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We hear all the time about the benefits of physical exercise for our bodies, and there are many exercises we can engage in to be healthier. Some of us might run, whilst others do weight training, some like to work out with a personal trainer doing HIIT exercises, and some of us take the dog for a walk on the beach. All of these activities strengthen our bodies; some are designed to make us more limber, whilst some are designed to build muscle, strengthen bones, improve balance or flexibility, or prevent falls as we age. This is no secret. But, how often do we hear about training our brains for strength, agility, or balance? What about reprogramming your brain with psychology? It is possible, and here’s how…

First step: Understand the negativity bias

Our brains are naturally programmed to be more susceptible to unpleasant thoughts and events than positive ones. It’s part of our natural survival instinct to protect ourselves by recognising danger and reacting to it. This is why we tend to pay more attention to the negative news, or worry over things, or remember stressful events and how they made us feel. Our brains are trained, over our lifetimes, to react more quickly and more strongly to negative stimuli, which leads us to be very alert and vigilant a lot of the time. This becomes a problem, however, when our brains repeat this behaviour as a default action, and do not expend the same amount of energy on the positive stimuli around us. It can lead to always feeling on guard, or being very easily upset, and for some, it can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, and extreme stress. You might have negative reactions to things you don’t even realise, which is why it’s important to have the support of a psychologist in uncovering these negative thought patterns and behaviours, and understanding where they’ve arisen from.

The good news is, although this is something our brains naturally tend to do, we CAN train them to reduce this behaviour. Understanding this negativity bias, and how it affects you mentally and physically is the first step towards reprogramming your brain with psychology.

Why reprogramming your brain for positivity is important

There is research to suggest that complaining can shrink a part of our brains that is useful for problem solving and intelligent thought! But the damage doesn’t stop there. Living this way is also negative for your health. Heightened states of stress, worry, or anxiety lead to the release of the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol. This hormone is what controls our ‘fight or flight’ response, and its effects on the body include reducing oxygen, blood, and energy from our most essential bodily functions. Increased cortisol leads to high blood pressure and blood sugar, impairs your immune system, and can even make you more likely to experience diabetes, heart disease, stroke, inflammation, and obesity.

Reprogramming your brain with psychology: How to

Step 1: Be mindful and goal-oriented

This first step is all about mindfulness and reframing your thoughts around where you want to be, not where you are. That means asking yourself, “Is this thought consistent with where I want to be?” or “does this behaviour add to or subtract from my plan for my life?”. It’s all about challenging our negative thoughts and behaviours and realigning them with where we WANT to be.

Step 2: Learn about your brain’s neuroplasticity

Know that your brain has the innate ability to change, just like your body. Training your brain, and reprogramming your brain with psychology is just like training your body – it becomes stronger, more resilient, more agile, and healthier. Every time you experience a setback, or you find yourself leaning towards stress, negativity, anxiety, or any behaviour that is negative and detracting from your goals, just know that it’s OK and it’s not permanent. By taking active measures to reprogram your brain, you are becoming better and better at managing these negative thoughts and behaviours. Just remember: Progress is sometimes slow, but every step forward is a step in the right direction.  To learn more about neuroplasticity, please refer to previous articles – So what is Neuroplasticity? and Neuroplasticity: Brain Training for Everyday

Step 3: Having an attitude of gratitude

It might sound a bit cringe-worthy when we hear people say ‘attitude of gratitude’, especially when we’re not feeling very grateful at all. It can be very difficult to summon feelings of gratitude when we are feeling stressed, tired, anxious, or depressed. However, the attitude of gratitude is one key component in reprogramming your brain with psychology. Will it make all of your issues go away? Absolutely not. BUT, it does help you to train your brain out of negative thought patterns and to become stronger and healthier, and more positivity-focused.  It is also the best way to bring you back to the present moment!

Although it can be difficult to feel gratitude at certain times, it’s something you can practice daily to become better at, as you slowly retrain your brain to see the positive in a situation, rather than the negative. One way to work on your practice of gratitude and positive thoughts is to choose a positive thought or activity and practice it a few times a day. That might mean going outside to feel the sun on your face, thinking of something that recently made you feel happy or loved, or doing a form of exercise that fills you with endorphins. Begin by practicing even when you’re not feeling stressed or anxious, and train your brain to associate that activity with positive feelings. Eventually, you will be able to use this activity as a way to stop your negative thoughts in their tracks, ground yourself, and encourage positive feelings instead.

Step 4: Reprogram your brain for problem solving

One of the main things that suffer when we are in a pattern of negative thinking is our ability to problem solve. However, we can practice our problem-solving abilities to become better at them, as we do with exercise. Having a solutions-focused mindset is how to do this. Your psychologist can help you with developing problem-solving strategies to deploy at the times you need them. These will involve looking at a negative thought or behaviour, and instead of allowing ourselves to become overwhelmed with stress, worry, or anxiety, to think about how best to tackle the problem. This can be tricky to do on your own, which is why seeing a counsellor or psychologist can be so valuable.

One of the things you might try is to stop complaining or ‘venting’ just for the sake of it – as it can reinforce our negative thoughts and behaviours. Expressing yourself and how you are feeling can be very important, however, try reframing your venting with an end-goal in mind, such as “I will get this off my chest, and then consider the ways I can solve this problem or avoid it arising again”. Other examples of problem-solving can include things like remembering your worth, reminding yourself of your accomplishments, doing something proactive to reach a goal that day, or going for a walk or run to release stress and tension. Consult with your psychologist for more problem-solving strategies.

Reprogramming your brain with psychology starts with these simple steps. But remember, your negativity bias has evolved over many years, and will take some time to unpack. Having the support of your counsellor or psychologist can be incredibly helpful in uncovering your negative thought patterns and behaviours, understanding the reasons behind them, and developing strategies for reprogramming your brain. It is possible to retrain your brain for experiencing more happiness, success, and for reaching your goals! Get in touch with us to start your journey today!

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen