Understanding your past is important.
Recalling childhood events can help explain why you have certain ingrained behaviors. Maybe you’re way too defensive because your mother was overly critical of you. Or you don’t trust your spouse, because your father abandoned you.
Look, answering the “why” is a moment that can be incredibly healing to your confused and long-suffering spirit.
But reliving the past can also work against you in these two instances:
1. When trying to change a habit. Habits are generated by creating neural pathways in the brain. Think of a habit as a well-worn and clearly marked trail in the woods – it’s easy to find, and easy to follow.
Unfortunately, when the path leads to destruction, the brain’s efficiency is not your friend.
The problem with a bad habit, is that even just thinking about it makes the pathway even stronger. And when you rehash – yet again – why your childhood stress made you a chronic worrier, it reinforces your tendency to be anxious.
2. Before going to bed.
Sleep is crucial time that the brain uses to edit out the millions of stimuli you receive every day. Microglial cells are particularly active while you’re catching your zzzs. These so called “gardeners of the brain” prune out non-essential neural branches and connections, allowing more oxygen to nourish what is left behind.
How do these gardeners know what to prune? Researchers have discovered that unused connections are biochemically marked for deletion.
Conversely, well-worn thoughts (and their corresponding neural branches) are considered useful, and thus left intact.
After a good night’s sleep, your mind is less cluttered and you can think much more clearly, thanks to this process.
But when you recall in vivid detail the exact way in which you bungled that presentation, or how you mismanaged your finances again, you’re telling your mircoglial cells to hang on to those patterns.
What to do instead?
When trying to break a habit: stop trying to break it. Instead, work on building a new habit to replace it.
Before sleep: think about things you want to accomplish, and focus on the good things that happened that day. Remind yourself that you want to be more present with your daughter when you pick her up from school.
Or, go over a pleasant memory from your work day – perhaps you solved problem, or managed your time well.
By doing these things, you are essentially directing your brain as to what neural pathways to maintain and reinforce. Over time, they become well worn paths you take towards happiness.
So, focus on what you want. Practice, even if you’re clumsy at it.
And remember, it’s all practice.
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