Self Improvement — 06 June 2008
Training your brain may improve your life

For many years our understanding of brain function was that any injury, aberration, malfunctions or disease process that affected our brain was unchangeable. Fortunately, with ongoing and new technological advances of viewing and researching brain function, scientists have learned that the brain is not fixed in form and function – but can heal and mend itself as it helps improve it’s owner’s quality of life.

Knowing that the brain is able to change its structure and function, through what is termed “neuroplasticity”, has brought great hope to those who have incurred brain damage and those who suffer from psychiatric disorders. The brain was able to retrain adjacent areas to take over the function of the damaged neighboring region such as in the event of a stroke or external head trauma.

Not only can specially trained medical professionals assist people with their rehabilitation and recovery, but the individual him/herself can learn retraining tools to help in his/her own recovery as well. The new findings have expanded the horizon for the use and efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating a variety of disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD), anxiety and depressive conditions, among others. There are other conditions such as schizophrenia and certain personality disorders for which CBT is not the method of choice.

Jeffrey Schwartz and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles found that verbal therapy, specifically, CBT, can reduce the activity of obsessive thinking associated with the condition of obsessive compulsive disorder, and is as effective as treatment with medications. He also combined mindful-meditation elements in teaching patients how to successfully identify and diffuse the obsessive messages. Cognitive therapy was also found by Dr. Helen Mayberg, then of University of Toronto, to successfully improve the emotional state of depressed patients through changes in the cortex, the thinking part of the brain.

All people, not only those suffering from certain disorders can learn mental tools to improve memory, mental agility and reverse self-defeating thoughts. Learning to talk yourself out of misery and into a better frame of mind is now a scientifically proven benefit of cognitive behavioral “talk therapy”. It appears that some people are better able to help themselves in altering sad and destructive thought processes than others. However, most people can be taught the appropriate techniques in redirecting their thinking toward a more satisfying emotional state and better quality of life.

Here are a few tools:

• Realize that you need not suffer from emotional or behavioral pain. Your discomforts can be treated and alleviated.
• Listen to the messages you give yourself about you. Are you calling yourself names when you are frustrated about a situation? Do you tell yourself that you will never meet the right person, find love, get along with your partner, succeed in a career or be happy?
• Realize that those repeated assertions do impact your view of yourself, create a downcast emotional state that may easily lead to behaviors that will only confirm your erroneous view of yourself.
• Learn to readjust your thinking by emphasizing facts, not fears. Tell yourself that this date was disappointing, rather than assume that you are never going to be loved.
• Make a list of your disturbing thoughts that evoke sadness, despair or loss of self-regard. Those are your fears. Respond to each one with a fact. For example: “ I will never be promoted in my job” should be restated: “ I haven’t been promoted yet. What do I need to do to gain a job advancement?” The latter gives you direction and hope.
• Read the book: “Your Body Believes Every Word You Say” by Barbara Hoberman Levine. The title speaks for itself.
• Talk to people who love and support you to gain a more realistic view of yourself. Use their descriptions and positive view of you as tools for your improved self-perceptions.
• Learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. www.nacbt.org is the site of the National Association Of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists that offers information, techniques and self-help to the public. Explore other sites on line.
• Consult a therapist who can assist you in reducing obsessive habits, depression or self-defeating behaviors.
• You are fortunate to be living in an era of great developments in the reduction of emotional and behavioral suffering. Avail yourself to help and learn the tools to empower yourself to retrain your brain for a better life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life.

Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions.

Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column “Relationship Matters” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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