How Positive Thinking Re-Wires Your Brain

The power of positive thinking.

How many times have you heard that phrase thrown around? It’s so much a part of our vernacular now that it’s almost become meaningless. We’d all agree that thinking positively is a good thing. Especially when we’re feeling positive. When you’re feeling good, how much trouble is it to think, “Hey, I like me. My life is cool. Things are going great.”

But what about when things are crappy? What about those days when you’re so stressed the veins pop out of your forehead? When you hate your job — or you’ve lost it? What about those days when you are sucker-punched by a series of unfortunate events that makes the life of Job look like a garden party?

I’ve met people who remain perky during really bad times. And to be honest, they make me want to slap them around a bit. That Pollyanna, “life is still beautiful” attitude when things are falling apart just yanks my chain. However, I’ve come to learn that these people know something I don’t.

Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret. It’s revolutionary, exciting science.

Positive thinking really does change your brain. Not in some magical, woo woo kind of way, but in a real physical way.

The science is called neuroplasticity. It means that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains. The idea was first introduced by William James in 1890, but it was soundly rejected by scientists who uniformly believed the brain is rigidly mapped out, with certain parts of the brain controlling certain functions. If that part is dead or damaged, the function is altered or lost. Well, it appears they were wrong.

Neuroplasticity now enjoys wide acceptance as scientists are proving the brain is endlessly adaptable and dynamic.

It has the power to change its own structure, even for those with the severe neurological afflictions. People with problems like strokes, cerebral palsy, and mental illness can train other areas of their brains through repetitive mental and physical activities. It is completely life-altering.

So what does this have to do with positive thinking and with you?

It means that repetitive positive thought and positive activity can rewire your brain and strengthen brain areas that stimulate positive feelings.

In his widely-acclaimed book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge M.D. states plainly that the brain has the capacity to rewire itself and/or form new neural pathways — if we do the work. Just like exercise, the work requires repetition and activity to reinforce new learning.

Here are some actions you can take to change your own brain during the bad times.

Fear of failure.

Everyone fears doing something new because we don’t wait to fail. The truth is, we can do most anything if we take action, stop negative thinking, and shift our perceptions of the truth about our abilities.

  • Action steps: Force yourself to stop thinking about reasons you can’t do something, even if you don’t feel brave or capable. Every time a negative thought creeps in, retrain your brain to think a positive thought about your abilities instead. Then take small actions every day toward achieving your goal or desired change.  Nike’s slogan, “Just do it,” has real validity.

Over-thinking/Worrying

Have you ever found yourself trapped in obsessive over-thinking about a problem or in a state of anxiety or worry that lasts for days or even weeks? It drains your energy, affects your sleep, and spirals your mood and outlook on life. Focusing on your problem only strengthens the worry function in your brain.

  • Action steps: When you find yourself in that cycle of worry or compulsive thinking, remember the three R’s — rename, re-frame, and redirect. When the worry begins, mentally yell “Stop!” Rename the issue by reminding yourself that worry isn’t real. Rename it as a compulsive reaction, not reality. Re-frame your thinking by focusing on positive or distracting thoughts, even if you still feel anxious. Force yourself to think different thoughts. Redirect your actions. Go do something uplifting, fun or mentally engaging. The key is following these steps repeatedly, every time you worry obsessively, to break the pattern and rewire your brain.

Mood Disorders/Phobias

Sometimes we might feel blue or out-of-sorts, and it’s just a temporary fog that settles in and lifts after a few days. Some mood disorders, like depression or serious anxieties that morph into phobias, can be debilitating and unrelenting. Psychologists and therapists have used treatments based on neuroplasticity to get to the cognitive root of these disorders and put a patient’s life back on track.

  • Action steps: A serious mood disorder or phobia requires the help of a trained counselor. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a type of treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and feelings. If you suffer from severe anxiety or depression, you need someone skilled to help you get to the root of these thoughts and to show you how to change them. Ask them about CBT.

Scientists are now looking at neuroplasticity to approach a wide variety of cognitive problems and disorders including:

  • Loss of senses — vision, balance and hearing
  • Learning disorders and reading problems
  • Auditory processing problems
  • Autism and hypersensitivity
  • The aging brain and memory
  • Issues related to love and sex
  • Stroke and brain injury recovery
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chronic pain
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Psychological trauma
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Cognitive problems after brain surgery

In his book, Dr. Doidge chronicles amazing case histories of patients whose astonishing progress had previously been dismissed as hopeless. Through the applications of this science, we all have the ability to be happier and more positive, raise our IQ’s, rejuvenate aging brains, and learn new skills with ease.

If you want to learn more ways to use the revolutionary science of neuroplasticity to change your thoughts and your life, check out Dr. Doidge’s website.

Some Amazing Comments

comments

About Barrie Davenport

Barrie Davenport is a life passion coach and founder of BarrieDavenport.com, a site devoted to helping people uncover and live their life passions. She is the author of The 52-Week Life Passion Project.

Comments

  1. hello there, can I get back my sleep with positive thinking? I have made my brain to believe that it has forgotten to sleep.ftom 5 years I struggle on bed to sleep.my mind says it doesn’t know how to sleep even when my mind and body are tired.help

  2. It’s very true that positive thinking does have tremendous benefits. I can prove with simple logic that it can be very beneficial with what I am about to type. What do you do when you think negatively that you don’t do when you think positively? Complain!!!!! You even “think” complaints in your head, not necessarily out loud. What is complaining? It’s mental noise that doesn’t accomplish anything good whatsoever. It only leads you into depression, a bad mood, and maybe even self destructive behavior(excessive drinking and/or drugs.) Positive thinking leads to a clear mind and joyful feeling. You are more likely to be interested in learning new things when thinking positive because you already feel good. It’s hard to want to learn when you feel bad. I know it’s harder to think positive when you aren’t feeling good, but that’s when it’s most important/beneficial to think positive thoughts. When you already feel good that’s when it is natural that positive thinking will happen, but when you are thinking negatively and want to feel good, just change your thoughts to positive and over a period of a half hour to an hour of doing it you should feel a lot better. The more you do it, the more it becomes a habit and easier it becomes. The more often you will feel good and thus the more likely things will work out the way you want them too. I know it can sound hard, but it really isn’t, you just have to do it. Just like working out your body can seem hard but once you actually do it and are in the process of doing it, it becomes easier to go through with the whole workout. The mind loves to complain, it becomes addicted to it. It loves to look at negative news and gossip about this or that. But if you refrain from it and stay away from that kind of stuff, I guarantee you will be much happier and healthier both mentally and physically. : )

  3. Hi Barrie
    just want to check with ,about your confession in the initial part of your post.Did you really feel an aversion to the so called pollyanna types?
    Though you go on to admit that there is something more to what could have struck you initially.These “pollyanna” types are not wierdos.They are the ones who essentially prove to all of mankind that we are living our lives at a very ,very superficial level.Tip of the iceberg -really.
    There is much more to it.Much more.For deeper insights just turn eastwards.They have a thing or two to teach us all.
    Best of luck
    Mona recently posted..SUCCESS STORY PAR EXCELLENCE IS MADE WHEN YOU PERSEVERE UNTIL THE END

  4. Thanks for this post Barrie,
    I have to admit I used to be such a realist and found the Pollyanna types difficult to relate to until I became a Pollyanna myself. Best thing that ever happened to me. Now when I hear or read derogatory and unneccesary negative comments I think to myself what a waste of energy which could have been put to better use.
    I have improved immensely the anxiety and fear issues I used to have mainly using the type of method you have described with the 3 Rs Rename, Re-frame and Re-direct.
    Positive thoughts really do help improve your life overall.
    April Showers recently posted..This much is True

  5. This is absolutely amazing.. I’ve been researching the brain and things like neuroplasticity for the past few months, and been working on some CBT stuff by myself to deal with my anxiety/depression, and this seriously helps, because it’s sort of a theory i’ve been thinking about and working on.
    I don’t want to just say EVERY single disorder or types of brain injuries are completely fixable by just making changes to your thinking and behaviours.. but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be completely possible, either. If the brain couldn’t make changes to suit the persons current situation, we wouldn’t be very adaptable beings, which means we wouldn’t be the best at the whole survival thing either, I guess if that makes sense.. But anyway, especially because this isn’t the first source I’ve seen mentioning stroke victims and their brain rewiring itself so they could function normally once more. It’s amazing.
    To think, that so many of us for so long have thought the brains physical structure was pretty much set in stone after a certain point, and it was all determined by solely genetics. What if people with severe debilitating conditions whether it be physical or mental/mood, didn’t have to rely on a medication as their only hope and option?
    Anyway, I know I’m kind of getting kind of psychological here, but seriously thank you for this. It gives me hope. There are so many people who would say this is insane and wrong. It can be quite deterring.

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  7. Positive thinking is very important especially for your own health. There was a study done by harvard that showed happier people are actually healthier people

    In a study done by the Harvard School of Public Health subjects were tested over a 15 year period. Individuals were asked to describe themselves as depressed, angry, hostile or none. They were then compared to individuals who did not have these traits. The most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers. The conclusion HSPH scientists came to was that positive psychological well-being may reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other adverse cardiovascular events

    Read more: http://www.bettertopic.com/2012/09/18/optimistic-enjoy-life/#ixzz27UiW2HFR

  8. Jackie Lee says:

    Isn’t doing something else instead of thinking about your problem not solving your problem? Or do we get ideas when we are doing something else?

  9. Awesome post here, Barrie. By yelling “STOP” when you have negative thoughts overwhelm you, you are basically shifting your attention from what you’re focused on to something else. You attract what you focus on. Make it a point of duty to focus on the things that you want and not the things that you don’t want.

    Positive thinking has immense and can bring anyone out of any bad thing they may be facing at the moment.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Etieno Etuk recently posted..Four Cardinal Rules For Successfully Growing Your Network Marketing Business

  10. Barrie…oh, my thank you for posting this…great article! I wish I could speed up my process of changing thought patterns, but I accept where I’m at and am committed to constant improvement.

    Blessings,
    Marianne

  11. Excellent article. It’s massively important to prioritise positive thinking because ‘as within, so without’. I am a big fan of afformations as opposed to affirmations- check out my latest you tube clip to discover more

  12. “Have you ever found yourself trapped in obsessive over-thinking about a problem or in a state of anxiety or worry…”

    Yup, this one is a killer for me. At times I simply need to tune out, which enables me to tune back in appropriately.
    Colleen recently posted..Tumbleweed Music Festival 2010 Howard Amon Park Richland Washington

  13. Very interesting. I’m a little pessimist and now I will try to change my way of thinking to more positive way. I could never thought that it has something to do with brain.

  14. As I’m an optimist I like a lot positive thinking. Without it our life in general would be more complicated.

    Thanks a lot for this post!

  15. One day I suddenly realized that some bitter memories I had, did not bother me anymore.
    klima servisi recently posted..Yeni Model Sigma Salon Tipi Klima İklimsa Klimada

  16. First, thank you for the post and all the comments beneath it. The idea that thinking can change the brain is interesting, even it is too radical for me. The level of psychology here is a bit higher than mine, but I will explain my way of dealing with negative thoughts and I must say it is pretty simple.

    One day I suddenly realized that some bitter memories I had, did not bother me anymore. Then I simply recheck most of my emotions and found out that the negative emotions, which I feel for more than a day are just one or two per month. I simply forget the emotions. I remember the situation, but it can’t color my emotions anymore.

