Ten Ways to Train Your Brain

I recently read a fascinating article in Time magazine titled “The Science of Bouncing Back,” where the author, Mandy Oaklander, explored the characteristic of resilience.

“Forget the old adage that you won’t know what you’re made of until you’re tested,” states the article. “The latest science shows that if you train your brain, how you act under pressure can, in large part, be up to you.”

Resilience is all about how a person reacts in the midst of stressful situations. Whether that be getting fired from a job, experiencing the loss of a loved one or serving in combat situations, stress comes in all shapes and sizes, as does one’s ability to deal with them.

Science shows that some people are more naturally equipped than others. Navy SEALs, for example, are a group the word “resilience” is often tied to, and for good reason.

“In a series of brain-imaging experiments on resilient Navy SEALs, [scientific director and president of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla Martin] Paulus showed the SEALs a color cue that signaled they were about to see an emotional picture,” Oaklander wrote. “Paulus saw that their brains anticipated the emotion more quickly than the average brain, letting them jump nimbly between different types of emotions.”

The top characteristics resilient people share include optimism, emotional control, mindfulness and positive response to failure, according to psychologists.

Essentially, big-picture strength is the result of small reactions. And though it’s true some are simply born better equipped to effectively handle discomfort, studies show that taking certain measures can quiet the brain’s fear receptors in favor of a more pliable, constructive connection.

“Just like working your biceps or your abs, say experts, training your brain can build up strength in the right places–and at the right times–too,” wrote Oaklander.

It’s all about the brain. The article states that the neural pathways that regulate fear are strengthened the more you use them, just like a muscle. Through mindful conditioning, however, different pathways are reinforced and strengthen instead, resulting in a “new response to stress.”

Oaklander wrote: “The most compelling new research about resilience focuses on mindfulness–an area in which most people would do well to improve, since people spend 47% of their days thinking about things other than what they’re actually doing, a 2010 Harvard study found.”

And, the power of the brain was illustrated in the experience of Vietnam POWs:

“[They told doctors] Southwick and Charney that with only two resources–free time and their minds–they were able to do remarkable things they couldn’t do before; one developed a knack for multiplying huge numbers in his head, while another built a house in his imagination (and then later, on solid ground).

‘It said to us that there’s enormous untapped capacity of the human brain,’ Charney says.”

TIME listed ten practices said to improve resilience, as listed below.

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Expert Tips for Resilience:

1. Develop a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake.

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When we map our beliefs, a truth solidifies inside us. This might be found in religious or spiritual practices or simply a personal moral code. Not only does identifying these beliefs lead to sorted priorities and easy decision-making, but it also develops a strength that defines us.

2. Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened.

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Often, explanations bring a strange sort of peace. If we are able to analyze the situation and identify the root of our state, we have something to learn from and move forward with. If explanations are slippery, elusive, then look back at recommendation #1: what are your beliefs? The explanation may lie in them.

3. Try to maintain a positive outlook.

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I once had a friend say, “Think of everything else in your life that is stable.”

It’s the easiest thing in the world to focus on one broken thing and forget about the many other gifts that are still standing. But remembering the reality of the matter–that this will pass–lends a hand to the bigger, brighter picture.

4. Take cues from someone who is especially resilient.

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We all have that person that comes to mind when we are feeling weak. For me, it’s my grandmother who passed away before I was born. She never played the victim, and she never allowed her condition to dictate who she was or how she treated others.

Figure out who that person is for you, and consult them if you are able. It’s likely they’ll have words of advice and support to share.

5. Don’t run from the things that scare you; face them.

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The cliche most popularly delivered from parents to their children might deserve to be reemphasized.

Facing one’s fears challenges the neural pathways that result in fear, and usually, an instinctive aversion to whatever unpleasant experience that’s facing you. By tackling the issue head-on, you’re speeding up a difficult and inevitable process, while refining your confidence in knowing you did dealt with something scary, and can do it again.

6. Be quick to reach out for support when things go haywire.

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Navy SEALs, the most experimentally-proven examples of resilience in modern times, are also surrounded by a close-knit community they like to call brothers. Throughout BUD/S, the intense training course that determines whether or not militants earn a spot in this brotherhood, teamwork and reliance on your partner is reiterated over and over again. Abandonment of your partner is unacceptable.

Strength is often misinterpretation as something an individual finds and utilizes on their own. But anyone who says they accomplished anything by themselves is lying.

Drop your pride and seek the support of others.

7. Learn new things as often as you can.

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The more experienced and knowledgeable you are, the more confident and comfortable you will feel tackling new tasks and challenges.

Read. Talk to people who are younger and more lighthearted than you, peers who are going through similar things as you, elderly people who are more wise than you. Become an expert on something interesting. Learn how to shoot a gun. Find a new recipe to try. Accept an invitation to go dancing, even if you don’t know the steps.

Choosing your own challenges will better prepare you for the challenges you don’t choose.

8. Find an exercise regimen you’ll stick to.

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Not only does exercise release endorphins that act like booster shots for your mood; it is also shown that strengthening the body is closely linked to a healthy, clear mind.

Those who see and feel results procured from forcing themselves through strenuous physical challenges tend to believe themselves capable of handling strenuous situations. And, because exercise registers as stress to the body and the body has learned to cope with that stress, the body and mind are better conditioned to deal with other antagonisms just as efficiently.

Taking care of your body is worth it. Find a way to move that you enjoy.

9. Don’t beat yourself up or dwell on the past.

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What’s the point? What’s done is done. If your past performance or behavior doesn’t agree with the standards you set for yourself, make present changes and/or amends and move forward.

10. Recognize what makes you uniquely strong, and own it.

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Tapping into what you already have and taking advantage of your unique gifts, talents, abilities, experiences and strengths is the most logical first step toward figuring out who you are and what you can accomplish. What might be easy for you may be difficult for someone else. Appreciate that. Harnessing your strengths and your weaknesses will help you understand yourself, and the deeper you understand yourself, the more sturdy and whole you will feel in the face of struggle.

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Information and list from Time magazine’s “The Science of Bouncing Back” by Mandy Oaklander. 

Commentary following each bullet-point is mine.

Photographs retrieved from Tumblr blog titled vintage-image. Artist unknown.

Eighty Miles an Hour

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Happiness was just outside my window
I thought it’d crash blowing eighty miles an hour
But happiness—a little more like knocking
On your door, and you just let it in

Happiness feels a lot like sorrow
Let it be, you can’t make it come or go
But you are gone—not for good but for now
And gone for now feels a lot like gone for good

Happiness is a firecracker sitting on my headboard
Happiness was never meant to hold
Be careful child, light the fuse and get away
‘Cause happiness throws a shower of sparks

Happiness damn near destroys you
Breaks your faith to pieces on the floor
So you tell yourself, “That’s enough for now.”
Happiness has a violent roar

Happiness is like the old man told me
Look for it, and you’ll never find it all
But let it go, live your life and leave it
Then one day, you’ll wake up and she’ll be home.

Happiness” by Isaac Slade, Joseph King, David Welsh and Benjamin Wysocki

The Speech I Didn’t Give

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~JUNE 5, 2015~

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There are several pictures of the three of us like this. Me on one side, Holly on the other–two towers book-ending petite Kira in the middle.

Sitting on a trolley underneath jungle-green trees in full. Standing beside a bronze statue in Spokane. Birthday parties. Logos graduation.

With eighteen years of friendship comes countless opportunities to snap a photo of that particular time, that particular day. The times we want, and don’t want, to remember. The moment we looked differently, smiled differently, than usual.

The things you can’t find in photographs.

As I dig through boxes of old Wal-Mart printouts and flip through tacky scrapbook pages I decorated at age twelve, scroll through Facebook albums and  swipe through the photographs on my phone, I am caught up in the memories that aren’t documented.

