Creating and Sustaining Change

Mar 13, 2017 | Change

Ready for change?

Creating and sustaining change is challenging, but it can become easier if you support your brain in some key ways.

The struggle to change

Change is the hallmark of growth and progress. At some point, we all want change.

But change isn’t easy.

We’ve all done it. Set an intention to do (or not do) something, and then it slips away.

Why is it that change can be so hard? Why do some people seem to create change more easily than others?

Is there a secret sauce to change? If we look to our brains, the answer is yes!

Habits are easy, change is not

Left to our own devices, we tend to take the path of least resistance. So do our brains.

Our brains look for the easy path, the one that requires the least amount of energy. And that path is the one we have taken a thousand times. Because the more times we do or think something, the stronger the neural pathway and the more automatic it becomes. For our well-practiced brain, it becomes “easy-peasy.”

So when we want to stop following that easy path and create an entirely new one, it takes added effort and attention.

It’s not necessarily that our brains totally resist change, but change is never the easiest route. And so we – and our brains – could use some support to create the change we want.

The secret sauce of change

What kind of support do our brains need to thrive and change? What’s the secret sauce?

Research has shown a number of factors help to support our brain’s ability to change and create new neural pathways – also called neuroplasticity.  (To read more, you can click any of the following: a National Institute of Health study on neuronal and cognitive plasticity; an article on the five keys to neuroplasticity; and a piece about neuroplasticity and building your cognitive reserves.)

  1. Sleep. Sleep is like the spin cycle for our brains. During sleep, our brains filter out and integrate information and prepare us for a new day of learning and thinking and creating memories. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain functioning.
  2. Exercise. Exercise helps to improve blood flow and oxygen levels which support neuron growth. It also helps to improve the size of the grey and white matter in the brain. At least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week is best. Also, aerobic exercise appears to support the brain more than non-aerobic exercise.
  3. Diet. The brains need the right vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy. This includes foods high in omega-3s, as well as B vitamins and anti-oxidants. Try to focus on whole foods (not processed) and foods that help reduce inflammation, such fruits and vegetables high in anti-oxidants. Avoid foods that can cause inflammation and inhibit neural growth such as high-fructose corn syrup, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.
  4. Novelty. When we learn and do something new, we create new neural connections. The greater the challenge, the better! When was the last time you tried something new and challenging? Relatedly, when we make mistakes, we are on the edge of challenging ourselves and growing our brains, so don’t be afraid to make a mistake.
  5. Focus and Attention. Research has shown that paying close attention supports the creation of new neural connections and can even improve the size of our gray matter. This is about having the ability to give something your full focus and attention when needed. If you struggle here, try removing distractions (like your phone) the next time you need to focus, or try meditating – even just for 5 or 10 minutes a day.

Other additional ways to support change and help your brain’s neuroplasticity include: lowering stress; having fun and laughter; having supportive relationships; and involving multiple senses (e.g., movement, sight and/or sound) to get the brain’s attention and reinforce the neural pathway for change.

Get yourself ready for change

What key area do you need to focus on most? And what will you do to improve it? Share your thoughts, or forward this to someone who’s needing some support to make a change.

Photo by rawpixel.com at unsplash.com

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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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