Your brain is like a garden and like a garden, it needs watering, nutrition, sunlight, planting, weeding, and pruning. If a garden is left unattended, it can become overrun with weeds. Weeds that can choke out those beautiful plants you’d hoped to see flourish. Our brains are much the same.
I use the analogy of weeds with the toxic thoughts that we can have. Thoughts that we know are impacting us negatively. Thoughts that make us feel and then often act a certain way. These damaging thoughts can be like weeds that take a grip and overrun our minds, our own mental gardens.
We all need to be able to plant new thoughts, develop new behaviors, undertake new actions and new learnings. We also therefore need to learn how to weed and prune to remove those toxic thoughts.
Why mind management?
Our brains and nervous systems are at the center of absolutely everything we do, all our organs, all of our functioning, and the outcomes in our lives. Therefore, if we want to perform well in life, we need to ensure we look after our brain and nervous system. One of the important factors when it comes to looking after your brain is looking after the management of your mind.
One thing we can all recognize is that when our minds are a mess, our lives are a mess. If we really want to make change and improve our lives, we need to learn how to manage our minds.
In this article I will set out the work of 2 experts I turn to when I support my clients in navigating the management of their minds. Invariably when you are working on yourself to create some sort of change, or navigate transition in your life, thoughts come up that can at times be difficult to manage. Am I too old? Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? If we don’t learn to manage these thoughts, they can take a firm grip and can hold us back from making the change we desire.
The first is Dr. Caroline Leaf, a well-regarded neuroscientist who has undertaken extensive research in a technique that she calls neurocycling.
The second expert I turn to is Byron Katie who has done extensive work in the field of managing our minds and managing our thoughts.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, authored ‘Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess’, a book I find really helpful. She describes her research around a technique that she designed called The Neurocycle.
There are 5 steps to the Neurocycle process which has been evidenced to help manage toxic thoughts, create new thoughts and over time embed them down as habitual. It is a simple mind driven activity that uses neuroplasticity to change your thoughts.
Before you start using the neurocycling process, you need to ‘prime’ the brain and have a certain degree of self-awareness. You’ll need to be self-aware enough to notice when you are thinking, feeling, and acting a certain way. You can improve your self-awareness through meditation, mindfulness type techniques as well as journaling to name a few. Whatever works for you, the key is to be in the headspace you are self-aware enough to notice your thoughts and their impact.
The five steps of the Neurocycle:
The first step is to ‘gather’ information. As soon as you become aware of this toxic thought creeping in, begin to gather information from your senses. How do you feel? What is going on in your body? Are there any warning signs or signals going off as the thought takes hold? What was happening around you as the thought started? What were the triggers? Think like a detective and collect as much information as you can, then move to step 2.
Step number 2 is when you begin to have a discussion with yourself about what is really going for you when this thought is beginning to take a hold on your mind. Use the information you gathered from step 1 to reflect on what is going on at a deeper level.
Be the observer – imagine everything playing out is inside a box and you are looking into that box to reflect on what is actually happening. You could also imagine you are standing outside a house, looking in through the window, observing everything you gathered, happening inside of the house.
The idea is to use this time of reflection to get a deeper meaning or deeper understanding of the specific thought. Why are you thinking it? What is it about? Who is it about?
Be the observer and reflect as much as you can on what is going on. Then move onto step 3.
All you need to do in this step is take everything that you've been reflecting on in step two and write it down. As tempting as it is to miss this step, it is an important one NOT to be missed from a neuroscience point of view - writing creates certain changes in your brain that will help you manage this toxic thought.
When you write it down, it allows you to see better what transpired, it allows you to find more clarity about the reflections that you had, and it brings some order out of the chaos.
During the process of writing your reflections down, consider how you'd like to respond to this thought. Consider what you would like to do about it. Then move onto step 4, recheck.
This is when you take time to reanalyze and go through the reflections that you've written down. You may, in fact want to test some of your ideas and thinking with another person.
During this step, you also want to recheck what response or what new way of thinking you would like to undertake in response to this toxic thought.
5) Active reach:
Active reach is when you apply what it is that you've learned during the previous steps. You put into action the new thought or response and what you have learned.
You practice and apply the way that you've chosen to respond to this toxic thought.
Active reach could be something simple like: choosing to pause, to take some time to breathe, and to not react immediately to a negative thought that has come up for you. Active reach may be choosing a different thought or creating a phrase that you say to yourself when the toxic thought comes up.
Duration of Neurocyle:
Each step should only take 1-2 minutes per step – the whole 5 step process should not take more than 5-10 minutes. Like anything in neuroscience, repetition is key, so if you really want to tackle a toxic thought that comes up for you daily and is holding you back in some way, then you would undertake this Neurocycle process every day. Dr. Leaf’s research says that it takes at least 21 days to create a new thought using this technique, and up to 63 days or longer for this new thought to become habitual.
The second person that I turn to when it comes to mind management is Byron Katie, a well-known author, who created a four-question framework to help you tackle toxic thoughts. I call it squashing the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts!).
When a toxic or negative thought comes up for you, a thought that you are hoping to get rid of because you know it is affecting you negatively in some way, you can use these following 4 questions.
1) Is this thought true?
2) Is this thought absolutely true? In other words, would it hold up with evidence in a court of law? (In most cases, you will notice question 1 and 2 are usually not true).
3) How do I feel when I'm thinking this thought? When I feel like that, what sort of impact does it have on my life?
4) Now that I can see that this toxic thought is not true, but is also damaging me, if I were to come up with a different thought, a thought that was true, yet opposite, how would that make me feel? How would that new thought play out in my life?
And much like the Neurocycle, you would go through these 4 questions on repetition every time the toxic thought comes up for you. You begin to retrain your brain.
Remember: When our minds are a mess, our lives are a mess.
Give these 2 simple techniques that harness neuroplasticity, to prune and weed your mind. Because when you take care of your mind, you take care of your brain, and in turn your life.