You can’t find us watching The Black Cauldron on Kira’s parents’ bed in the apartment they used to live in, or the three of us climbing a tree so tall it could’ve broken us. There is no record of us punching the wall in her room as we trained to be spies, or teasing Kira’s brother for looking like Aaron Carter with his hair dyed blond, or crawling under the stairs in their new home to eat pizza as the adults moved furniture. No one was out in the fields to snap a picture of the three of us hunting for Osama bin Laden at the old well, or seeking fresh water to clear the rainbow gasoline tracks left behind by farm equipment to clean the environment, or squishing through thick mud my mother had to wipe from our feet with wet rags. The few photographs taken while Isabelle was in the hospital show little girls distracted by the city and forget to show that the little girls were also sad.

There aren’t pictures of us cuddled close together on the bunks in Isabelle’s old room as Marnie read us Mandie mysteries with a different voice for each character, or writing songs and creating dances for our Christian pop band, or laughing so hard after a spaghetti dinner that Kira threw up. No one saw the fight that took place in our upstairs bathroom, when Kira said she’d wished she’d spent the night at Julianne’s instead. No one saw us laughing together a half hour later.

Pictures don’t show us waiting in line to see Harry Potter in IMAX, or making jewelry at Vacation Bible School. There is no proof of the three of us swimming at Blue Lagoon, or shopping for school clothes, or transporting from one house to the next as freshly licensed drivers. No one saw the tears over the phone, or the coffee shop dates, or the nightly walks and the sleepovers that lasted well into college.

But that’s okay. Those things happened and more, and the only three people who really need to remember is us.

This past Friday, June 5, 2015, Holly and I were in a wedding. It just so happened to be Kira’s.

Kira never thought she’d marry young, let alone marry someone after eight months of knowing the man, but if there’s anything the three of us solidly know it’s that things change instantly. The plans you have shatter. The people you know mean more or less to you than they did seconds ago. Things fall apart so new things can come together.

Chase Guyer shattered Kira’s plans in the best way possible. And there aren’t any pictures of the day he yelled her name across the street to get her attention, but there are many pictures of the days following.

It seemed fitting that the guest book be replaced with Polaroid photos of their guests, hung on a zig-zagging line by clothespins. Pictures mean so much more than signatures on a page.

There are many, many pictures that show how much Kira and Chase are loved.

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One of the most special things about being a bridesmaid in Kira’s wedding was the fact that every girl standing next to me in a purple floor-length gown were the same friends Kira has had since childhood.

Holly, Abby, Sarah, Kendyl, Julianne–they were soccer jerseys and pajama parties and birthday cake. They are familiar names and faces. They are tied to Kira by their own unique threads, and never allowed the separation of place or age collapse the space between them.

There we were, with longer limbs and wiser minds and university transcripts. I doubt I’m the only one who found it surreal to be facing the dressing room mirror, sliding lipstick over my mouth with an expertise I wouldn’t have had ten years ago, when we played dress-up with old clothing and mother’s makeup.

I got the pleasure of swapping stories with these girls and laughing to tears in the days leading up to the wedding. It made the, How did we get here? realization sweeter, more special, than it would have been without.

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It’s difficult for a beautiful girl to look anything less, but I have to reiterate that Kira looked breathtakingly beautiful on her wedding day.

The sixties-style makeup, side-swept hair, and curve-hugging white dress with tiny buttons trailing down her spine and cinched with an ornate black belt was a solid mix of retro and rad and sexy elegance. But what I felt most secure in was her disposition. It was obvious that Chase’s presence in her life had brought to center stage the best parts of Kira, the sweet, strong, wise parts that those who loved her saw even when she didn’t.

I think when she looked in the mirror that day, she finally saw those things. I think she finally saw herself.

Photographs were taken all day, but like most best things, I don’t have a photograph of that. I wished I did, so that if she ever forgot, I could remind her.

And then I realize that Chase will be there to do that for the rest of her life, much better than a photograph ever could.

