What You Focus On Is What Becomes Powerful – Why Your Thoughts and Feelings Matter

What You Focus On Is What Becomes Powerful

What you focus on is what becomes becomes powerful. The message is real and comes fortified with some serious science. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The research around it has caught fire and the findings are powerful. The implications for all of us are profound. 

At the heart of the research is the finding that experience changes the brain. Just think about that for a minute: You have incredible capacity to change your brain through your experiences. Up until the last decade or so, it was thought that the brain stayed fairly much the same and wasn’t open to influence or change. We now know that just isn’t true.

Each of us has a brain that is designed to be malleable and plastic and open to our influence. It is constantly shaping itself to be the best one it can be for us. Our experiences are the fuel for this shaping and everything we see, feel, experience, sense and do is slowly but surely changing the architecture of our brains, sending gentle instruction on how they can build to best support us. 

How does it work?

Between the walls of our skulls, billions of neurons (brain cells) work together to shape us into the humans we are. Different neurons are responsible for different parts of our experience, whether it’s eating, feeling, sleeping, sensing threat, firing up, falling in love, spelling, laughing, remembering, learning, nurturing – you get the idea. Being human is complicated and our brain drives all of it – it’s no wonder we are still discovering its secrets. 

Every time you have an experience, the relevant neurons switch on and start firing. As this happens, neural connections get stronger and new synapses start growing. 

Even as you read this, sparks are flying in your head. About 100 billion neurons are waiting and ready to act, but not all of them will be recruited. The ones that are will depend on the experience you’re having. The neurons that are connected to your immediate experience – what you are feeling, thinking, seeing, sensing, doing, experiencing – will fire and new connections will start to form within minutes. The more connected the neurons, the stronger that area of the brain, the more responsive and effective it will be.

The neurons that aren’t as needed will eventually wither away. This withering away is normal and healthy and is one way the brain grows into its most efficient self. You can’t grow the edges of your head so your brain occupies some precious real estate. The space is reserved for the neurons that you need the most – the ones that will best support you given the life you’re living.

Every time we have an experience, the corresponding neurons are activated. Every time they are activated, they are elevated a little in the order of importance. Repeating or prolonging an experience will keep the connections between neurons strong and ensure that they stay. This is why, for example, we can recite the alphabet without thinking. It’s not because we were born baby geniuses with a cute alphabet jingle imprinted into our brains. It’s because throughout our childhood, we sing the alphabet song and have it sung to us so many times, that the relevant neurons are repeatedly activated enough to eventually form rock solid connections.

Experience doesn’t just effect change by creating new connections and strengthening existing ones. It also seems to reach into our genes (the tiny atoms in the DNA inside the nuclei of neurons) and change the way they function. A regular practice of mindfulness, for example, will increase the activity of genes that have the capacity to soothe a stress reaction in the heat of a moment, ultimately making you more able to deal with stress.

Everything you experience will alter the physical structure of your brain in some way. The things you do, the people you spend time with, every feeling, thought, and automatic experience will influence the wiring of your brain to make you who you are and to influence who you can become.

Brains can change. Let me tell you a true story …

A bunch of neuroscientists wanted to explore how brains can change. To do this, they called on London cab drivers and some serious brain imaging.

In order to become a London taxi driver, would-be cabbies have to pass ‘The Knowledge’. This is a test of memory and is one of the most difficult tests in the world to pass. It involves memorising at least 320 basic routes, 25,000 streets within those routes and about 20,000 landmarks and places of interest. It usually takes about 4 years of committed study and at the end of it, those who have done the work end up with what amounts to a roadmap of London imprinted onto their brains. 

A series of brain scans conducted on a group of drivers after their training revealed that their brains had actually changed to support their learning. Prior to the learning, the part of their brains responsible for spatial memory (the posterior hippocampus) was much the same as everyone else’s. Fast forward to the end of training, and it was found to be significantly larger. The longer a cabbie had been in the job, the bigger that part of their brain. Learning and repeated experience had changed the brain according to the job it was needed for.

Why it’s SO important to be deliberate about who you’re with and what you do.

Experiences matter. They matter in the moment and in the way they can change the brain beyond the immediate moment.

Your brain will build and change whether you like it or not.  It’s so important to build it in the direction you want it to build it. Think of it as a mark on a page. At first, the mark might be so faint as to not even be noticeable, but keep going over the mark, even with the slightest of pressure, and that mark will get more defined and more permanent. Your attention and focus will always be somewhere – maybe many places – which means there are wirings and firings happening all the time, strengthening what’s there or creating something new.

If you aren’t deliberate and conscious in shaping your brain, other people and experiences will do this for you. Experiences, situations and people – positive or negative – will leave lasting traces on your brain by way of strengthened neural pathways.

By being purposeful about your experience, and the experiences you repeat or spend longer doing, you can have a direct influence over how your brain strengthens and grows and the pathways that are most likely to endure – but it does take a deliberate and conscious effort. 

What you focus on will determine the parts of your brain that fire, wire and strengthen. Then, as those parts of the brain switch on and the neurons start firing, lasting connections will be made, strengthening memories and influencing what the brain will attend to in the future (positive or negative).

If you let your mind settle on self-criticism, self-loathing, pain, distress, stress, worry, fear, regret, guilt, these feelings and thoughts will shape your brain. You will be more vulnerable to worry, depression, anxiety, and be more likely to notice the negatives of a situation, frame things in a negative way, and be barrelled off track by what you could have or should have done.  

On the other hand, if you focus on positive feelings and frame situations with a tilt towards the positive, eventually your brain will take on a shape that reflects this, hardwiring and strengthening connections around resilience, optimism, gratitude, positive emotion and self-esteem.  

The power to change your brain. We all have it. Here’s how to use it.

We are wired to notice threat and bad feelings. This is  completely normal and healthy and it’s what has kept us alive for thousands of years. We humans are brilliant when it comes to noticing the bad, analysing it, and hanging on to it until we learn something from it. It’s called the negativity bias and it’s powerful.

The problem is that while it is our very human way to notice the bad, it is also human to let the good slide right of us. It’s not unusual that in a day of good conversation, fabulous people and enriching experiences, your mind will stick with the one argument, the one bad phone call or the one jerk that crossed your path. Imagine if it could be the other way around, with the good sticking and the bad sliding away into the ‘doesn’t matter’ zone. Because we humans are powerful creatures, we can go one better than imagining it – we can do it, but it takes a hard and deliberate push, which is okay – because we all have that in us.

First, we have to switch on to the good and be deliberate in noticing positive experiences. This might be more difficult than it sounds, particularly if you have a brain that, like many beautifully human brains, is well-trained in noticing the bad.

When you have the good in your radar, let your mind settle on it for long enough to start the neurons firing in your brain. Don’t just notice it, feel it. Hold on to it for at least 20 seconds. After this time, the experience will be hardwiring into your brain, firing neurons and strengthening the connections that will ultimately shape your experience.

This will start to grow these parts of your brain and shape a brain that is able to notice the good, respond to the bad and move forward, rather than stay stuck.

If the positive experience isn’t ready and waiting in front of you, do what you can to create it. It doesn’t have to be monumental. Try calling on a memory, listening to a song, making a phone call, organising a catch-up, playing or doing something that makes you feel nurtured. When you do, make the feeling stay. It might want to fade away, but don’t let it, not straight away. 

Like any habit, noticing the good takes time to become automatic. Notice how quickly you notice the bad and let go of the good. Be deliberate in balancing things up and gradually, this in itself will also change your brain.

Does this mean negative feelings are a no-go?

Negative feelings are never a no-go. Being deliberate in focusing on the positive doesn’t mean that we have to pretend the negative doesn’t exist. Negative feelings are important too and deserve to be there. They guide us to withdraw when we need space to heal, they alert us to problem people or situations and they act as a warning sign. Negative feelings should be honoured as much as positive ones but they will come with a cost if they are allowed to take over.

The neurons that fire together, will wire and cause lasting changes in the brain. Staying in bad feelings beyond their usefulness is will do damage. It’s like going over and over the mark that serves no useful purpose but to keep a wound open. Every time you go over it, you’re making it a little heavier, a little stronger, a little harder for you to exist without its influence.

