By Lindsay Braithwaite
One of the greatest luxuries of life is the gift of time. Perhaps the pandemic has highlighted how frenetic and busy our lives have become. Whether through intention, or in complete unawareness, we pack in, take on and hurtle through the days, with sometimes little time to slow down and reflect, both critically important elements in maintaining a healthy brain and body.
While this is not an article proposing the benefits of mindfulness, it must be mentioned. In a state of constant ‘busyness’, our minds are easily distracted, often mindless, with little apparent awareness of what is happening, what we are really feeling, or how much we could be missing. And, as a result, we miss a great deal!
This uninvited timeout has possibly highlighted, for each of us, aspects of both who we are and how we live our lives. Neither of which is new, we just have been too busy to notice.
I’d like to explore two processes which may be helpful in using this time to change some behaviour and habits – Reviewing and Reinventing.
Consider using this time to reflect and review on important, and possibly neglected, aspects of your daily life. Some are practical, and some deeply philosophical. What is unnecessary, frivolous or simply wasteful? Now is a good time to review:
Where am I able to save money in the short term (considering no weekends away, entertaining etc) and, in fact, sustainable, going forward.
- credit cards
- insurance policies (update values)
- cell phone contracts
- bank charges
- debit orders
- medical aid policy choices
- monthly subscriptions
- cancel unnecessary reward schemes
Do I need to review my will?
Have I left a “letter of wishes”?
How have I managed my overall health? Am I prioritising exercise and diet? On that note, do I continue my gym subscription?
- What relationships do I miss? Do any need ‘repairing’?
- Are there activities that I enjoy that I am neglecting?
- Am I giving where I can, to the causes that resonate deeply with me?
- What have I enjoyed doing that has surprised me? (for example: home gym, an online course, group zoom calls, home schooling, )
- What have I realised is important to me?
- What do I no longer perceive as essential in my life?
- Have I been aware of my emotions (particularly in uncertainty)?
- Am I able to slow down?
- What is my relationship to my work?
- Am I able to continue doing what I do in the same way? And do I want to?
For some of us, this gift of more time, has resulted in new, varied and perhaps daunting possibilities for something different, be it in our relationships, our work or our daily routines. Change is exciting for some, and particularly challenging for others. Wherever possible, try to manage the degree and intensity of change, to reduce unnecessary discomfort for yourself.
Changing behaviour and thinking patterns requires commitment and effort. But, as neuroscience has now shown, it is possible.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to re-wire itself and create new synaptic connections. To strengthen and support new synapses, in other words to create new habits, your intentions must be prioritised and be given attention. Without this necessary ‘fertilising’, the new brain wiring will remain secondary in effectiveness, and no change will happen. Your brain will choose the line of least resistance and you will slip back into old habits. Neuroplasticity requires repetition and effort to overwrite the existing habit.
So, clearly identify what it is you would like to do differently. Express it frequently, write it down, share it with colleagues, friends, and family, and where you can, start to action it. You are then pollinating the new thinking in every way you can. Give this new idea as much focussed attention as possible. If you can, establish a relationship with a ‘buddy’ or better still, a coach, to support you in the process and to create accountability.
Neuroscience is showing that many varied activities can result in brain changes. According to Dr Tara Swart, the following three factors have the most impact on brain rewiring:
The brain is stimulated by new and novel experiences. Whatever it is that you decide to focus on, try to make sure it feels novel, unique and appealing for you. This will be particularly easy if it is an activity you have not done before.
Exercise increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. This in turn allows for the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), an endorphin that stimulates the growth of new neurons. Our bodies are designed to move, and Neuroscience is providing good reasons why we should do this. Perhaps some of us have even developed a new awareness around exercise during this down time and are realising the physical and mental benefits during the isolation?
The more emotion you attach to an experience, the greater the impact on your brain. It is worthwhile to remember that strong negative emotion can also thicken a synapse in the same way, and this can result in the continued pattern of thinking and behaviour that really doesn’t support you at all. We can get caught in an entrenched negative thought or behaviour because we have attached strong emotions of despair and hopelessness to fertilize the synapse around self- critical thinking. Try to generate strong and positive emotions around your new habit – aim to feel excited and motivated about the change you intend to create and remember that excitement will generate further excitement.
I hope that in this time of great uncertainty and challenge, you are gifted with the time to review and reinvent the parts of yourself in need of renewal.