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I didn’t give a speech at the wedding, but if I had, I would’ve said this:

Make God the centerpiece of your marriage. Don’t panic when things aren’t perfect. Never stop adventuring or getting to know one another. Compromise when necessary and go to bed at the same time every night. Don’t stop pursuing one another just because the dating process is complete. Save money, but spend it, too. Don’t listen to anyone who says marriage is really hard. Don’t listen to anyone who says marriage is really easy. Know that love is a verb. Look at one another when the other person isn’t paying attention. Take heart. God is so, so good.

Kira and Chase, it is evident you are bold and love people well. I don’t just wish you the best–I see the best.

Growing Pains

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Taking the easy way out has never been recommended. But how often have you been encouraged to ease your way into something? To approach a challenge slowly, wincing in anticipation, in hopes of accomplishing something great?

How many have tried this approach, and found it as mediocre as taking the easy way out?

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The most efficient way to grow is to attempt something hard. Not mildly challenging, not slightly uncomfortable, but hard. Hard enough that you might want to quit sometimes. Hard enough that there is the possibility of failure.

We give up long-term satisfaction because of present pain. Don’t do that. Failing and quitting are two different things. Trying and failing is honorable. Quitting to avoid failure is not.

Satisfaction is the reward of success.

You have to chuck your pride and be all in, all the time. You have to believe that 100% is enough, regardless of the result. Not all growth happens through suffering, but growth does require varying levels of sacrifice and tediousness and energy we have to dig deep to find if we want to reform our lives, our minds, our bodies, our spirits, and our hearts.

Extended periods of comfort equals laziness. It creates blind spots. Fortunately, we have a choice.

There is always something to better. There is always something to learn. It’s in our nature to seek development, and to cut that quest short discredits your abilities and stunts your potential.

It’s called growing pains for a reason. It’s going to hurt. It’s supposed to hurt, because without pain, you don’t move.

Someday

Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.

-Ray Bradbury

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As a child, I used to watch television shows with plots that made my stomach hurt, as I were in the backseat of a car and the twists and turns were making me motion sick.

The characters would stumble across an unprecedented challenge, or a misunderstanding with one another, and while they struggled and sought ways in which to fix an issue that was fabricated, I watched from the crook of our blue couch in agony, knowing that I couldn’t offer the characters the truth they needed to realize everything is fine, was fine, all along.

Just wait, I’d think. You’ll see.

And by the end of the episode, everything would be sorted.

As a high school student in theater, I would learn the word for this: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a trope best defined as the moment in a storyline where the audience knows something the characters don’t.

Punk’D is a good example. Actors pull a practical joke on someone who is blind to the bigger picture, which gives the pranksters an upper hand in navigating the length and intensity of a joke. The storyline is kept under control so as not to hurt the person physically or emotionally, but all of this is unbeknownst to the victim. They believe that the incident is a reality that defines their immediate future until the TV crew calls it quits and offers them that truth they need to understand, the truth I constantly wanted to give those childhood television characters.

It wasn’t until later in life I realized that maybe, God thinks similarly about our lives, which I’ve come to see as solid streams of dramatic irony.

Just wait, I imagine Him thinking. You’ll see.

You’ll see what I have planned for you.

You’ll see what I can do.

You’ll see why.

One of my favorite verses is John 13:7, where Jesus says, “You don’t know what I’m doing now, but someday you will.”

This is a constant reassurance that everything will come full circle. I see the tread-marks of this promise in my past, evidence that the Word is true and will prove itself to be so time and time again. Though the answers I seek have not always found me at the moments I believed I needed them most, they came at the time that was truly right. The only cure for that wild alternation between panic and peace is perspective, which will come with patience and trust. It’s how you handle the in-between the defines the quality of you life until those answers are given.

Just wait. You’ll see.

Sublime Seas

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BE NOT THE SLAVE OF YOUR OWN PAST

PLUNGE INTO THE SUBLIME SEAS

DIVE DEEP AND SWIM FAR

SO YOU SHALL COME BACK WITH SELF-RESPECT

WITH NEW POWER

WITH AN ADVANCED EXPERIENCE

THAT SHALL EXPLAIN AND OVERLOOK THE OLD

~ralph waldo emerson~