligent. I am loved. I am enough. I’m strong. I am happy. Gratitude has been one of the areas I’ve been focusing on a lot and it’s incredible how much easier it has gotten to notice little things to be grateful for in ordinary things like the sun’s warmth on my skin or catching sight of a cute squirrel in my yard. I can find something to be grateful for even in awful things, like a chance to start again, or a new direction, or an important reminder.

A few really bad things happened to me yesterday and I’ve been very down on myself because of them. I can see myself falling back into familiar patterns. I’m not worried though, because now it’s so much easier to get back up and brush myself off and love myself anyway. In 2019 I want to get even better at being there for myself and giving compassion and love to the world. I hope that we can all do that together.

Let’s keep practicing ♥