From persistent negative thoughts to anxiety and depression, we all have messy minds now and then – it’s a natural response to the difficult events and circumstances we all face.
But just because the mess is natural doesn’t mean we have to live with it. We may not be able to control the world around us, but we can certainly control how we, and specifically our minds, respond to it. And this article will show you how.
This article shares research-backed tools for managing the mess in our minds. They teach us how to transform negative thoughts into new, more positive thinking patterns that’ll help us lead happier and healthier lives.
The key to living a healthy lifestyle is managing your mind
What do you think of when you hear the words “healthy lifestyle”?
Perhaps you think of eating a diet rich in nutritious foods, making sure you get the right amount of sleep, and exercising often to stay fit. And you’re correct – good food, regular exercise, and enough sleep all contribute to a healthy lifestyle. But there’s another important element: the state of your mind.
When your mind is filled with toxic, depressing, or anxious thoughts, it’s in a messy state. And this negatively impacts your lifestyle. So, in the same way that you manage your home so it doesn’t get messy, you need to manage your mind.
A messy mind takes a toll on your health. How? Well, constantly grappling with negative thinking, anxiety, or depressing thoughts leads to toxic stress.
This impacts your biochemistry and brain function, increasing your risk of neurological disorders like dementia. And it also lowers your immunity, putting you at a higher risk of disease.
In fact, a number of studies indicate that close to 90 percent of conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are caused by toxic stress. And that’s not all: toxic stress also changes your gene structure and activity. This means that its negative effects won’t stop with you – they’ll also be passed down to future generations.
Now, toxic stress is a natural response, but this doesn’t mean that it has to take a toll on your health or that of your offspring. You can control it through mind management.
By managing your mind, you can alter your negative thoughts before they stir up toxic stress. With enough practice, mind management can even prevent negative thoughts in the first place by making you more resilient to life’s challenges.
A great way to understand the power of mind management is by envisioning mental mess as a car crash. Without mind management, you’re simply a bystander. But with mind-management skills, you become a first responder at the scene of the accident – equipped to prevent further hurt.
Accessing your unconscious mind will allow you to change your thoughts
Before we explore how to alter our thoughts and manage our minds, let’s take a moment to think about exactly what the mind is and how it works.
The mind is energy generated through our thinking, feeling, and behavior. This energy builds thoughts, which are real, concrete things in our brains. Specifically, thoughts are ideas embedded with memories of associated information, emotions, and physical feelings.
These thoughts are stored in a part of the mind called the nonconscious mind. And if we want to manage our thoughts – and, as a result, our minds – this is the part we need to tap into.
If the mind is energy, the nonconscious mind is the powerhouse. Not only is it home to memories and thoughts; it also works constantly and influences the other parts of the mind – the subconscious mind and the conscious mind.
Here’s how the three parts work together. Thoughts rooted in the nonconscious mind trigger physical and emotional signals in the subconscious.
Think of how people sometimes experience anticipation or a nagging feeling that something’s not right – that’s the subconscious at work. Then, when thoughts reach the conscious part of the mind, we become fully aware of them, and they manifest in our words and actions.
So, what does this all mean for mind management? In order to change something, we first have to be aware of it. In the case of thoughts, this requires engaging the nonconscious mind so that the toxic thoughts within it are drawn out into the conscious mind. Once they get there, we can start altering them.
To help us do this, Dr. Caroline Leaf developed the Neurocycle – a mind-management practice based on 30 years of research into the science of thought.
The Neurocycle was put to the test in a clinical trial, in which an experimental group used it to manage their toxic thoughts over a period of time. By the end of the trial, the group experienced fewer toxic thoughts and lower levels of toxic stress. And, overall, depression and anxiety in the group reduced by around 80 percent.
The experimental group also reported feeling more in control and, as a result, empowered. And various other studies have shown that autonomy and empowerment can help people improve both their mental and physical health.
The Neurocycle is based on the principles of embracing, processing, and reconceptualizing
During a bubble bath one night, Dr. Caroline Leaf’s diamond earring – a gift from her children – fell into the water. She panicked, but not for long.
She quickly acknowledged the situation and her reaction. Then, she processed her mind-set and understood that it was a natural response to potentially losing a special gift.
To find it, she needed a different response. So, she thought of patting down the bubbles in order to see clearly. Using this strategy, she found her earring.
In this scenario, Dr. Caroline Leaf used the principles of the Neurocycle to manage her mind.
