By Martha Beck, Ph.D.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself/ can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.” More than 450 years after John Milton wrote these words, science has proven him right. Our thoughts about any situation—the version of the situation that exists in our brains—can make virtually any circumstances seem hellish or heavenly. For centuries, scientists thought that the difference was largely out of our control, since it’s encoded in the structure of our brains. Now we know we have the ability to shape our brains, and that means we can fundamentally reshape our lives.
When I was an anxious, depressed adolescent (before becoming an anxious, depressed adult) frustrated loved ones often told me, “Your problems are all in your head!” This was not news. “I get it!” I’d tell people. “My problems are in my head! How do I get them out?”
Scouring psychological studies didn’t do much for my morale, since it seemed clear that much emotional pain came from broken brains. Researchers found lesions in the brains of people with OCD, showed that lab rats’ brains changed after the animals were traumatized, showed neurological bases for everything from depression to hyperactivity. Ten out of ten textbook agreed: My problems were all in my head, and my head was hopelessly messed up.
Then, just when I was reconciling myself to unalterable fate, neuroscientists developed the technology to observe the brain in action. There was a lot more action than they’d expected. It turns out that human brains aren’t rigid, but “plastic,” as in moldable—and the owner of a brain can learn how to do the molding.
Before the ink was dry on the first “neuroplasticity” studies, I was in a neurologist’s office having my brain “mapped.” The “maps” revealed that I had high anxiety. (Surprise, surprise.) Then the researchers told me I could fix it. (Surprise! Surprise!) For many hours, I sat stone-still, my head wired to a computer, and tried to move a cursor using brain waves alone. “We can’t tell you how,” the researchers told me. “It’s like riding a bicycle; once you get it, you just get it.”
Sure enough, certain thoughts made the cursor go up, and others made it go down. The more it went down, the more peaceful I felt. The key, I found, wasn’t focusing on happy thoughts (I tried that; it didn’t work) but to watch my thoughts as if they were an interesting sports competition. As long as I regarded thoughts as my own creations, not Reality, I could keep the computer cursor—and my anxiety—from going up. Over time, I felt this restructuring the inside of my head, a sensation that was confirmed by more “brain maps.” The result was a lasting calm that I increase by following a simple “mental hygiene” routine every day. Here it is:
This simple process, practiced diligently, can conquer your fears, raise your self-esteem, enhance your creativity, and dissolve barriers to success. If it sounds too easy, try it. You’ll find that it’s unexpectedly difficult to think of evidence to contradict your negative thoughts. This is because you’re dismantling well-established structures in your brain, literally creating new neurological pathways that are unfamiliar but deeply healing. Little by little, this practice can take you all the way from hell to heaven, without ever leaving the dazzling, perplexing, astonishing place that is your mind.
Martha Beck, Ph.D., is a life coach and author. She holds three social-science degrees from Harvard University and has written several international bestsellers, including Expecting Adam and Finding Your Own North Star, and the recently published Steering By Starlight.