    The next idea came easy – why should I bother myself with those negative thoughts when I will forget them after a week or two. Why should I care if I have to wait even for an year, but finally the negative situation will not bother me anymore.
    Petar recently posted..FOR SALE MODERN LARGE 5 BED HOUSE IN BIRMINGHAM- UK- B71 3RH

  17. Barrie
    Thank you for a really informative post.
    I am a great advocate of positive thinking and get a bit frustrated at people who think that it is nothing more than Pollyanna thinking. I will now be able to send them to a well written article which is easy to read and which gives very knowledgeable information.

  18. Stacy, that is so cool! How interesting that you discovered that connection as a child. I bet after a few fake smiles, you were laughing! Tony Robbins advocates smiling to help change your attitude. It does work!

  19. What a great post! I love how science is able to prove the power of the brain. It only makes sense that the brain would be flexible and not static, able to work around problems to help the person survive and better yet overcome!

    I know that even as a teenager I understood the basics of this when I discovered that when I was stuck in a bad mood I could feel better in a few minutes by going into my room and putting on a fake smile. I certainly didn’t understand how or why this worked, but one thing I did know – it worked. It was something that I journalled about so that I would never forget.

    Thanks for this great post!
    Stacy recently posted..How Do You Deal With Grief

  20. Hi Barrie,

    First want you to know that I like not only the post but also your style. Its very refreshing and at the time intelligent and practical. I enjoy reading it. You bring to us the scientific fact about how an because, changing our thought we can change our feelings/behaviors and bottom line our results. Definitely it’s hard to be positive when one is passing through a challenge but doable. With the strategies you propose, CBT and I would at commitment on one’s personal development, planning and information. Its good to educate our self on the challenge a hand and the needed skills. But as you remark together with positive thinking, action is also a key.

    Regards…
    Melvin Ramos recently posted..Comments Bug Fixed

  21. ‘The key is following these steps repeatedly, every time you worry obsessively, to break the pattern and rewire your brain. ‘
    I think part is paramount. So many people are aware that they need to challenge negative thoughts etc but will have one day of positive affirmations or stopping the unwanted thoughts, then the effort peters out and they are back to their old ways.
    I agree anyone can change their way of thinking and it can have a huge impact on life, but there needs to be persistence in order to do so.
    The effects are more than worth the effort though!
    Kate recently posted..Lovely Lists!

    • Kate, I have done that so many times. Started with the intention of saying affirmations or working to “think positively.” I’d always get frustrated when it “didn’t work” right away. Very few things work right away. You have to practice. When you are learning to play the piano, you are awful at first. But eventually, through practice, it becomes easy and natural. Same with changing your thoughts. You must practice even when don’t feel successful at it.

  22. Yes, Linda writes great articles about the mind. I saw that she had written one about neuroplasticity as well. Readers, if this topic interests you, check out Linda’s blog, http://www.thoughtmedicine.com

  23. The other day I was reading Linda Gabriel’s blog article entitled, “Your Brain is Plastic – Is That a Good Thing?” at thoughtmedicine.com in which she discussed points similar to this article’s.

    I enjoyed and learned from that article, as much as I do in your article. One thing I like is that your article supports what she said and presents the idea from a different perspective.

    Not only does the scientific basis makes both your articles highly credible but also that each of you support one another’s ideas.

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge to us through your article, Barrie.
    Percival J. Meris recently posted..Our Life Purpose- What Is It for All- and for Each of Us

  24. Barrie,

    I am thrilled that you are writing on this topic and appreciate the simple steps you outline for changing the direction of one’s mind. I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the remarkable Buddhist masters and monks who participated in research done by neuroscientists in the U. S., which shows the way that regular practice of meditation can alter the structure and function of the brain.

    I’ve also been tracking programs like Amygdala Retraining and Dynamic Neural Retraining, which use similar approaches to help people recover from Chronic Fatigue, Fibromylagia, Chronic Pain, and other illnesses.

    One book I recommend highly is Mingyur Rinpoche’s: The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

    This is exciting stuff and it’s wonderful to see Steven featuring it here. Thanks very much for your presentation on the topic.
    Sandra Lee recently posted..30 days of getting results with J D Meier

    • Dr. Doidge talks a lot about those monks in his book. As I remember, the Dalai Lama initiated that study with his curiosity about neuroplasticity. It is exciting stuff. I will check out the book you suggest. Thank you for your great comments.

