Happy New Year everyone! I hope you are feeling refreshed and full of energy with new perspectives as you enter 2019! No? Not feeling quite so zesty? Exhausted from the kids being on holiday and all the end of year shenanigans? If so, I feel you. Starting 2019 has been an odd and muddled range of emotions for me. We were lucky to spend time with our extended families over the festive break, but we came back to a whole new world. Two close family friends left, leaving vacuums in our Shanghai lives, and I've started something new professionally. These big and contrasting sad/exciting things made anticipating 2019 a little scary. When I shared this with people over Christmas, they said 'I don't know how you live like that – I don't like change, let alone so much of it!' The statement surprised me because it first came from someone younger (before being affirmed by others) and I always thought it was 'oldies' who didn't like change. It made me realize what natural creatures of habit we are, and that for my immediate family, perhaps this is only slightly moderated by the fact that we are expats and are a bit more open to change.
Or are we? I assume so, but then why did I feel a little fearful about 2019? I'm fearful of not being able to balance work with family life, and not doing either particularly well. I'm also afraid that my close friend's departure will be at times so overwhelmingly sad with memories and places, that I won't know how to 'do Shanghai' anymore. As I bade farewell to one, trying not to shed tears all over her shoulder, I whispered 'I don't know how to live in Shanghai without you.' She whispered back 'It will be different, but you will be ok.' She's right of course. It will be different, and I will be ok, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. So much for expats in China being more open! Yet we hear all the time 'change is good,' or the other axiom, 'the only constant is change, so you might as well get used to it.' But how and why exactly is it good?
Enter the science of change – neuroplasticity. It is the new brain 'buzz word,' addressing everything from general life coping mechanisms to psychiatric disorders and dealing with Alzheimer's. It is the brain's ability to change throughout an individual's life. The concept is revolutionary because it was previously thought that the brain was 'fixed' or hardwired as adults. But, research in the latter half of the 20th century has revealed that brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and brain synapses can also strengthen or weaken over time. This means it is a dynamic organ that changes almost constantly. It isn't hardwired but malleable (plastic). These implications have been immense for addicts, healing, counseling and other psychological needs. In practical terms, we can create our reality, and change it, just as it can change us. Leopards can't change their spots, but we can change as people. We just have to want to.
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I find this remarkably empowering and exciting (more than New Year's resolutions, which, let's face it, don't work for the majority of us). We can even encourage our own neuroplastic development! Researchers have identified three ways:
1. Exercise: This increases blood flow to the brain, delivering much-needed oxygen.
2. Pay attention: Don't act on 'automatic pilot.' When we function on 'automatic,' it is less tiring than being aware of our every move. This automaticity is convenient as we ride bikes or complete other daily tasks, but it also means we can miss out on precious moments or take things for granted. Conscious practices of meditation or mindfulness allow the brain to be more active and flexible.
3. Learn new things: This is especially relevant in adulthood. It comes naturally to a child as everything is new, but adults are less open. We get comfortable with the familiar and like to do the 'same old, same old' which doesn't contribute to neural flexibility. This combination without exercise is the ultimate anti-neuroplastic practice.
All this information only makes a difference depending on the mindset of the person receiving it though. Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is renowned for her work on the mindset psychological trait. Some people, she says, have a fixed mindset, and assume they are incapable of change. By contrast, people with a growth mindset assume they are capable of change and growth. Her research focused on children and education, and those who think they cannot change if they fail a test, are stuck in a fixed mindset about their abilities. It was found that those who believed they could become smarter, and put in the time and effort, achieved more. This also applies to therapy -some look forward to learning and transformation, whereas others defend their right to be as they are. It seems, we even have the power to change how we think about ch-ch-ch-change!
So….Happy New Year 2019 full of zesty new perspectives? Well, that's entirely up to you!
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