In order to embrace, process, and reconceptualize as effectively as Dr. Caroline Leaf, there are five steps. You can apply them to stressful situations like the Dr. Caroline Leaf’s lost earring or recurring negative thoughts like stress at work or self-doubt.
Embracing means gaining awareness and acceptance of toxic thoughts and emotions. This happens in step one – Gather. Collect information by assessing what you’re experiencing and noting distress signals, like your heart beating quickly. In Dr. Caroline Leaf’s case, she gathered that she was anxious and panicking because she’d lost her earring.
After embracing your thoughts and emotions, you can process them. This involves thinking deeply, so you can tap into the nonconscious mind. Reflect and Write, steps two and three, are your processing tools.
When reflecting, your goal is to understand the reasons behind your thoughts and feelings. In the bathtub, Dr. Caroline Leaf realized her panic stemmed from the idea of losing the earring. To reflect, ask the question “Why?” five times: this helps drill down to the root of your thoughts and feelings.
Then, write down what you’ve learned from gathering and reflecting – this visualizes and orders your thoughts and feelings.
With the last principle of the Neurocycle – reconceptualizing – you adopt a new perspective, one that pushes you in a more positive direction.
And you accomplish this with steps four and five, Recheck and Active Reach. Think of how Dr. Caroline Leaf went from panicking about the earring to creating and implementing a strategy to find it.
Rechecking is like editing. Go over what you’ve written and look for positive thoughts and behaviors to adopt. Then, reinforce this new thinking and behavior through the Active Reach step. Like Dr. Caroline Leaf patting down the bubbles, go from positive plans to positive action!
Over 63 days, the Neurocycle method transforms new thoughts into habits
Ever heard the saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day?” Well, it applies to mind management, too.
Changing toxic thoughts and establishing positive behavior doesn’t happen overnight. And while many people believe that habits form over 21 days, it actually takes a lot longer than that. Sixty-three days, to be exact.
That 63-day figure came from a 2010 study at University College London, which found that that was how long it took for people to form habits.
Dr. Caroline Leaf’s Neurocycle clinical trial agreed, uncovering structural changes in the participants’ brains after 63 days. This indicated that their new, positive habits had been established.
Successfully altering toxic thoughts requires doing the work every day for at least 63 days. The new, positive thought replaces the toxic one in the first 21 days, and by day 63, the thought becomes a habit.
Here’s how the five steps fit into this timeline: from day one to day 21, you Gather, Reflect, Write, Recheck, and Active Reach every day for a few minutes. Start with some meditation to prepare and then spend up to five minutes on each step.
After day 21, dedicate the remaining days to performing the Active Reach. This means practicing the new, positive way of thinking daily until day 63. For maximum effect, Active Reach at least seven times a day.
Over the course of the 63 days, you’ll hit a number of milestones that can serve as motivation.
The first milestone is day seven when you’ll start feeling hopeful about your efforts. At this point, the dendrites in your brain are starting to change. These are structures that house memories and thoughts.
On day 14, you’ll experience a strong feeling of accomplishment as the new thought becomes stronger. It might be tempting to stop here – but, instead, use this feeling as fuel.
With this fuel, you’ll reach day 21, at which point the relevant structures in your brain are strong enough to sustain the thought in the long term. You, and those around you, will notice a difference in your outlook, and you’ll feel determined.
Day 63 is when the magic happens – the new thought will move into your nonconscious mind and become a habit. You’ll realize that you can change your toxic thoughts, and this will leave you feeling incredibly empowered.
Building the brain’s strength and resilience through mind management
In the previous section, you learned that you can create structural changes in the brain by applying the Neurocycle method. But here’s an interesting fact: the brain is always changing.
Our experiences and states of mind alter the brain’s structure and chemical makeup. And when we experience challenges or toxic thoughts, these changes harm our mental and physical health.
But there’s good news. We can toughen our brains up, so they’re more resilient and also better equipped to do the work of changing toxic thoughts. How? Through a process called brain-building – which involves a method you’re already familiar with.
Brain-building means applying the five steps of the Neurocycle to the learning and understanding of new, challenging information.
We need to consume healthy food often in order to perform at our best – and our brains are the same. Except, in their case, healthy food means information.
According to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s research, brain-building improves people’s intellectual, emotional, and social functioning by up to 75 percent. And that’s not all: brain-building also helps organize the brain.
So, how do we use the five steps to make our brains stronger? To start with, your goal should be to deeply understand whatever information you feed the brain. Imagine you’re studying for an exam. Or that you’ll have to explain what you’re learning to a group of students. That’s how thoroughly you should understand it.
For the first step, Gather, choose the brain-building information. This can be a book, article, podcast, or any other content.
