(I led a workshop on “Bouncing Back: Resilience and Renewal” at the EarthRise Center of the Institute for Noetic Sciences last weekend. For one of the experiential exercises to cultivate courage as part of rewiring the brain for resilience – Do One Scary Thing a Day – participants committed to doing one scary thing within 24 hours of returning home.
When I moved my clinical practice from San Francisco to full-time in Marin County, one scary thing was to clean out my garage to make room for some of the furniture and books accumulated in 20 years of clinical practice that weren’t going to transfer to the already full office in Marin. As I began sorting through stacks of papers and brochures that had accumulated over the years in the garage, I had to put into practice some of the teachings about perseverance. May the exercise below be helpful in persevering in what needs persevering in.)
How long should you try? Until. – Jim Rohn
Recovering resilience in the face of challenges and changes can be difficult and painful work. Perseverance in our efforts to harness neuroplasticity is the sine qua non of rewiring our brains. By persevering in the use of new tools and techniques, we are stabilizing the new neural circuitry so that it can serve as a reliable platform of resilient behaviors, not easily overridden by the pulls of the past.
Scientists differ in their assessment of how many times a pattern of neural firing must be repeated to be reliably encoded in the brain. Some data indicate seventeen times; another study concluded fifty-six. But even if we don’t know exactly how long we must practice a habit to stabilize the new brain structure, we do know that a few moments of practice many times a day is more effective than an hour once a week. Frequent and regular repetition creates steady neural firing and rewiring and accelerates the process. We also know that a stance of willingness – focusing on possibilities – is more effective than a stance of willpower – focusing on performance. It almost doesn’t matter at first how small the increment of change is. What’s important is that we choose practices that catalyze positive change and that we persevere.
A reported interviewing Thomas Edison asked him how he felt about failing two thousand times before he discovered how to harness electricity in a light bulb. Edison is said to have replied, “My dear young man, I did not fail. I did invent the light bulb. It was simply a 2,000 step process.”
Exercise: Strengthening Perseverance
- Set an intention to implement a practice that will rewire your brain in a way that feels important to you, such as one of the following:
- to cultivate an attitude you value, like gratitude;
- to see circumstances from a new perspective rather than responding automatically with preconceived notions;
- to respond to an ongoing stressor with a new behavior, breaking the cascade of automatic reactions and deliberately choosing something new.
- Create a cue to remind yourself of your intention. There are various ways to do this:
- put a sticky note on your computer reminding you to notice events in the day to be grateful for;
- shift gears by counting to three before you answer the phone or the doorbell to give yourself time to become present and able to respond with a more open frame of mind;
- use a common action, like plugging in the coffee-maker or turning the key in the car’s ignition, as a cue to remember your intention for the day.
- Identify behaviors that help manifest that intention and experiment with implementing them. Some examples include:
- expressing your appreciation to your partner for five generous thing he or she did that day;
- putting yourself in the shoes of the person on the phone or at the door and trying to see the interaction between the two of you from the other person’s point of view;
- when encountering disappointments, mistakes, or dysfunction, asking “What’s right with this wrong?” as part of framing a skillful response to the stressor.
- Repeat the behavior for a week, then another, then a month. You can experiment with expanding the behavior as you learn what works to manifest your intention. Here are some ways to do this:
- express your appreciation to your child, your sister-in-law, your coworkers, and the grocery store clerk for any generous behaviors on their part;
- shift your perspective, maybe by acknowledging the sincere motivation of your brother George when he surprised you by weeding your backyard for your birthday, even though he unknowingly pulled up all the daffodils along with the weeds;
- keeping in mind that the Chinese written character for the word crisis is made up of the characters meaning danger and opportunity, find an opportunity in at least three crises this month.
- Notice what changes in your brain as you persevere in your practice.
I once had a client who, after practicing for weeks to stay open-minded rather than cursing when she watched the evening news, told me she had bounded down the stairs in excitement one day, saying, “I’m growing new neurons!” The courage to persevere in rewiring our brains toward the five C’s of coping is supported when we see that our intentional rewiring is working: we see ourselves getting over the hump and establishing behaviors that are new or different from before. When we see that we are learning, changing, and growing, we keep going.
(excerpted from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Chapter Five: Five Additional Practices That Accelerate Brain Change. New World Library, 2013)