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It all begins with a balanced nervous system.
January, a new year symbolic of new beginnings, a fresh start, and the invitation to make changes and set meaningful intentions for the year ahead. There’s a palpable sense of resolve and aspiration to “make this year different” at the start of every year that dissipates as the months go by and the busy demands and daily routines of life take over.
Most of us abandon our New Year’s resolutions within the first six months of the year for many different reasons, the overriding factor being that change is hard. More so, lasting, long-term, sustainable change is really difficult. But it’s not impossible. Thanks to neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change via neural pathways — we are able to create new patterns and replace old habits over time.
Wired for habits
Have you ever stopped to wonder why changing the way you do things is so freaking hard?
Our extremely complex and evolved brains are habit-forming machines. Repeat a task, like brushing your teeth, enough times and you no longer have to really think about brushing your teeth anymore. The pattern becomes embedded in your brain and the task becomes nearly automatic, freeing up mental space for the less mundane.
Just think of all the things you do while thinking about something else, that you don’t have to concentrate on to do, and how much time and energy that saves you. So it’s not that habits are bad, we’ve just developed bad habits. Once a habitual pattern becomes rooted in the brain, you’re bound to (almost) involuntary repeat the action, making it harder and harder to change.
And it isn’t just behavioral habits; we’ve also been developing mental, physical and emotional patterns since birth. We are, for all intents and purposes, creatures of habit. When we’re not paying attention, our minds produce the same repetitive thoughts, our bodies find their way to the most effortless posture, and our emotional state tends to gravitate toward familiar feelings, whether they are comfortable or not.
These unconscious, deeply ingrained patterns are known as “samskaras” in the yoga tradition. Everything you do, think, say, feel, hear, experience and so forth leaves a subtle impression on your consciousness creating a samaskara. Every time a samskara is repeated, it becomes reinforced — etching a deeper imprint, or groove, in your psyche. The deeper the groove, the more likely you are to fall into it.
Neuroscience — the scientific study of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and networks of nerve cells called neurons — has proved that the brain not only changes with experiences but also reorganizes itself according to how it’s being used or not being used (neuroplasticity).
The areas of your brain that you use become bigger, richer and stronger the more they are used, while the parts used less frequently become smaller and less effective. For example, whenever you have the experience of being “stressed out,” the neural networks and areas of the brain responsible for the experience are reinforced. Meanwhile, the structures that produce the experiencing of being “calm, cool and collected” fall by the wayside.
Here’s why: “Neurons that fire together wire together,” as the neuropsychologist Donald Hebb so neatly described it. Every experience, thought, feeling and bodily sensation subtly triggers thousands of neurons that wire together to form a neural network. Every time the experience is repeated, the same cells are stimulated and their wiring is strengthened, thus reinforcing the neural pathway. This is how we learn and hone new skills, such as playing the piano or completing crossword puzzles — repetitive practice literally shapes the brain as certain neural networks grow.
Brain, body and nervous system
Our thoughts, behaviors, emotions, body movements and postural tendencies work in the same manner; through repetition, we essentially help “train” the brain. Whenever you think an anxious thought, experience feelings of depression or become angry, you stimulate the corresponding group of nerve cells in the brain. Repeated over time and the brain becomes neurologically wired for anxiety, depression or anger.
The brain, body and nervous system are designed to maintain homeostasis, meaning that what happens in one is resounded in the others. In other words, what you think affects your nervous system, which affects your physical body, which in return affects your brain and nervous system, creating a feedback loop that can be difficult to interrupt.
For example, muscle tension in the jaw triggers the stress response (flight, fight or freeze) in the autonomic nervous system, releasing adrenaline through the body and sending the mind racing. Reversely, relaxing the muscles in your jaw signals the rest, digest and reflect side of the autonomic nervous system, triggering the relaxation response, which in return helps the mind slow down.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Your autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze) increases heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and muscle tension, while your parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest and reflect-redirect) lowers heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and blood-sugar levels, and muscle tension.
Incessantly negative or fearful thoughts alter the wiring and chemistry of your brain and nervous system, causing physical changes that affect your mind as well as your nervous system, making you more anxious or depressed — further establishing the emotional pattern in your consciousness.
Think about the kinds of experiences you’re having most often and consider their impact on your nervous system. If you’re chronically stressed out, your brain and nervous system have become wired to “sound the alarm,” and you may feel anxious even when you know intellectually that there’s no reason to be. Sound familiar?
The promising news is that we can actually rewire our brains, bodies and nervous systems to create new positive emotional, mental and physical patterns. To change a behavioral habit, you have to practice a new action. To shift your default emotional state, you have to practice a new way of being. With (you guessed it) repetition over time, a new pattern will be established.
But here’s the catch: If you really want to make changes in your life, then you really have to be mindful about whatever it is you are doing at any given time, as not to fall into long-established neural patterns. You have to be present. And you have to be calm.
When your nervous system is on guard and in overdrive, it works twice as hard to keep things the same. In a state of fight, flight or freeze, aka anxious or stressed, everything becomes automatic (there isn’t much time to think when you’re being chased by a bear) and you almost immediately fall into long-held behavioral patterns. Until the nervous system calms down, change is nearly impossible.
Respond, Don’t React
When an experience triggers the nervous system, you immediately react according to habitual emotional patterns. In yoga, we practice responding by paying attention to what happens when something triggers us. Rather than spontaneously reacting, we practice taking a deeper breath or two and consciously choosing how we’d like to respond in that moment.
Once your nervous system slows down and you’re no longer in a state of panic, everything changes — your perceptions, language, responses, relationships, etc., as well as your ability to be present. If you’re calm, cool and present, you have the ability to choose differently in hopes of creating healthier patters. Actions performed with full awareness make a greater impression on the mind.
A stabilized nervous system is like a blank canvas, a solid foundation from which to create lasting emotional, mental, behavioral and physical change. There are many yoga therapeutic tools to help, including meditation, restorative yoga and breathing practices. By relaxing tension, deepening the breath and slowing the mind down, we can balance the nervous system, cultivate a deeper relationship with our body and begin practicing new, healthier patterns.
Basic mindfulness meditation
Sanskrit for “calm abiding,” Samatha is a simple meditation practice for stabilizing the mind. Rather than attempting to clear the mind of all thoughts, you allow your thoughts to come and go freely. By not attaching to any given thought that arises, you practice staying calm and not reacting. You also get to know how your mind habitually behaves while training it to slow down.
This meditation can be done anytime and anywhere; all you need is your breath. It’s also beneficial to practice Samatha for shorter periods of time more frequently, even a few minutes here and there throughout your day. To begin, take a comfortable seat with your feet on the floor and gently lengthen up through the spine. Softly close your eyes and become aware of your breath as it moves freely in and out. When a thought pops in, simply acknowledge it by saying “thinking” or “thought” in a gentle way, and refocus your awareness on your breath. Over and over again.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock, Boyarkina Marina.