I love it when I ‘believe’ things or ‘know’ them to be true in my guts and then find out that science is busy proving the same thing. Choosing to live an alcohol-free life is definitely one of those things. Once I began to learn the science of the brain and addiction, it is next to impossible for me to act in opposition to it.
I consider myself a half-assed scientist. I have a Bachelors of Science (in the vaguely gen-ed sounding field of ‘Technical Systems Management’), I worked in the least engineer-y of the engineering domains (Environmental), and then I taught high school science for ten years. I still enjoy reading science-for-the-layperson books by authors such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Mary Roach, and I can appreciate a good extrapolated line graph on climate change. But while I’m not a detail-oriented, lab-coat wearing, journal-scouring nerd, I definitely geek out over facts and emerging patterns that define the inner workings of our minds and our universe.
Because see, I’m also a poet. And that means that science can only do so much for me. It’s my heart, soul and intuition that ultimately run the show.
The science is what initially drew me into This Naked Mind (Annie Grace’s groundbreaking book that my current coach training is based upon). I picked up her book the day I decided I had to stop drinking or else I would eventually destroy myself and my family. She uses heavily-researched scientific data to shift the unconscious beliefs we have developed around alcohol… and ultimately squelch the desire to drink. Her aim is to liberate the reader from the constant pull of alcohol cravings so that to ‘recover from addiction’ does not mean that you must constantly live in a state of ‘recovery’. I have learned to rely more and more on my intuition as I have cleared my mind and body of toxins, but science is definitely the basis for which I have built my belief system around.
So here’s some useful little science nuggets that I’d like to share from my recent This Naked Mind certification training:
Thoughts are Things
You know the monologues you hear inside your head—the narration and excuses, the judgements and justifications—that pop up as you move through your day? Those always jabbering, often self-sabotaging, thoughts? They are actual, physical things.
That’s right. Our thought patterns create neural pathways in our brains – essentially superhighways that become second-nature.
Yes, they are the formless words you say inside your head. But those words, when practiced over and over, become physical nerve connections inside your brain.
And the coolest thing? We are capable of changing them. We can stop thinking one thing and that pathway will eventually disintegrate! We can start thinking an alternative thought and a new pathway will form!
That’s science… and that’s really cool.
This is also basically what Buddhists have been saying for millennia. And of course echoed by good old Eckhart Tolle, with his “You are not your thoughts” mantra.
However, all this is easier said than done. When we’ve been rolling down the neural pathway of a thought we’ve been having most of our lives, we have created quite a hefty avenue of nerve connectors.
It takes practice and work to change the physical structure of your brain. You know how when you are so used to driving the same way to work every day and then they close down a road? You have to remember to go a different route in the morning… and sometimes you forget and have to backtrack, cussing yourself out because now you are going to be late. Changing our brain is the same way.
“What you think today will be easier to think tomorrow.”
Annie Grace dropped that piece of wisdom during one of the training videos I watched this week. It is a good motto to have as we’re trying to close down an old negative thought-highway and build a new one. We need to have some self-compassion as we work on retraining our brain.
Creating a series of new, more positive, thought patterns takes practice and work. It is important to be intentional about redirecting our thoughts around drinking (or whatever other old habits stand in our way) until they have formed deeper neural pathways and eventually become as second nature as the old ones once were.
In his writings, Eckhart Tolle asserts that an ‘awareness’ of our thoughts (or ability to observe a thought without passing judgement or disassociating from it) is the first major step in separating ourselves from being blindly controlled by them. Admittedly, this is something I struggle with almost daily. I often find myself caught up in an anxiety about my kids, flummoxed over an irritation with my husband or tangled up in a criticism of myself.
It gets easier, I suppose, to veer my mind away from the neural highways that no longer serve me and onto the rugged roads of new and positive thoughts. The more I keep up with my meditation practice and find time to be in nature, the more I am able to function as a conscious observer of my thoughts rather than their reactionary puppet.
Guiding my clients to begin to see their thoughts for exactly what they are – words inside their head – and how they can choose to reframe them – will be a key aspect of my work as a coach.
It is so rewarding to be on this path of learning and personal growth as I work towards my recovery coaching certification. Thank you for reading. I’m honored to share this with you!