Breaking Harmful Habits: A Case for Mindfulness and Synaptic Pruning

August 16, 2019

 

I love watching the Olympics – both summer and winter. I am amazed at the athletic abilities of people from around the world, and am reminded of our common humanity as Olympians strive for excellence no matter their background or origin. I also can’t help but shed tears when witnessing athletes accomplish something for which they have worked so hard. However, there is one winter Olympic event I struggle to watch: the luge. Don’t get me wrong; I have total respect for this event and consider luge athletes to be unbelievably skilled and brave. But I cringe as I watch human beings slide dangerously down icy tunnels at exceptionally high rates of speed – sometimes even headfirst, when competing in the body-bashing form called skeleton

 

While I recognize these athletes undoubtedly know what they are doing, I quickly feel my blood pressure rise to extreme levels at the prospect of their losing control and crashing into the barrier below. Perhaps this is why the image of the luge has become the perfect tool for me to practice mindfulness and break the bad habit of harmful and out of control negative thinking. 

 

Such a mental image needs little explanation. After all, we all have that place in our own minds that is fueled by negativity, anxiety and worry – the place that sometimes catches us in a mind spiral, with one negative thought leading to another. Why did I say that? Why did I do that? Why am I so lame? They must think I’m an idiot. Why am I constantly feeling inadequate? I really don’t belong here. Why can’t I be more like her? You get the picture, probably rather vividly. 

 

This pattern is particularly true when specific negative experiences in our lives are “triggered” and off we go down that slippery slope of re-imagining, re-envisioning, re-living what has happened in the past. These experiences, of course, reflect the entire spectrum from slightly embarrassing to full-on trauma. But no matter what these experiences may be, our brains do what they do naturally – they fire up well-worn neural pathways, which then keep us riding a wave of negative thoughts and feeling difficult emotions, over and over.

 

There is a reason why our brains do this – it’s called survival. The most ancient part of our brains, the limbic system– comprised of the Hypothalamus, Hippocampus and Amygdala – functions to regulate our freeze, fight-or-flight reactions to stimuli, as well as our emotional memories. It is this part of the deep brain that can be hooked by threats to our survival and instinctually leads us to repeated patterns of behavior that ensure our safety. But beyond concerns for our survival, the neural processes in this part of the brain can actually become destructive, given that the more we find our thoughts on pathways in the limbic system, the deeper and more recognizable they become. This makes them easier to travel and harder to jump off of and onto a more positive thinking path.

 

Tibetans call this potential for being “hooked” by negative thoughts, which lead to difficult emotions and self-defeating responses, shenpa. Pema Chödrön, the well-known American-born Buddhist teacher, describes it like this

 

Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.

 

While such “poisonous” feelings happen quite naturally – and we may not be able to stop such feelings from happening – we can mindfully alter the route in our brains. And we must. Our overall mental and physical health and well-being depend on it.

 

When I find negative thoughts running through my head on a repetitive loop, or when I think of some experience that brings back really difficult memories, I quickly picture myself on that icy luge. That image helps me to recognize what is happening so I can make adjustments. When those negative thoughts keep me going, I catch myself and think: oh yes, I am on the out-of-control luge again. Here comes that wall I will soon slam myself into – damn, this is going to hurt!

 

And the triggers are plentiful for all of us. Not many make it to and through adulthood without developing these negative neural pathways. But rather than scolding ourselves for being on that negative ice, we can recognize it, ponder why we are there, feel the emotions, and then alter the path. I imagine a lever, for example, changing my direction as I begin to slide out of control, sending me off to a much different path made of fluffy cotton or slippery silk – and then I envision myself landing in a pit full of marshmallows after an interesting and exhilarating ride that has ultimately made me feel alive. 

 

Over time, this mindful movement from the icy luge to the marshmallow goodness becomes a well-worn path in the brain. While certain things will trigger the icy experience, I become less likely to stay on the ice, sliding out of control into the wall that awaits me at the end. Instead I recognize the path, gently pull the levers to alter my neural route, and in so doing weaken the possibility of starting down the dangerous path altogether. 

 

This isn’t to say that this process will turn negative experiences into positive ones, or that I am looking for the silver linings in my negative thoughts or developing gratitude for my trauma in any way. But it is at least one method that allows me to more gently care for myself. Why not give it a try? Find whatever image works for you as you mindfully break the bad habits associated with negative thoughts and simultaneously prune your brain’s synapses, allowing you to care for your mind, body, heart and soul.

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