A few weeks ago – during the nth COVID-19 lockdown – I was standing in the queue in my local supermarket behind a South-American couple when a woman passed by and clamorously remarked “the country is filled with these people now”. My immediate reaction, for the desire of being indifferent, was to continue to read through emails on my phone. However, hours, days and weeks went by, and I was still not over it. No matter what I did (eg. cooking, running, reading etc…), my mind kept racing back to this event. It was all-consuming. The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became at myself for not being able to just brush it off.
It was not the first time I heard comments such as this. Although in the past I have been pretty good at moving on as I genuinely believe that: 1) it reflects a small minority of individuals, 2) it says a lot more about the offender than it says about me.
Ultimately, I know that I can do very little about how other people think and act, but I am (mostly) in control of how I react to those actions.
So, why was this time around different? If I am truly in control of my reactions, why couldn’t I get this comment out of my head? I found myself reflecting on Yogi Sadhguru’s teaching:
Everything You Experience is Within Yourself.Sadhguru
Examining this idea through the prism of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience I arrived at the conclusion that my brain is involuntarily changing due to uncontrollable events, therefore how I experience the world is changing too.
If you have been experiencing stress or sadness, isolation and low energy, through COVID-19, the likelihood is that your brain is changing too.
But we do not have to watch as spectators, we can have an active part in shaping the biological events that make us, US.
What happens to you IS how you react to it
Every human brain is wired with connections made by neurons, linking sensory and motor inputs to the different lobes of the cerebral cortex. Those connections – made through learning, experience, and memory – determine your natural reaction to external stimulus.
For example: If you have many happy Christmas memories of sitting around the fire watching movies and eating mince pies with your family when that time of the year is referenced, you will most likely feel joyful. Equally, if your experience of Christmas is quite the opposite, you are likely to feel negative emotions. Either option will make you a person that loves Christmas or a Grinch, and that will be one facet of your personality.
Your personality (AKA the type of person you are), is defined by the many ways you behave, feel and think. And the collection of pathways in your brain, generated over decades of experiences, is what defines your behaviours, feelings and thoughts. Therefore, it is possible to link the creation of neural pathways to the development of personality.
But does that mean that because those pathways are created and reinforced almost daily, that you cannot change your reactions?
Just like my reaction to the comment in the supermarket queue changed from what I was used to, your automatic responses can be changed.
What causes the changes in your reactions?
The process of making and changing and remapping those connections is referred to as neural plasticity or neuroplasticity.
In addition to the basics (eg. eat a healthy diet, sleep well, exercise regularly etc), the most effective way to reprogram your brain, is to continuously engage in activities that are new, challenging and important to us. However, the more rooted in negative past experiences our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are, the stronger the “vicious cycle” is and the more help we need to re-wire the connections in our brain. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular ways of engaging in this process, where a certified therapist will help you break down the undesirable patterns.
But, looking at the ways in which we can reprogram our brains didn’t help me answer my question on why my reaction to that ethnocentric comment had changed so drastically from the past. Nothing in my recent experiences or my routine has an obvious correlation to my reaction to the supermarket comment. So I dug deeper and learned that other factors might alter our neural pathways involuntarily: Depression and Stress.
Many studies show that depression affects how effectively two neurons communicate with each other (synaptic plasticity) and that both depression and stress are linked with structural and functional changes in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. One of the changes in the induction of the death of hippocampus cells (apoptosis), especially relevant as the hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memory and is deeply connected to creating, reinforcing or reprogramming neural pathways.
So if you are suffering from stress and depression, it’s not that you are just not ‘feeling like yourself’. Your ‘self’ is changing as your neural pathways are mutating
Why is it important to think about this now?
COVID-19 has changed the very fabric of our society.
I count myself lucky that I have been able to lead a thriving team during this difficult time. But, I have been going through the stress of working from where I live. I lost my father only 3 months ago and I am unable to be around my family for this difficult grieving time. The tiredness of the same four walls is real. Zoom fatigue is at its apex. The lack of sunshine and freedom is weighing on me.
Equally, you might be stressed because you lost your job or had to close down your business. Your health and those of your loved ones might be a point of concern. You might be juggling homeschooling and parenting while working. You might be experiencing loneliness and isolation.
Going back to Sadhguru’s saying ‘Everything You Experience is Within Yourself’, all of these scenarios, repeated multiple times over the space of the year, under differing levels of stress and depression are causing your brain to change and altering the way you experience the world.
If you cannot change what is happening to you right now, then go back to the basics:
- eat a healthy diet
- sleep well
- exercise regularly etc
- engage in activities that are new, challenging and important to you
And maybe, if you are seeing strong patterns that are affecting areas of your personality that you want to preserve and protect, then consider Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Having failed to change my automatic reaction to the supermarket lady (and some other events) after trying the first four tips, I have found an amazing coach that I have been talking to weekly and it has made a huge difference!