Thrown for a loop
Have you ever been bombarded by thoughts that you could not control?
As a spine surgeon who had to maintain concentration often for 6-8 hours non-stop, I prided myself on my focus. Imagine my surprise recently as recurrent thoughts bombarded me to the point of distraction, interference with sleep, increased irritability, and increased anxiety. How did this happen and how can it be fixed?
I began to dissect my life over the past 6-9 months. There were clearly some possible causes of stress – I had brewing business conflict, some family disagreement, increased financial pressures with children going to private college, etc. To add to this, I was watching more of the news and the ubiquitous discord and animosity were spilling over onto me. Could my lack of awareness of these factors have gradually changed my brain? Why was I having difficulty regulating my emotional reaction to my thoughts?
It turns out that YES, our brains are very mold-able and that emotional regulation is within our control. You can actually grow areas of the brain depending on what you think and concentrate on; the neural pathways in the brain that the mind’s choices stimulate are the ones that grow. I was intrigued that there are 21 studies that showed that mindfulness meditation involves large neural networks and can result in enlarging the areas of the brain that enhance our emotional responses.(1) In one quoted study, there was a 22.8% increase in volume of the part in the brain responsible for emotional regulation!(2) These changes in the brain can occur in just 8 weeks, with no drugs or supplements, and result in enhanced brain response time, better memory, increased cognitive factors, and improved behavioral abilities. In other words a more relaxed and efficient brain.
Even though I am no stranger to meditation, I have not been practicing recently. I surely could benefit from 22.8% more brain cells to handle the task of emotional regulation. I don’t want to be derailed by common daily challenges such as getting triggered by co-workers, problematic behavior in my children, what politicians say or do, winning or losing at conflicts with others, being short of time, and my expectations about the way my life ought to be.
I have known this from previous experiences with meditation – it doesn’t just change one’s state (the way you feel at the moment), it changes your traits (the enduring aspects of your personality wired in your brain that govern your outlook on life). The brain’s neurons fire and wire according to our thinking pattern. Due to my being too busy and not tending to the neural garden of my brain, I have allowed the overgrowth of wild nerve connections from taking away my peace. I am ready to tend to my garden in order to master the emotions rather than be a slave to them.
1- “Ten years of Nature Reviews Neuroscience: insights from the highly cited.” Luo, et al. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Oct; 11(10):718-726.
2- “Mind to Matter”, Dawson Church, Hay House Inc., 2018.