  25. Great article – the way you explained all of the scientific material was easy to understand.

    I was in an intencive CBT environment for 60 days a few years ago – I have to say it works!

    I also find writing a positive thought helps me correct it in the moment I am uncomfortable.

    • Yes! Writing is one of those actions that reinforces thinking. That is an excellent way to help re-train your brain. It is so funny to think that we have to train our brains — it’s like they have a mind of their own! :)

  26. Hi Barrie,
    I loved hearing about the science of it all… the workings of the mind are endlessly fascinating to me. When the esoteric can be grounded in sound science our spirituality becomes practical… and if it ain’t practical it ain’t spiritual! Thanks for the great resource.

    • Yes, like the old saying, “Pray with your feet” — right? Action is the best medicine. Sometimes our minds want to take us for a wild ride. We have to tame the brain! Thanks for commenting Rob.

  27. I read this entire post thinking Steven wrote it – the writing voice was so similar, Barrie (and yes that’s a big compliment, I love Steven’s writing voice). Welcome to CYT!! And thank you for backing up the benefits of positive thinking – I am jumping over from Jonathan Wells’s latest post where he talks about the power of positive words into here to read on the scientific proof – I have got to get those negative thoughts out of there for good! Thank you!
    Farnoosh recently posted..10 Smart Questions to Ask before Choosing your Next Language

  28. Hi Barrie

    First of all welcome to the CYT authors community, it’s great to have you write for CYT. you’ve been doing great things on the net and your influence is growing stronger each day.

    I loved this article when you sent it through and have checked out Dr Doidges site and already listened to the interviews, which were totally fascinating. During my time at uni we learned about the work of Karl Lashley and his experiments with monkeys and it changed the way I looked at the power of the human mind.

    Thanks for a great article Barrie.

    • Oh those poor monkeys! I hated those photos of the baby monkey with the wire mother. I’m glad we know enough now that we don’t have to deprive baby monkeys of their mothers to figure out how we are wired!

      Thank you for inviting me to post Steve. I have received a warm welcome from your readers. You are an inspiration to other bloggers. Keep up your great work.

  29. Awesome stuff Barrie!

    I too believe you can think/speak yourself out of a negative attitude. I especially like “the three R’s — rename, re-frame, and redirect”. It’s encouraging and discouraging at the same time to know that our moods, health and attitude can be mapped to our thoughts. It’s really just a choice.

    Thx for the insight!!
    Ryan Jenkins recently posted..Ep17- Get Intentional – Relaxing-RestoringDisclaimer – Even

    • Yes Ryan — that’s the rub! It is a no-excuses concept, right? Once you know it is in your control, then what choice do we have but to work on it? Like Gail said above, if one has some emotional issues to resolve, then get help with those too as you work on the three R’s.

      • I agree about the no-excuses concept. The way I’ve learned to see it that we always have a choice – but when we choose to make excuses we choose to relinquish control of the outcome…

        Thanks Barrie for the insights. It’s fascinating what the human brain can do.

        I must say I find it a little disturbing that what exists in the human mind – EXISTS…

  30. Steven,
    Thank you so much for this timely article. I am participating in Morty Lefkoe’s current Occurring Course and a certain situation continues to whirl around in my mind. Your insights and action steps will help me loosen its grip. Light and Love

  31. Hi Barrie,

    What an interesting topic. Coincidentally, I am writing an assignment for a graduate neuropscyhology class right now, and you may have helped me somewhat as I wasn’t sure which way to take it. It is true that the brain has the ability to reconfigure itself to adapt to different environments, situations, or even injury. Research also shows that treatments involving changing thought patterns, such as cognitive therapy, may actually change brain chemistry as well. I think there is more to making long term changes in thought patterns than simply “thinking positive,” (and you cover a couple of these methods nicely btw), but agree that if we can make a sustained change we can literally “rewire” our brains.

