Neuroplasticity and Self-Control
Curt Thompson M.D., author of Anatomy of the Soul, considers how a simple breathing practice can help you to gain self-control and even rewire your brain.
Anytime we think about changing the course of our mind, we’re talking about neuroplasticity. We’re talking about changing the way my neurons are actually firing. One of the most important elements of helping neuroplasticity to flourish is activating it through the use of attention. I like to describe attention as being the engine that pulls the rest of the train of the mind. There’s nothing that we do throughout the day that does not, in some way, shape, or form, involve a shift in attention from one thing to another to another.
That attentional change is crucial because most of what causes trouble for us, whether I’m depressed or anxious, is deeply related to the fact that I am paying attention to the same things over and over again that are creating those troubles for me. Naturally, if my life is going to be different, I’m going to have to change the focus of my attention and in so doing, activates neuroplasticity.
If I want my brain to change, I need to change the focus of my attention. There are a couple of concrete things that we can do. One of the most simple things that we talk about is a thing I call a six-breath-per-minute exercise. That’s simply breathing in and out every 10 seconds. The human respiratory rate usually runs at about 12 to 15 breaths per minute.
If we intentionally decide that we’re going to lower that rate, it’s going to require for us to breathe more slowly and more deeply, so that we don’t pass out. But we can’t just simply do that indefinitely unless we are focusing our attention on that activity. For example, we can’t breathe six times a minute and read a book or watch TV because, sooner or later, my attention will be drawn to the TV and I will go right back to my baseline of 12 to 15 breaths per minute.
The element that we’re actually harnessing here is not just my breathing, which naturally will reduce my anxiety, lower my blood pressure, lower my heart rate, it will also force me to keep the focus of my intention on the present moment.
This is important in terms of overall reduction of anxiety because, as we like to say, anxiety is all about future states of mind. To the degree that I’m anxious, is the degree to which I’m thinking about things in the future, whether it’s five minutes or five years into the future. To be paying attention to my breathing rate for 15 minutes means that, for that 15 minutes, I’m working very hard to keep the focus of my attention immediately before me.
That’s not easy work to do because I don’t have something I can focus on that is other than my breathing and the rate at which I’m inhaling and exhaling. One of the things that that does is that it allows me to strengthen my attentional muscle, as it were. I find that, over time, if I were to do this practice, say, 15 minutes, twice a day, 10 minutes, twice a day, for six weeks, I not only strengthen my capacity to be more focused, attentive, and less anxious during that time that I’m practicing it, it also becomes a tool to which I can turn very quickly throughout the course of my day, which means that it’s more likely when my teenage son leads me to wanna lose my temper,
I’m much more likely to, as my wife says, when you want to step forward, step back. It’s easier for me to step back if I have a tool that I can turn to immediately, allow myself to focus my attention, lower my breathing rate, which lowers my blood pressure, which lowers my muscle tension, which makes it more easy for me to be thoughtful and reflective so that my response to my son is more likely to meet him where he is as opposed to responding in a way that is coming from lower brain, my more reptilian brain, my more protective brain, my more angry brain, and then lead to things that are not the kinds of outcomes that I want.