It’s always okay to feel the bad, to sit with it and to explore the wisdom that it contains. The wisdom will always be in there somewhere. Certainly an avoidance of negative emotions will have its own costs.

To stop the negative running away and doing damage, actively work towards balance wherever you can. Take some time to focus on your resilience, your courage, your strength, your inner wisdom. If you are feeling lonely, take time to draw on memories or people who love and appreciate you. Whether it’s a ‘hey there’ text, an invitation, a photo, a memory. If you are feeling drained, take time to draw on experiences that nourish you.

When the experiences happen, let the feelings stay for long enough to let them do their important work. Notice the bad, feel it, let it bring you new wisdom, but don’t keep watching it in the rear view mirror when there are other things around you that can start to move you forward.  

And finally …

By directing your focus and staying with your experience, you can change your brain and shape it towards a more positive, compassionate, resilient, kinder, happier, more empowered and contented way of being. You can turn positive experiences into positive brain changes, which will in turn change your day to day experience.

What you focus on is powerful. The brain will build around what it rests upon. Whether we view the world through a lens that is sad or happy, optimistic or hopeless, whether we are open to love or quick to close it down is all directed by our brain. What you pay attention to will shape your brain, which in turn will shape your experiences, your relationships, your life. 

[irp posts=”923″ name=”Hardwiring for Happiness. How We Can Change Our Brain, Mind & Personality.”]

29 Comments

Helen

Such a well written article on a very important subject! I’m so glad to see this information reaching people. Keep spreading the light!

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Piriyanka

The best article about our mind, I’ve read. This helps to improve our daily life by doing little thing better and definitely a path to being happy. Thank you so much ! More articles like this would be wonderful.

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Olaseni F

Thank you so much for such a beautiful and illuminating article. I will reflect and meditate on it for a while. Blessings Seni

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Mudassir Nawaz

Wowwwwwwwwwwwwww

Thank you so much for such a brilliant and direly needy article

Love from Pakistan

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David

I always feel like what i expect to happen does not happen and i get the opposite. Like if i expect things to go smoothly it is a mess. If i worry about something and stress over it it ends up going fine. How can i overcome this.

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Helen

Hi David,
It’s likely due to some subconscious program probably from childhood, some limiting beliefs that you can easily uncover and bring to surface and reframe to work for you to create desired outcomes.

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Libby

Thank you so much Karen! I enjoyed reading this article it really explains the big picture…. easy to understand! Mindful thinking has been something I’ve been working on for awhile but after your read I believe I will incorporate it in my life more and more.

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Arockiam

Hello Karen, you have shown how our daily experiences and our brain are interconnected.
focusing on positive things will heal what is caused by negative things. There is not only science in your statements, there is great charisma!
currently I am running an experiment on Positive
Focus that increases Happiness. Your article is just in time. Its thought provoking. Thanks.

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Bulent

Cutting edge neuroscience in layman’s terms. Couldn’t be better. Many, many thanks for this beautiful article. Very timely, for myself, by the way!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Bulent and thank you very much for your comment. I’m so pleased that you found this article when you did.

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Ricardo

Great article,

I enjoy this type of articles because it brings faith in me again. Life is full of up and downs and I have to remind myself that I have to keep fighting, perseverance is key and always looking towards positive experiences.

Thank you,

Ricardo

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Sherrill

Wonderful article, Karen, many thanks! Many references about this are in the Bible. The Book itself, in my opinion is not entirely religion based. Many men/women wrote about about foretelling, visions, spiritual visitations. Have you ever had the hair on your head stand up because you had a feeling? Premonition if you will. Does that signify your belief in God? No.
So taken at face value if you will, in this Book and others written since, you might see a trend advising us look inside ourselves for all the answers. Opening up your mind and hearing, acknowledging soul and conscience together freeing you to actually alter your life, your health, your mindset. I have. Quite simply, just believe in yourself and be thankful to whomever you feel is putting these ideas in your head.
FAITH SEES THE INVISIBLE, BELIEVES THE UNBELIEVABLE, AND RECEIVES THE IMPOSSIBLE.
Corrie Ten Boom

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Stephanie

I was with a man that drank, was mean, hit me, yelled at me as I went further and further inside. Before I knew he was like this, I fell in love. He also, whenever there was conflict, he would say, well I’m single the and the same night would go out and sleep with anyone. He would send me pictures of who he slept with. I met him when my Dad was dying and I was very down. He sent me this article. Do you think I can change my brain enough to be with him?

