The Missing Piece of the Personal Growth Puzzle

There are more than a few entry points for personal growth and just as many reasons why we get motivated to make some changes. Often the motivation comes from a painful experience or major adversity. But what if we could take an entirely different approach to personal growth? What if we reframed it as a part of the natural maturing process as we move through life?

Many of us begin our personal growth journey exploring the self-help section of the bookstore or library, discovering a podcast, participating in a support group, or seeking professional counseling. There is a tendency to keep our efforts under wraps even when we learn that many people struggle with the same issues we do.

In many instances, our personal growth work is cobbled together in a haphazard way. We migrate to teachings or tools that resonate with us. We are drawn to those whose stories are relatable and we strive to overcome our adversities just as they did. Our progress is often slow and some days it is hard to tell if we are actually making headway.

We hear that personal growth work is hard. It is.

We hear that personal growth work is worth it. It is.

Perhaps what has been missing in the personal growth field is a piece of the puzzle that would shift both the process and our motivation in a transformational way. The fundamental missing piece is neuroscience — discovering how our brains are working from childhood into adulthood.

Understanding the role our brains are playing as we navigate adulthood can become the catalyst for proactive personal growth work, enriching our wellbeing and improving the quality of our relationships. It would no longer be necessary to hide the fact that we need a little help to support our natural evolution. In fact, if we reframed personal growth as a foundational building block like exercise and nutrition, we would have a brand-new approachable and desirable entry point for investing in ourselves.

Think about this: Our brain is one of the most phenomenal devices we possess. Yet we know very little about all its capabilities and even less about how to care for and support its optimization. We take it for granted – yet it faithfully serves us through every single experience we have every day for our entire lifetime.

What if we changed our perspective about caring for and utilizing our brain’s full potential? What if we recognized the value of “upgrading” our internal operating systems as we go through life, building on what we have learned from our past experiences and proactively engaging in creating new neural pathways to meet our ever-changing goals.

Let’s see how that might be an optimum pathway for personal growth work by taking a closer look at a subject often discussed when we embark on self-help: how our childhood behavioral patterns and attachment styles often do not serve us well in adulthood.

In a February 2022 episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, neurobiologist Andrew Huberman explained in great detail how our childhood attachment styles influence our adult attachment styles.

“How we attached, or did not attach, to our primary caregivers in our childhood has much to do with how we attach or fail to attach to romantic partners as adults because the same neural circuits (the neurons and their connections in the brain and body) that underlie attachment between infant and caregiver, between toddler and parent or other caregiver entering adolescence and in our teenager years are repurposed for adult romantic attachments. I know that might be a little eery to think about but indeed that is true.” Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman’s insights here are astounding. Our brains “repurpose” attachment styles we developed as kids to help us create our attachment styles with our life partners. It doesn’t take a big stretch of one’s imagination to see how our repurposed adult attachment styles would also impact our friendships, relationships with co-workers and parenting.

The fortunate thing is that regardless of our childhood attachment styles and experiences, the neural circuits for desire, love and attachment are quite plastic — they are amenable to change in response to both what we think and what we feel, as well as what we do. However, all three aspects being discussed today desire, love and attachment — are also strongly biologically driven. (hormones, neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin) and neural circuits (brain areas and areas of the body that interact with the brain). Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman then delivers the “good news” about this phenomenon of “repurposing”. The neuroplasticity of our incredible brains opens up the vast potential to support this “repurposing” in a healthy, proactive, beneficial way. We can engage in this process in a very meaningful – and game-changing way.

We would be able to circumvent some of those awkward, cumbersome forays into adult relationships because we would have greater awareness and access to better tools. Regardless of the stability or chaotic nature of our childhoods, we need to be involved in this repurposing process. It is where we tap into our true nature and free ourselves from old narratives and limiting beliefs.

Imagine entering adulthood without constrictive adaptive childhood behavioral patterns. We all have them, regardless of our childhood experiences (even really good childhoods). Adaptive childhood behavioral patterns are how we made sense of our world as kids. Baked into those behavioral patterns are the armor we used to feel safe, the behaviors we relied on to get attention and feel loved, valued. These childhood behavioral patterns are inextricably linked to our childhood attachment styles.

I’ve written several posts on parenting and on the benefits of breaking generational chains of dysfunctional family patterns. Even when we are well intentioned about wanting to “do better” as parents for our own children, it is only natural that unconscious, residual adaptive patterns will seep into our own parenting. Our default childhood brain and body settings will make our best efforts more challenging than need be.

Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, is a renowned resource for parents who desire to create and maintain secure attachments with their children. He emphasizes how important it is for parents to identify their own childhood attachment style first and foremost. He encourages parents to do their own healing and personal growth work as a fundamental part of parenting their own children with healthy, secure attachment styles.

Neuroscience has been exploding with game-changing breakthroughs for mental health, for personal growth, for the brain challenges that come with aging such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Brain imaging is helping all of us see more clearly all the changes that our brains are subjected to — and are capable of. We have both an invested interest and a dynamic opportunity to actively participate in helping our brains stay healthy, stay upgraded and function with greater ease.

Maybe personal growth will become the new brain health. The more we know, the more we can participate in our healthy growth and evolution.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Dr. Dan Siegel YouTube Discussion:

The 4 S’s of Attachment-Based Parenting

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zV2nLEeh0c&t=2780s

The Science of Love, Desire and Attachment
February 14, 2022
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110

The Mental Health Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep

The past several years have really brought to light the importance of integrating positive mental health practices into our daily lives. Just as we pay attention to our diet and nutrition, to our daily activity levels and exercise, and to annual physical health exams, we need to do the same for our overall mental well being.

The field of personal growth and “self-help” has exploded with resources and tools that we can incorporate into our daily routines to better support our mental health. Breakthroughs in neuroscience, neurobiology, and psychology in recent years are providing research, data and protocols that will have profound impacts on treatment plans for mental health, addiction, chronic health issues and brain related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Just as we can take proactive steps to minimize our risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes, we can also use proactive daily practices to improve our overall mental health and wellbeing.

What has been so fascinating to me is the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and general medicine focused on the body. It was the pandemic that really brought to light how our physical health and our mental health are inextricably linked.

It seems rather obvious that healthy people most likely have stronger immune systems and lower risk factors — but all too often our sole focus was on the physical body. Weight, nutrition and exercise got the majority of our attention. We missed the boat on connecting the dots to how our brains and our mental health were impacting our physical health and overall quality of life.

Midway through the pandemic, I was happily surprised to see that my family doctor’s practice was now including mental health questions on their intake forms. Clearly the awareness that many folks were struggling with higher anxiety and stress was getting some attention. Yet, we often fall too easily into the “quick fix” approach. Did you know that anxiety and depression medications are often doled out to patients with only a 6 minute doctor visit?

We can do better…..and we should. We need to become our own advocates for our mental health and well being just as we are for our physical health. This is precisely where the breakthroughs in neuroscience and neurobiology are intersecting with our physical health. We are learning so much about how our brains operate, how we can take better care of our brains and how we can tap into the little known circuitry to supercharge our brain’s functions. Most of these transformational benefits come from simple changes in our lifestyle — not prescriptions.

First and foremost is consistent, high quality sleep. This is the foundation for a healthy, highly functioning brain.

Think about how religiously you charge your devices and install the upgrades. This is what sleep does for our brains.

Sleep is essential for optimizing brain functions, building strong immune systems, maximizing our daytime functioning, hormone regulation — and it is the starting point for improved mental health. There are zero to low-cost strategies that we can put into practice to dramatically improve the quality and duration of our sleep.

Andrew Huberman, Ph.D, Stamford University, is an excellent resource for a deeper dive into the many benefits of sleep — and daily strategies that will enhance consistent, high quality sleep. Simple things like getting 30-60 minutes of natural sunlight every morning, avoiding caffeine for 8-10 hours before bedtime, waking up at the same time each day and going to bed when you first start feeling sleepy at night, limiting daytime naps to 90 minutes, or best yet, don’t nap at all. Did you know that drinking alcohol messes up your sleep as do most sleep medications. Here’s a surprise – melatonin is not good for us to be taking! (Check out the link below in Recommended Resources to learn more at the Huberman Lab Podcast)

Without good sleep, we are asking our brains to process a lot of information, emotions, experiences and environments without the viable resources needed to do so effectively. No wonder it is so hard to learn new things, break old habits, maintain emotional stability and navigate the complexity of our relationships.

Yet I have never had an annual checkup where the doctor asked me about my sleep. Have you?

If sleep medications can mess up our quality sleep, we should be looking for the root cause of our sleep disturbances. Perhaps something as simple as a better bedtime routine could be the long-term, healthier solution. (Please note that Dr. Huberman advises consulting with your doctor before stopping or changing any sleep medications you are currently taking).

At the same time, it is part of self-advocacy to know what might be contributing to poor sleep quality. Some of it we can control and some of it may be due to grief, anxiety, depression or environment. Taking stock of all the factors that may be inhibiting a good night’s sleep should be part of the conversation with our medical providers.

It is incredibly hard to function at our best when we are exhausted. We know this from personal experience: jet lag from traveling, pulling a few all nighters with a new baby or a work deadline, being in a different time zone. Yet we often fail to realize that during our normal daily — and nightly — routines, we have a lot of room for improvement to take care of our brains, our physical and mental health and our immune system.

Personal growth work supports our mental health as well. The more self-awareness we cultivate, the easier it becomes to acknowledge and addresses the changes we want to make. One of the problems with changing long-standing habits and behavioral patterns is the synapses in our brains that often operate on auto pilot. If we are sleep deprived, it is so much harder to cultivate self-awareness and disrupt an old pattern. We will be much more successful with personal growth work when we are on our A game, and our brains are well rested and restored.

It is the neuroplasticity of our brains that helps us evolve. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. Dr. Rick Hanson shares that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Sleep reenergizes our body’s cells, clears toxins and waste from the brain and supports learning and memory.

The best advice we might be getting right now from neuroscience research is “to sleep on it.”

Think about it — we have the most incredible processing device on the planet in our head. We really don’t know all there is to know about the brain ….but we are learning more every day. Most importantly, we are discovering how to proactively care for our brains. The first giant step in assuring our integrated good health and well being is to sleep well.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

HUBERMAN LAB RESOURCES NEWSLETTER: Toolkit for Sleep

https://hubermanlab.com/toolkit-for-sleep/

Andrew Huberman YouTube Conversation with Lewis Howes: Do This Everyday to Master Your Sleep & Be More Focused

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWwhqaAMkfk