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How to use your brain's resilience to improve your wellbeing: 5 great ways to transform your life

The brain is extremely resilient - it's robust, can withstand setbacks, knocks, great changes and adapts throughout our lifetime. If nurtured, it can also keep growing - making new neural pathways (think of neural pathways as wiring for the brain!) regardless of our age, thereby enriching our lives. How we use this most precious asset has a profound impact on all aspects of our life such as ageing, the ability to withstand pain and even our mental and physical performance.

"The reality we will experience tomorrow is in part a product of the mindsets we hold today"

David Robson, The Expectation Effect

Robson's theory is that the brain is a "prediction machine" that can change our unconscious and conscious expectations which, in turn, affect our reality. Accordingly, the way we use these expectations has a profound impact on our lives - ranging from our ability to exercise more, live longer and even physiological impacts such as our ability to recover quicker from surgery.

His book is full of interesting and illuminating studies which highlight how the brain adapts and can be rewired through the power of expectations. In this article, I want to share 5 very important benefits from putting that into practice.

1 Use reframing techniques to ease pain and recover more quickly from illness

During a study of post-traumatic brain injury, measuring a person's initial beliefs about their future prognosis could successfully predict the risk of post-concussion syndrome in 80% of cases.

So if you think your symptoms will last for a long time and are beyond your control, there is a large probability that this will indeed occur, cateris paribus. Similar findings were found in patients who tended to catastrophise - the severity of pain to patients suffering chronic pain led to amplification of their symptoms.

To counter this, studies have shown benefits to patients who adopted psychotherapy techniques such as positive reframing framing and other reappraisal techniques. And the greater the time that the patients practised these techniques, the longer these changes remained;

Example of reframing techniques: "The sensations are real but temporary"

reducing areas of the brain associated with catastrophic thinking, thereby reducing these pain amplifiers.

2 Active practice of visualisation can increase muscle strength and growth

In summary, the power of your mind determines your physical limits - obviously within certain tolerances of reasonableness!

Mind is everything...all that I am, I am because of my mind

Roger Bannister

Traditional theories used biomechanical theories to determine our physical limits, i.e. our muscles tire when they run out of fuel, and this leads to a build-up of toxic by-products such as lactic acid which slows us down.

However, recent research shows that the brain plays a core role in regulating our energy expenditure to protect the body from injury and damage. Hence, it creates sensations of fatigue and strain as a warning mechanism. But the brain's estimates of what we can do are very conservative. Tests carried out on cyclists prove that the brain can be "duped" into thinking there is more energy available - e.g. when British cyclists were told that their body temperatures were cooler than it actually was during a ride in hot and humid conditions, they were found to have significantly more stamina.

There have been similarly impressive results from tests into visualisation, particularly for muscle strength. Perhaps the most striking experiment relates to the group of participants who practised visualisation for 15minutes a day for 6 weeks, imagining they were lifting a heavy object using their forearms. They witnessed an 11 per cent increase in strength despite not lifting a single weight during that period!

Brain scans of athletes who actively used visualisation techniques showed that the brain area required for planning and executing the specific movements required by those athletes were enhanced, thereby inducing a better performance.

Similar studies have been done on non-athletes and show that regularly practising mental imagery of exercise a few minutes a week increases people's motivation and performance.

3 People who accepted their thoughts and feelings without labelling them negatively, had better psychological health.

This statement comes from a test on 1000 people who were asked to answer 7 questions in a questionnaire relating to how they viewed negative emotions and feelings. People who accepted their feelings, especially negative/unpleasant ones, had much lower levels of stress and anxiety as well as lower incidences of depression.

In essence, it is much better to accept that there is some value in accepting negative experiences and feelings; learning from them will help you recover more quickly from traumatic and other negative experiences. The key is how we interpret those feelings - by catastrophising, we can do more harm than the feelings themselves. The key is to understand and accept that unpleasant feelings serve a purpose and can actually help us to make sense of events and situations, helping us to recover and improve our wellbeing.

4 Your verbal and non-verbal expressions of expectations about other people's abilities have a critical impact on their performance.

Numerous tests have proven that a teacher's expectations can have a significant impact on the education of students.

I don't think there's now any doubt that teacher expectations makes a difference

Christine Rubie-Davies, education specialist at the University of Auckland

In fact, commercial organisations have also found that expectations have a significant impact on the performance of individuals. Tests have been carried out in various organisations from the Dutch police to clerks at the New York branch of National City Bank and showed conclusive evidence that the leaders' expectations boosted or limited their employees' performance.

These expectations can take various forms - i.e both verbal cues as well as non-verbal recipient cues such as not making eye contact or not smiling or smiling a lot less to employees with lower expectations. These small differences are all picked up and noted by the recipient. Research has shown that they are internalised and affect their self-belief and motivations. It is worth noting that the giver of these cues may not even be aware he/she is doing them - an example of unconscious bias.

5 Your beliefs about the ageing process may be as important for your long term wellbeing as your actual age

Based on research published in 2002 in the United States involving over 1100 participants who were 50 at the start of the study over several decades, researchers found that the average person with a more positive attitude towards ageing lived on for 22.6 years after the study commenced, whilst the average person with poorer perceptions of ageing survived for 15 years - a significant difference of approximately 7.5 years.

Other studies have also shown there is truth in the adage "you're only as young as you feel". Participants who had a lower subjective age of themselves tend to enjoy much better physical and mental health. One possible reason to explain this relates to perceptions of old age which we acquire from an early age, associating old age with pain and illness. Once we reach a certain age, some of us start to believe those stereotypes and hence those "prophecies" begin to be self-fulfilling.

Another reason relates to how our negative expectations may provoke an unhealthy stress response that affects our wellbeing. This theory has been tested - results showed that elderly people who had negative ageing perceptions had higher blood pressure to stressful challenges.

There is now significant evidence to prove that the way we age is within our control; and the more we remember this fact, the easier it becomes to deal with negative stereotypes about ageing. There is no better evidence to support this than the unrelenting Japanese triathlete, Hiromu Inada who completed his first of 3 Ironman triathlons just before his 85th birthday;

I hope everyone can see and be encouraged that you can do the same things as the younger generation

Final words

Hopefully, these examples show the wonderful resilience of our brain but also how much control each of us has in determining our own well being in all spheres of our lives. Changing our mindest through changing our expectations can have lasting benefits. As with any new skill, regular practice is required to learn and embed techniques such as visualising, distancing and reframing to ensure lasting benefits. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by exploring these techniques further!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, and also, if you've already experienced using some of these techniques. If you want to know more about anything mentioned in this blog, I'd be delighted to help, please email me at

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