Then, consume a small chunk of the information, like a paragraph or a few minutes of audio. In Reflect, the second step, ask yourself questions about the piece of information, review it a few times, and put it in your own words to ensure understanding.
Next, apply steps three and four: Write and Recheck. This means writing down what you’ve learned – which encourages structural changes in the brain – and reading it back to ensure accuracy.
For the final step, Active Reach, complete your brain-building exercise by playing teacher. Explain the new information out loud to yourself. Doing this strengthens the brain structures and memories of what you’ve learned.
Trauma can be healed with the Neurocycle
Here’s an unfortunate truth: everyone goes through some kind of trauma at one point or another. It can be as disturbing as war or a more day-to-day experience like bullying, illness, or infidelity. Whatever form it takes, trauma needs to be addressed because it leaves toxic thoughts – which, as we’ve learned, harm our brains and bodies.
One of the difficult things about trauma is that we’re left wondering why the traumatic event happened. And that’s a question we often can’t answer. So, rather than trying to figure out the why behind our traumas, a better approach is to focus on healing.
When working through trauma, there are three aspects to consider: the impact, the cause, and the context. The impact is how we view ourselves and our relationships as a result of the trauma.
By also considering the cause and the context of the trauma, we can come to understand what happened and how we responded and coped. Together, the impact, cause, and context form thought patterns and memories that we should tackle.
We can do this through the Neurocycle’s foundational principles, which we explored earlier – embracing, processing, and reconceptualizing.
Embracing helps us become aware of the trauma’s impact, while processing is a way to understand the cause and context. Reconceptualizing allows us to change the impact; that is, to create a more positive way of seeing ourselves and our relationships.
There are a few tactics we can use to reconceptualize the impact of trauma. The first is to look for possibilities: even the worst situations can have positive outcomes.
For example, after Dr. Caroline Leaf’s son was attacked on a school trip, she discussed security training with the school, and they took her advice. This made future trips safer for students.
It also helps to focus on the future by imagining what learnings or positive changes might happen a few days, weeks, or even years down the line. Following her son’s attack, for instance, Dr. Caroline Leaf focused on how she would feel when they were reunited.
A final tactic is reminding ourselves of adversities we’ve handled in the past. Think about it: if we’ve done something once before, we can certainly do it again!
Sleep, eat, and exercise better by mind-managing
In an earlier section, we discovered that, in addition to getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising, mind management plays a role in a healthy lifestyle. But here’s something interesting: it can also help us improve on the other areas.
The Neurocycle, its three principles, and the five steps can be used to ensure that we sleep better, adopt good eating habits, and incorporate exercise and movement into our lives. By doing this, we build a great foundation for a healthier life.
We often hear that getting enough sleep is good for our health. The hours of sleep we need may vary from person to person, but we all lose sleep when our minds are messy.
Fortunately, the Neurocycle method, whether used for brain-building or handling toxic thoughts and trauma, clears the mess. This primes our brains for better sleep.
To further improve our sleep, Dr. Caroline Leaf suggests taking thinker moments during the day. This means letting the mind wander for up to an hour through walks, doodling, or daydreaming, for example. These moments improve blood flow to the brain, allow it to rest, and clarify thoughts – all of which contribute to a good night’s sleep.
When we’re awake, we need to eat well. This means consuming food that’s nutritious, fresh, organic, and free of synthetic chemicals. Making these food choices should be a habit, and we can use the Neurocycle to establish it.
Working through the foundational principles, we can embrace our food choices and patterns, process how we think and feel about food, and reconceptualize what we can do differently in order to adopt healthier eating habits.
The last area that we need to tackle for a better lifestyle is exercise. Moving the body has a number of health benefits. It boosts energy and mood levels, reduces stress, and improves thinking and learning. It even lowers the chances of depression and anxiety. But many of us struggle to establish exercise routines, and so we lose out on these benefits.
By applying the Neurocycle, we can embrace our attitudes toward exercise, process where they stem from, and how we can improve them. Once we’ve done this, we can reconceptualize ways of adding regular exercise and movement to our lives.
Our bodies and minds will thank us for it!
Managing our minds and clearing the mess of toxic thoughts and bad habits makes for a healthier lifestyle, and it lowers our risk of disease.
Whether we want to combat the mental effects of trauma or adopt more positive ways of thinking and living, we can make use of the Neurocycle and its principles of embracing, processing, and reconceptualizing.
By tackling one thought or habit at a time over 63 days, we can gradually take control of our minds and also improve our overall quality of life.