Train your brain to achieve success

Do you sometimes find yourself doing something you know you shouldn’t… reaching for another biscuit? Making an excuse not to exercise? Buying something on impulse even though you can’t afford it? Having another glass of wine even though you know you’ll be grumpy in the morning? Perhaps dating a person that you know will end up hurting you? Why is it that we put ourselves in situations that are not in our best interest?

At times it can feel like we are own worst enemy, sabotaging any chance of success. The brain is hard-wired to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. Instinctively we crave what will make us feel good in the moment. This is why it can be so hard to sustain positive actions such as healthy eating, exercising regularly and saving in the long run. Have you identified your mental hurdles in order to overcome them? By better understanding how your brain works, you can free yourself from automatic psychological tendencies.

When we feel stressed or anxious we set off a whole load of chemical and electrical reactions in our body. Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer and are being chased by a tiger on the Savannah. Your brain goes into high alert in order to survive. You will either grab a spear and fight for your life or you will flee and find a safe cave to hide in.

Now imagine that your boss asks you to learn a new computer system at work, or to take on an extra case. As far as your brain is concerned this stress is the equivalent to that of the tiger roaring in your face. You activate your sympathetic nervous system and your body goes into high alert. The survival system in your brain sends messages to your body that you are in mortal danger. Rationally you might know that you will cope with the extra work, but your brain is telling you to run for the hills. This is an unfortunate throwback to evolution, a side-effect of the human survival mechanism. Understanding the chain reactions in your body is the first step to controlling and changing them.

Our beliefs are what trigger messages to our nervous system, so if you think being assigned extra work is going to be overwhelming, these feelings will govern how your behaviour when faced with extra work. Beliefs can be limiting.

How can you overcome this hardwired survival mechanism? By being more conscious and implementing a system of mental checks each time you make a decision, can help overcome this faulty bias towards pleasure. Think about every time a plane takes off there is a systematic check in place to ensure safety. By using a checklist when you make a decision, you are minimising the risk of something going wrong. So what should you include on your checklist?

5 ways to achieve success

1. Just do it!

We know that going for a run or doing a gym class is a healthy option. We know the ordering the side salad instead of chips is a healthy option, but often we don’t do it. It’s not good enough to know what to do, you need to take decisive action. Don’t delay, put off or make excuses – just do it!

2. Be prepared to be wrong

Our brain seeks out and values information that confirms our preconceptions and beliefs. This is known as the “confirmation bias”. Our brains search for proof of how right we are, validating us. This means we can find evidence to keep us stuck in our stress or anxiety. Are you adaptable enough to change your approach in order to overcome bias and achieve success?

Seeking the opinions and views of people that are different and even disagree with you is a good way to challenge your views. Ask yourself “What am I not seeing?” “What am I failing to anticipate?”. Questions like this can protect us from confirmation bias.

3. Be prepared for change

We are creatures of comfort and respond well to routine, order and structure. The neurons in your brain draw on recent experience to create shortcut neural pathways. It is important to challenge yourself regularly, seek out novelty in order to keep your brain adaptable and flexible.

4. Be brave, push your comfort zone every day

Humans have a natural tendency to stay within their comfort zones. You probably have a favourite coffee shop or route to work and rarely stray further afield. You tend to stick to what you know best, the familiar.

For our cave-dwelling ancestor’s familiarity meant survival and taking risks could be dangerous, even lethal. The solution to overcome this bias is to take more calculated risks, expand your horizons and do things differently. One of my favourite sayings is “do something every day that scares you a bit.” Small things like talking to a stranger, trying a new food or taking a different route is enough to challenge the brain.

5. Don’t chase the shortcut

We have a tendency to want the best results as fast as possible rather than focusing on small changes over a longer period of time e.g. the miracle pill that will make you happy for the investment that will make you rich quick.

As in the story of the hare and the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race. The gaming and gambling industry pray on the fact that we are producing endorphins that make us feel euphoric and intoxicated when winning. We desire and crave this emotional high. Being aware of how addictive the endorphin rush you get when you do something pleasurable helps you to begin to take control of your brain.

6. Savour the positive

Humans have a natural tendency to recall the negative experience more vividly than a positive one. You know if you get several compliments and one criticism, you will focus disproportionately on the criticism. This negativity bias help to keep us safe in prehistoric times, however, it can be downright destructive in the modern day world.

Mastering your mind to be more positive, can help you overcome destructive psychological patterns that have been part of our brain’s ancient survival software.

Making small tweaks can lead to long-term gains. Creating a checklist for yourself can help you achieve your long-term goals and not succumb to short-term pleasures.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bracknell, Berkshire, RG42
Written by Nicola Strudley, Psychotherapist (MCoun, Snr Accr Member BACP)
Bracknell, Berkshire, RG42

Psychotherapist, Coach, Mindful Walker, PT for the brain!

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