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Hey Sigmund

Stephanie, being with a man who does these sort of things will certainly change your brain, but not for the better and never in a way that will make being with him feel okay. We are wired to notice things in our environment that have the potential to hurt us. There is a thing called toxic stress. When stress is chronic and ongoing over a long period of time, it turns toxic. It changes the brain in a number of ways. In the same way the body shuts down when it ingests toxins to try to limit the damage, the brain does the same thing. In a toxic environment, the growth of new brain cells will eventually start to decrease dramatically. When this happens, there will be certain parts of your brain that won’t be as effective as they can be. You will also become more susceptible to depression, anxiety, headaches – all sorts of things. The point of this article is to be careful with what you focus on because your brain will literally wire and change accordingly. When you are in an environment with a man who is cruel, thoughtless and has no regard for your well-being, it will be impossible to focus on anything else. You can’t focus on the good if the bad is so overwhelming. This man is hitting you and sending you photos of women he has slept with. He is not capable of loving you, but there are people out there who will be. You deserve to feel loved and safe – emotionally and physically. There is not a human on the planet who would be able to thrive in this sort of relationship. You are worth so much more than this and you deserve so much more than this. The problem with these sort of relationships is that they harm your self-esteem and will have you believing that you can’t do better. You can. You can do so much better, and you will, but first you will have to move the hurtful relationship out of the way so the nurturing, loving relationship can find you.

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Robert W. McLellarn

Great article! I had seen most of this before but hadn’t thought about it in quite some time. By reminding me you helped me change my brain so this information may be more available to me in the future…thanks for sharing! I’ll spend some time reflecting on what you wrote and see if I can get the right neurons firing together!!

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ZiZi

This is the best article I have read in a long time! Our mind is very precious and we don’t even know it!
Thank you!

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Turenne

I knew and believe that we are, become and remain what we think and feel… This article brings a stronger light by stating that “What We Focus On Is What Becomes Powerful”.

You do explain extremely well why and how our brain fire, wire and strengthen…

You are showing how powerfully repetitive or focus on experiences shape our reality. The great thing is that we can help shaping a balance and harmonious reality by being Mindful…

Thank you Karen for this great share!

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freedom & joy

Brilliant! And needed to hear this today. I run a biz and find myself falling into procrastination and negative thinking. I am generally a positive person, but have built very little action around ‘the dark side’ so it tends to linger longer than I like whenI’min that space. But I’ve recognised it and can domore to combat it.

“Why it’s SO important to be deliberate about who you’re with and what you do.” This is very very true.

Thank you!

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David

I tend to focus on the negative and suffer from depression. I assume dwelling on negative and not learning from it, to only reinforce the circuits in the brain responsible for those emotions, makes no logical sense. I recently lost my job during training due to not learning fast enough. I know I have adhd and learn slower than others. I guess I need to learn what I can and not dwell the negative, to keep me moving forward on getting a new job.

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Hey Sigmund

David what I know for certain is that for everything about yourself you wish you could change, there will be built-in strengths. You say you don’t learn fast enough, but you are very capable of learning and once you learn things, you would have the ability to use that information in ways that other people can’t – that’s a great strength. It’s hard to change habits, so at first you will have to really force yourself to notice the positive. It might feel awkward for a while – all new things do – but with practice, it will start to come easy. How quickly you learn is only one thing about you – it has nothing to do with your intelligence, your creativity, your capabilities. We all have the things we would prefer to change. The difference is that you are aware of yours but you have as many strengths as anyone else. They key for you will be focusing on those strengths without shifting focus to the things you would rather change. Try focusing on one thing at a time and let that strength become so obvious to you that it feels like part of who you are. There are wonderful strengths in you. You can do this.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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