    Nice work!

    Chris

    • Chris,
      You must check out Dr. Doidge’s book. I just skimmed the surface of the incredible information he covers and all of the applications of neuroplasticity. He cites on example of a study in which several men were asked to visualize doing bicep curls (with no physical exercise at all). They did this visualization a couple of times a day for several weeks. All of them had a markedly increased bicep size at the end of the study. Just through visualization.

  32. loved your choosen article.

  33. Very interesting article, I love learning about the mind and how it works. And I do believe that we can re-train our brain and change our learnt behaviour – it takes time and practice, but it can be done, one step at the time – and the one-step-at-the-time bit is the one I need to work on ;)
    Cristina recently posted..A contemporary villa in Cape Town

    • Thank you Emmanuel. Yes, I can imagine it is very difficult to remain positive in an environment that feels hopeless or overwhelming. Have you ever heard of Viktor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning? It is about his experiences in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany during WWII. It is amazing how he and his fellow inmates found a way to find meaning and hope in even the most dire circumstances. Focusing on the possibilities, rather than the hopelessness, helped them survive. It is an uplifting story. Thank you for commenting.

    • Hi Christina,
      You know, I have found that being involved in self development and reading so many positive blogs has really, really helped reinforce positive thinking for me. When you read over and over that focusing on the good in life generates more positive feelings than focusing on the bad, you begin to automatically remind yourself of that. I call it positive thought immersion therapy!

  34. Emmanuel Osakwe says:

    This is one great article I have been waiting for . Thanks for this great article. It is hard to be happy in Africa if we focus on our environment ,but with good mental positive attitude we can change our thoughts and our continent.

    Thanks

  35. Hi Barrie,

    This is a very intelligent article with great applications. Thank you.

    The only thing I would add is that sometimes people have a hard time simply stopping the negative thoughts. If these patterns of thinking are old, they may have to be untangled, which includes addressing the emotions. As a therapist, this is my beef with CBT – cognitions and behavior, yes, but what about emotions? Not to wallow in them, but to acknowledge that they are having an impact.

    Not everyone needs this approach, but if people are having trouble letting go, it is probably because there are underlying feelings that haven’t yet been seen.

    • I agree with you wholeheartedly Gail. In fact, I’ve been there and needed to untangle the emotions before I could really move forward. But I think you can work on the emotions and reinforce the emotional “untangling” with thought and behavior changes. Sometimes taking the actions helps to bring underlying feelings to the surface. Thank you for sharing this.

      • Yes, I completely agree, Barrie. I call it working top down and bottom up. We can explore emotions and underlying dynamics – and “just do it.” Both weave together in a beautifully helpful way.

      • Bigthinker says:

        Barrie:
        Thank you for this article. I can’t agree with you more. Coming from someone who had to learn to overcome negative thinking, I learned that whatever you think in your heart, so you are. To Gail though, I must disagree, that untangling is simply a reminding the person who made them angry, why they are resentful etc;. When literally forgetting what was in the past and pressing onto the future, with hope. I heard someone say “by burning bridges and cutting strings (letting go), we are guaranteed to move on”.
        Thank you Barrie!

  36. When I grow negative thoughts, I either get some good music to cheer myself (thoughts automatically become positive then) or say a prayer. It quiets me. Great post anyway.
    Jaky Astik recently posted..The first defines the height of ‘top’

    • Hi Jaky,
      Music and prayer — lovely ways to clear negative thinking. I’m so glad you liked the post. Thank you for commenting.

    • Happiness is our choice – we can find out one thousand of reasons to be happy, as well as one thousand of reasons to be unhappy. It depends on which priority we decide to focus on.

      The very first and the most important condition for you to feel happy is to:

      Allow yourself to be happy.

Trackbacks

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  9. [...] what I found. After not very much searching, I found an article about a concept called neuroplasticity. It turns out that when we’re optimistic, we actually change the way our brain functions. [...]

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