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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Creating Positive Change by Outsmarting our Brains

by Alexis Sullivan
Why is change so hard? We frequently say that we want positive change in our lives. Yet, when we try to transform ourselves for the better, we struggle. We know what we want, but when we try to put it into practice, we get stuck.

It turns out that change actually is hard. Humans are hardwired to resist change. Our brains have evolved over time to maintain stability and predictability. Imagine what life was like thousands of years ago. Even small changes in our environment could lead to tragic results, so we developed defense mechanisms to avoid change. In current times, although our environment is different, our brains aren’t.

Over the last couple of decades, scientific research has made major breakthroughs in understanding how the mind works. Part of our brain (the basal ganglia) is designed to guide us efficiently through life. It allows us to brush our teeth, put on socks or drive a car with very little thought and very little energy consumption.

Another part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) is designed to use much more energy to process new information and change behaviors. This is where those defense mechanisms appear. So, to create new thought patterns and change behaviors, we have to engage the pre-frontal cortex to process the change until it becomes routine.

The good news is that neuroplasticity, the process of forming new connections in the brain that allow us to learn, happens thousands of time every day. This means that we have tremendous capacity for growth and learning. It was previously thought that our brains learned best when we were children and as adults our brains were less flexible. Now, science has shown this not to be true. We are capable of growth and learning throughout our entire lives.

So how can these new findings help us to make positive change in our lives? By understanding how to tiptoe around the brain’s defense mechanisms. Since our brains are hardwired to resist sudden and big change, we can outsmart it by being aware and starting small.

Awareness - By focusing our attention on a particular change, we can push past our brains automatic resistance. We know that our bodies will send us signals of physiological discomfort, but that awareness allows us to lessen their effects. Talk to your brain and tell it that you are about to try something new. Acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable, but that you can deal with a small amount of discomfort to create positive transformation.

Size Matters - By starting with small changes in behavior and thought, we can tiptoe past the inevitable obstacles. The secrets are consistency and success. Each time we experience a small change, the brain starts to form a new neural path that, over time, becomes just as easy and comfortable as the old path. Then each time we successfully experience that change, our brains reward us by releasing dopamine, which reinforces the positive experience in our bodies.

Knowledge is power and in this case, the power of creating positive change in our lives comes from the knowledge of how to outsmart our brains.

Alexis Sullivan is a personal and professional coach and the creator of the Personal Growth Challenge—a game designed to create positive change, one day at a time, one step at a time. Find it at and contact her at [email protected].

May 2020



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