February Recap: On Changing Habits and Neuroplasticity
Ok, I don’t know about the rest of you, but February was NOT as successful as I was hoping it would be. I spent 14 days of the month unsuccessfully fighting off the flu. Yuck! I am still going through rolls of toilet paper blowing my nose and popping cough drops like candy. I had a small goal for this month just like I did in January, and ( I am embarrassed to say that I am pulling the sick card) I did not meet that small goal.
My goal for February was to create and stick to a series of actions or “rituals” as I was calling them that I completed every night before bed. I have a very hard time getting myself to calm down at night and fall asleep. I was hoping that if I got in the habit of doing the exact same thing before bed every night, that my body would know when it needs to sleep and my brain would shut off. My plan was to drink some hot relaxing tea while I read a book for 30 minutes or so, followed by a short session of stretching and meditating. Brush my teeth and crawl my totally relaxed self into bed, and sleep like a puppy.
I have not given up on this goal, of course, and plan to attempt it again in March. But, having spent the first week of February moving apartments and then the following two weeks of February somewhere between sleep and a zombie-like state heating up soup in the kitchen, I have given myself a pass. My sick days were not totally wasted, however. I started reading about rituals and habits and that lead me down the rabbit hole into learning about Neural Pathways and Neuroplasticity. So… I am going to share some of my readings with you all!
Neuroplasticity is basically the ability of the brain to change. It was previously thought that as we age, the brain just degenerates. But, the guys in the fancy lab coats are finding that “the brain and nervous system are continuously regenerating, as we gain new knowledge and experience. And, practices that combine concentration and movement, like yoga, are especially powerful for facilitating change” -McCrary. Through the things that we experience or learn we can change the way that the brain processes information and then reacts to that information. Certain areas of the brain that are used more will get larger or stronger than the areas of the brain that are used less. This is where the neural pathways come in.
Neural pathways are road maps of neurons from your brain to all parts of your body that signals from the brain travel along. The more these pathways are used, the larger the pathway gets and the signal travels faster and more easily from the brain. Learned habits are a great way to look at this. When you first learn the skill, it can feel awkward or different. But the more times you repeat the skill or action, the easier and more natural it feels. The signal can travel from your brain faster and more easily as the action is repeated. This is great for good habits and responses. But, what about bad habits that you want to change? It takes focus, work, and practice to change a learned and practiced reaction to something else.
I know, for myself, my natural reaction to stressful situations is with aggression and anger. Through yoga and mediation I have been able to practice a more calm and collected reaction in a safe, low stress environment. Creating rituals that calm me down has allowed me to take this practice into the rest of my life. For example, every time I start my own yoga practice, I start by calmly counting my breaths. “inhale - one, exhale - two, inhale- three, exhale - four.” I count all the way to 10 and then start over at one. When I am feeling overwhelmed in the rest of my life, I use the same tactic. I pause and count my breaths. Usually one round is enough to allow me to react in a calmer way. It takes time and practicing the action over and over and over again to change any “natural” (bad habits are usually a learned behavior that is our go-to so it feels “natural” ) reaction into a new more beneficial reaction. But, there is hope! As the same action is repeated the neural pathway will get larger, making the action happen without much thought. Try it… I dare you!
Thanks for reading. If you have questions about all this or would like to learn more about Neuroplasticity, there are a few articles listed below that have really great info and examples.
Happy February. Be back in March.
Dr. Kim and Dr. Hill Neural Plasticity: 4 Steps to Change Your Brain
McCrary, Meagan Neuroplasticity, Yoga, and Transformation – How Yoga Affects Your Brain