People Don’t Change….Right?

We hear this myth all the time — “people don’t change” or “you can’t make someone change” but quite honestly, this could not be further from the truth. None of us are the same person we were last week, last month or last year. All this phenomenal change is happening with very little awareness on our part. Our brain and its remarkable process of neuroplasticity are literally changing us every single day.

Neuro means brain; Plasticity refers to the fact that the brain is always transforming itself. When you meet someone new, or learn a new fact, your brain changes its structure and function. The environment can change our brains even if we are not aware of it. Some events change the way brain cells communicate with one another, by strengthening or weakening this communication. Other events will change how the brain interprets things. All these changes end up modifying our behaviors. — excerpted from Frontiers’ article, “Neuroplasticity: The Brain Changes Over Time” 1/12/2020

Now we can see that in reality we are actually changing at all times. It is hard-wired into us and proof positive that we not only CAN change, we have been doing it all along.

What is most intriguing is that we can become an integral and proactive part of this process. Rather than resisting change, we can embrace and even empower this human superpower.

Let me reframe this in a way that will shift your perspective about “growth mindset”.

What if we thought about our ever-evolving life changes as our CV: Curriculum Vitae (which ironically is Latin for “course of life”).

What would we put on our personal life resume that is directly correlated to the changes we’ve experienced – both unconsciously through neuroplasticity and very consciously through the effort we put in to effect change?

As you are reflecting on this, ponder why we always ask older people “What would you tell your 20 year old self?”

How often do we mutter to ourselves “if I knew then what I know now?” as we reflect back on our life history and realize that we could have made much better decisions and seized opportunities we let slip through our fingers?

Let’s put that on our life resume — the things we learned later in life that often came from repeated trial and error. A little hindsight with a healthy dash of knowledge is how we acquire wisdom.

So many of our life experiences have helped us develop a whole host of skills sets we often take for granted. From parenting to career changes, to marriages and health issues, the loss of loved ones — each and every one probably revealed something we did not previously know about ourselves.

For some time now, I have been thinking that one of the best entry points for self discovery and personal growth is through understanding how our brains operate. If we learned this, we could become proactive in setting ourselves up for better life skills and fewer problems.

It is incredibly hard to “do the work” of meaningful change when we have 40, 50, or 60+ years in which we have fossilized bad habits, dysfunctional behavioral patterns, and unhealed emotional wounds.

We could be doing all the “work” in real time, when it has the biggest impact and the greatest opportunity to transform us in healthy ways. By being proactive in the “change” process, we could actually be preventing getting “stuck” in outgrown or dysfunctional responses to life. We would simply be more prepared and skillful at navigating life. We would be in a continual state of building inner resources to support ourselves in evolving positive ways.

Neuroscience is revealing to us that we can do much better at “resourcing” ourselves with good coping skills, healthy emotional responses and emotional regulation as well as the resilience, resourcefulness and capacity we get from lessons we glean from our learned experiences. Without these inner resources, we can struggle to integrate our thoughts, emotions and body when faced with challenging circumstances or trauma.

Integration is the core foundational block for us to be able to deal with our experiences in healthy ways — and for us to learn from those experiences and build a strong neural network to tap into for future reference. We need to integrate our thoughts, our emotions and our bodies if we want to be better “resourced” for handling life’s difficulties.

If we think of our behavioral patterns as “memorizations”, we can get a clear picture of how we learned as kids to respond to anger, blame, hurt or fear. Often it was not only our own emotions we grappled with, but those of our caregivers. So we “memorized” what would bring us safety, relief, a return to connection. Our little developing brains did not yet have all the executive function to reason. In fact, our brains and bodies were flooded with cortisol and adrenaline — urging us to take quick action and seeking safety ASAP. We “memorized” what the fastest track would be to return us and our caregivers back to baseline.

