"Psych hacks" to Shine Brightly in 2022
How the brain works: an analogy
I am not a neuroscientist.
I am a teacher, but given that my subject focuses on practical ways to improve our brain health (mentally, emotionally spiritually, creatively and so on…) I thought it would be a good idea to refresh my knowledge of how this incredible tool actually works...so I treated myself to a refresher course over Christmas given by The University of Chicago (online).
Anyway, that simply excuses the crude analogy I’m going to use to explain why I teach what I teach.
It helps me to see the brain as a fibre optic Christmas tree – there are many lights “in built” which can all flash at different times in different colours, and sometimes a few of those break or stop. This represents the connections we form as we mature – some are a natural part of growth, others are enhances by our upbringing and experiences.
As we continue to learn and grow, we “add on” more
decoration – more lights – these can be in different shapes and sizes and placed on different parts of the tree…and they flicker, or shine, or stop – often dependent on how much we attend to them.
What I mean by “attend” is – the beauty of neuroplasticity is that, like our Christmas tree, we can continue changing our lights as we choose, BUT we also need to remember that sometimes, if we don’t “charge the battery” – some may stop, some may go dormant, some may flicker…and sadly in cases of diseases such as Alzheimer’s – this can happen whether we choose it or not.
And the final piece, at least for me, is that the “battery” – is our attention. The energy comes from us.
SO, if we constantly attend to the negativity – we will continue to give power to those lights, as we start dispersing the power elsewhere, or we engage with external things which work as an additional charger eg – going out in nature helps stimulate autonomically (ie we don’t have to do it) the production of Vitamin D, and serotonin – the former boosts our immune system, the latter is a “happy hormone” that helps regulate our mood and our sleep – the latter of which in turn helps the brain rest and regroup – that can help change our focus…and literally our “Mindset”.
So, the first question, when it comes to emotional and mental health is simply asking – which lights do you want to switch on!?
A caveat first however…sometimes, those lights stop working because external forces come into play as well eg. depression or PTSD or anxiety – and in those cases, extra work must be done to help restore the brightness you want…this is best done with professional intervention. But my focus is not on making the unhealthy brain “fine” – there are better people than I for that; I look at helping the “fine” brain thrive. (And my exercises can work in tandem with professional help to consolidate and build on those positive changes).
Before I go any further, however, I want to begin with three key messages:
1. My Christmas tree wasn’t like your Christmas tree…so compare them if you want, but mine was suited to my needs, in the same ways as yours will have been to yours…that’s true of our brains too – they – like our body type/shape/internal organs are simply not the same. As such, there is absolutely no point comparing your presentation or progress to anyone else! AND that sort of rumination wastes valuable energy powering the “negative” (usually self-critical) lights…and then you have less for the positive ones!
2. My style of decoration won’t be to everyone’s taste – again this is OK – it simply means if I begin to feel drained around you (lights flickering…you don’t believe in fairies…) I then have the decision to make as to whether I invite you over again…which often depends on whether you help me brighten other lights!!!
3. What I choose to decorate my tree with fits with my budget and I can access it at my convenience…therefore even if someone is selling the most amazing star in the world, if I cannot afford it, I will simply work with alternatives that suit me…if something works for others, it doesn’t mean it has to work for you – and vice versa…even as a teacher I always say – these are some tools that work for me/my clients – if they work for you, use them.
That having been said, if you know which lights YOU want to switch on, here are some tips which may help them shine:
Three “brain hacks”:
a) Don’t make resolutions – instead know your goals and what you need to do to achieve them.
If I learned one thing last year is that when there’s a “rule” we often either don’t stick to it – or we try and “bend it”…therefore don’t create the rule in the first place…because “cheating” creates a very different set of lights which you may not want to entertain long term.
Instead know your
CURRENT REALITY DESIRED OUTCOME
And recognise that every day you walk a fine line between the two…then, when you need to, ask yourself – is this behaviour leading me to my OUTCOME or is it reinforcing (energising) the reality I want to change?
b) Focus on what you want, but also appreciate what you’ve got. It’s great to know what you are aiming for, but take a moment to recognise what you have…as at one point those things were as much goals as the next thing on your list. Give them, and yourself for attaining them, the value they deserve. Not only does gratitude help make those healthy connections in the brain which in turn make it easier to notice the positives in life (it illuminates them, if you will) – but by taking a moment to reflect, we may also notice we have a blueprint of how we’ve achieved things in the past.
c) STACK your goals. Our brains have SO much to do – those lights aren’t just there to look pretty, that they resist things that they perceive as “difficult”. Another thing our brain does is ensure our survival, so when things “hurt” or seem dangerous – it doesn’t always like that either. So make it easier to introduce healthy change by stacking goals where appropriate.
For example, if you want to get fitter and spend time with family – cook healthy meals together, or go on walks together…that way you are all benefitting not just from the act, but from the quality time you are engaged in.
Three practical tools:
a) The Urgent/Important matrix
This tool is commonly used to enable you to visualise your priorities…I’m suggesting you tack action. Set out the things that are:
Urgent AND Important (ie you have to do them, and do them now)
Urgent NOT Important (ie. They have to be done, you don’t have to do them eg. loading the dishwasher)
Important NOT Urgent (ie. You have to do them, but not now eg. meeting a friend, or conducting an appraisal)
NEITHER Important NOR Urgent (ie. Doom scrolling)
If UI = DO
If U nI = DELEGATE
If I nU = DELAY
If nU nI – DELETE
THEN with the time you’ve freed up – comes tool 2
b) SCHEDULE IN “ME TIME”
As soon as we find ourselves with time…the “I need to be doing sometime” light in our brain seems to activate – and then we find ourselves getting involved in other people’s psychodramas and doing things which we really didn’t want…just to “not feel bad about doing nothing”. Well firstly, doing nothing is doing something – it’s resting (which means the brain can recharge and shine all the lights it needs to again); and secondly – if you book time for yourself into your calendar it means you can get on with that goal you set (at the start of this article), or take a moment to meditate, or go for a walk (and boost your lights that way), or read a book (more light boosting)…or simply recognise that in blocking out that time for you, the value you are placing on yourself is AS important as that which you give to your other commitments…and that’s often something which can stir a dormant fibre optic light!! When we appreciate our value, we are not seeing recognition or validation from others!
c) The final tip is from Rohn who said “we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with.” A similar Spanish proverb is “You can tell the measure of a man by his friends”.
Remember our energy to shine brightly can come from our environment too – so take a look at your relationships and ask yourself
- Which ones bring me joy?
- With whom can I be authentic?
- With whom do I feel energised?
…and CHOOSE to spend time with THOSE relationships more. Not only will you have that little bit more left for the exhausting people you can’t avoid, but you may even have a good reason to say “Sorry – I’m already booked up”.
…and shine brightly with thriving mental, emotional and spiritual health this year.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt