It's a basic tenant of modern therapy and coaching, but what science is there to back this up?
It’s a basic tenant of modern therapy, psychology, and coaching: our minds create our reality. Change your thoughts, change your life. But what science is there to back this up?
Consider your favorite pessimist. She’s the friend who says things like, “Oh, I knew this wasn’t going to work out,” or “What did I expect? Things never work out in my favor.”
Contrast this with superstar athletes of the US Women’s National Team, like Megan Rapinoe who says things like "Sometimes it's worth risking it all for a dream only you can see" and Carli Lloyd who said “I don’t just train to be a participant. I train to come up big in big moments.” Notice a difference?
We walk through life with expectations and beliefs about ourselves, our world, and how we operate in this world.
Coaches call these stories – they’re lenses through which we interpret and explain what we see and the data we take in. They reflect fundamental beliefs that we hold, created and reinforced over time through brain mechanics.
Our brains are always on – observing, interpreting, and making sense of the world around us. There are an estimated 86 billion neurons in our brains firing trillions of electrochemical pulses across the teeny tiny spaces that separate them. Each neuron is “at rest” until it receives inputs from other neurons to trigger the “firing” of an electrochemical pulse that continues the spread of information throughout the brain.
Over time, these neurons create literal pathways in our brains. In an attempt to learn, our brain codes the data away, supporting our ability to more quickly interpret the same data in the future. This is what’s meant when people say, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Our brains help us to use previous experience to make sense of new data and quickly, resulting in unconscious reactions and associations.
This is analogous to paths in a forest - the more frequently a path is taken, the easier it is to follow.
This phenomenon extends well beyond the brain. When systems of neurons fire together, they trigger chemicals, namely hormones, that then enter the bloodstream. These signals travel throughout the body, resulting in physiological reactions. These systems are so powerful that even thinking about scary situations can trigger anxiety responses in the body such as increased heartbeat, skin reddening, and sweating.
The cumulative effect of these processes over time means that our bodies and brains take in raw data, interpret them based on previous experiences, and create assessments of what we’ve experienced. Within microseconds, we’re left with just the meaning we’ve self-created, unconsciously and nearly instantaneously, and the feelings that our interpretations have triggered in the body.
As emotional beings, we routinely act based on our feelings and interpretations rather than the raw, objective data, creating intended and unintended results.
One part of increased consciousness and self-awareness is the ability to create awareness of the process as it’s happening, and to create the space in the process to decide for oneself the meaning that will be made, the emotions that will be felt, and the actions that will be taken.
The good news is that like a path in the forest, we can consciously create new ones. Yes, it may take more time and effort before it becomes similarly well-worn and etched into our neural pathways, but it is possible.
Consider, for example, the ability to take an unconscious habit and alter it consciously. Perhaps you remember the first time you realized you could choose how you’d respond to an angry client or customer, or the moment you “woke up” and realized, “just because you think that about me doesn’t make it true.” This is a transformation in how we know and understand ourselves, our world, and how we operate within it. We have effectively altered our response, altering our reality.
To intentionally alter our reactions to raw data, we need to change the interpretation of said data. This can be accomplished by interrupting the cycle at any point towards the intended outcome.
There are five approaches to interrupting and creating new neural pathways that are particularly powerful:
The repetition of new thought habits, or mantras. By repeating the same affirmation over and over, we encode the thought into our brains, much as we did state capitals in elementary school. We begin to associate the new thought with the desired state, slowly overcoming old thought habits. This approach works best when framed positively, with great specificity, and coupled with other strategies.
You’ve been thinking your current thoughts for a long time. To change a thought habit, it helps to have new information that supports the desired thought pattern that is powerful enough to override old evidence. Reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, and participating in learning experiences such as seminars, webinars, and lectures, support our ability to increase our knowledge base to change the thought in question.
When we mentally rehearse how we will respond to a particular situation, we are able to practice our mental and physical responses in advance. This enables us to play out numerous scenarios in a safe and conducive environment. Envision with great specificity the actual event that creates the unintended response, from who else is there, to what happens, to how you feel in the body. Practice interrupting these thoughts and feelings with new thoughts and feelings. In doing so, we support the creation of new neural pathways and productive response systems, giving your body and brain a new frame of reference for the next time you encounter the situation in real life.
Journaling is heralded as both a meditative and reflective practice that supports increased self-awareness. Studies show that with writing often comes clarity, and that the sheer act of writing down what you will say, do, or think, helps to gain perspective and wire new connections in the brain.
Whether about the thought habit itself or about experiences connected to the thought habit, talking about our thought habits help us in myriad ways, from gaining support, to new learning, or community driven accountability. Talking about the habit openly also supports our brains in solidifying our new neural pathways.
Like the creation of a new path in the woods, the creation of a new neural pathway will take time, persistence, and dedication. Success requires that the path-forger have a clear understanding of the desired outcome, where she’s going, and what needs to happen to get there. By recognizing the connections between our thoughts, feelings, and the actions that result from them, we’re better able to make shifts in an otherwise unconscious process, translating into real changes in our conscious world.