We really don’t learn much from memorization. It’s just a steady “rinse, repeat” pattern of responding to similar situations. A better pathway to healthy co-regulation and growing core inner resources is to really engage with our own emotions, be informed about what they are telling us, calming ourselves so we can reconnect with our executive functions and then make rational, healthy choices about how to respond. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, it can be — but not without an understanding of what is happening simultaneously in our bodies, with our thoughts and emotions. When we are young, it would be the equivalent of trying to recite the alphabet backwards while the grade school band was all warming up! Too much distraction, too much noise — just too much.

If we have a clearer understanding of how a child’s brain develops, then we can reset our expectations about what they are actually able to process when emotions and experiences get big and bumpy. We can “meet them where they are” and save us all a lot of angst. We shouldn’t want our kids to “memorize” how to navigate life; we want to teach them how to be captains of their ship, with a breadth of knowledge, skills and resources so they can face opportunities and obstacles in healthy, dynamic ways.

As neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry all intersected to address our growing mental health crises, many phenomenal discoveries have been made. Dr. Dan Siegel recently remarked that he would have never thought 15 years ago that we would have such concrete evidence of how our brains and bodies are functioning (or not functioning). It is revelational and game-changing for every one of us.

Breakththroughs lead us right back to the root problem — and that is where real change occurs. We can proactively and meaningfully begin to implement bold new ways to teach ourselves – and especially our children – how to process emotions as they are occurring; how to get back to baseline when our emotions hijack our ability to reason and think clearly; how we co-regulate each other (the hot tip here is that we can de-escalate a situation as fast as we can escalate an already emotionally charged situation); and how to learn from our experiences in ways that “resource” us for the future.

Imagine if we re-framed our attitudes about personal growth and the need to change in a whole new way. If we truly understood how our brains, bodies, thoughts and emotions all were working to support us in such astounding positive ways, we would be approaching how we parent, how we engage in life and how we support each other in transformational and empowering new ways.

Food for thought: Can you imagine learning to drive a car without understanding how all those moving parts actually synch up and work together? Did you learn how to take care of a car when you learned to drive (about oil and gas and windshield washer fluid, about engine warning lights?). Can you imagine teaching your child to drive if you didn’t know how to drive or maintain a car? Could it be that we actually understand more about the complexities of how our cars operate and even more about awareness and skills needed to navigate traffic than we do how our very own brains, bodies, thoughts and emotions are all working to support us?

I recently listened to a thought-provoking podcast with Adam Grant and Carla Harris about becoming great mentors and sponsors. During the conversation, Carla pointed out that so many folks returned to the workplace after coming through the challenges of a global pandemic with many new skills, strengths and inner resources. She was so insightful when she noted that we should always be on the lookout for ways that we are growing through our challenging experiences. She also noted that we all have changed as a direct result of that collective experience. There are opportunities we never saw before that are now being revealed to us.

Change is a good thing….and it is the only thing that is constant. We actually can change!

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Dr. Dan Siegel is one of all-time favorite resources for learning how a child’s brain develops, how our parent/child attachment styles impact our adult relationships and how we can transform all the chaos is our bodies and brains to an integrated, more healthy approach to life’s challenges. Any YouTube video featuring Dr. Siegel is sure to enlighten and inform.

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

Dr. Andrew Huberman is my “go to” resource for all things neuroscience. He offers deep dives into so many diverse topics in this ever evolving field of research on his Huberman Lab podcasts. For smaller doses of his worthy insights, check him out on YouTube where he offers bite-sized segments from his in-depth podcasts.

This episode is definitely worthwhile for parents especially — but as always, we have to put our oxygen mask on first…so learning this information for ourselves and then applying it to our parenting skills is invaluable.

Check it out: The Science of Emotions and Relationships:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110?i=1000514835897

When I suggest a groundbreaking parenting book, I love the added benefit that comes with it — the opportunity for us adults to revisit our childhoods through the lens of more knowledge that comes from both the book and our own lived experiences. This is hindsight infused with real life experiences and new, improved skills and learnings. My deep dive into personal growth brought me to parenting time and again.

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