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How to Retrain Your Brain

It's easy to go down a mental rabbit hole, but there is a way to change your mindset to live a happier, more productive life

By Randi Mazzella

It turns out that the adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," is not true — or at least it does not correlate to humans.

A colorful silhouette of a person's head. Next Avenue, Everyday Vitality, change, stress
Credit: Getty

Dr. Samantha Boardman, author of the new book "Everyday Vitality, Turning Stress Into Strength," says, "Studies continue to show that having a growth mindset isn't just good for children. Believing that we can change and that others can change, too, is an important part of healthy aging."

So, if you are ready to re-train your brain and improve your life, here is how to do it:

Be Curious

"Curiosity killed the cat" is another adage you should remove from your thoughts. The opposite is true; continued curiosity helps people live better. "We need to overrule that "been there, done that" feeling people have as they get older," explains Boardman.

Yes, we know more with age and we know ourselves better. But there is still more to learn, so we want to use our wisdom but also maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity.

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Don't Get Stuck

We may believe that by talking about a past hurt, disappointment or betrayal we can gain clarity and feel better. But that is only true to a point.

Author, Dr. Samantha Boardman wearing black sitting on a stage. Next Avenue, Everyday Vitality, change, stress
Dr. Samantha Boardman, author of the new book, "Everyday Vitality, Turning Stress Into Strength"  |  Credit: Sean Zanni /PMC

"Rumination is when we go over and over again in our minds something that happened with no action plan or way to change from the experience," says Boardman. "But when we over-talk about a painful situation or relationship, all we do is re-traumatize ourselves."

Many times, we seek out co-ruminators. "If you are speaking to a friend and think to yourself, 'Haven't we had this conversation a few times before?' it's time to change the conversation," advises Boardman.

So how can you move forward if you are feeling emotionally stuck?

Boardman says, "Picture yourself in the future in the same situation where you got hurt, and ask, 'What can I do differently now that I have gained some distance?' Self-distancing allows us to stop digging down and begin lifting ourselves out of the pain."

Match Your Values to Your Actions

When asked, "What do you value?" people will answer things like family, friendships and good health.

But those values don't always match with the way they spend their time. "You should live a life that embodies your values," says Boardman. "That means taking positive actions every day toward achieving the goals in your life."

Let's say you value physical activity and spending time with friends. But if you spend most of your free time alone watching television or scrolling Facebook, your actions don't match your goals.

Instead, make a plan to meet a friend for a weekly walk or a game of pickleball.

"We bury ourselves in our phones instead of embracing the world around us."

"It's easy to flake out on ourselves, but it is hard to cancel on a friend. Combining activities you want to do with people you want to see will make you more inclined to show up and do the things you plan," says Boardman.

If, on the day of your first pickleball match, you get fearful that you won't play well or you just don't feel like going, go anyway.

"There is a misguided belief that to pursue something, you need to be passionate about it," says Boardman. "But sometimes, it's the pursuit that leads to the passion."

Even if you turn out to be the worst pickleball player, if you have a fun time, you have won.

Engage in Meaningful Conversations

While we know the importance of friends who are there during hard times, it's just as important to have friends who enhance the good times.

"You want to surround yourself with people that encourage you to be your best self, that share your interests and positively nudge you," says Boardman.

It's also crucial to have real conversations with family and friends.

"When you are familiar with people, you can get caught up talking about minutia," explains Boardman. "We think we know all there is to know, but we don't. We want to approach the people in our lives with the assumption that they are still evolving and that there is still more to learn. Deeper conversations lead to deeper, stronger connections."

Embrace Social Micro-Moments

While deep conversations positively impact our emotional well-being, so do small, seemingly insignificant interactions with others.

Book cover of "Everyday Vitality" by Dr. Samantha Boardman. Next Avenue, change, stress
Credit: Penguin Random House

"For the past year, we have missed those random micro-moments in our day. Simple connections such as talking to the barista in our local coffee shop or sharing a laugh with the person behind you at the grocery store," explains Boardman. "These micro-moments of shared experience can provide a big mood boost."

Aside from forced social distancing, another thing stealing these micro-moments are devices.

"We bury ourselves in our phones, instead of embracing the world around us," says Boardman. "We assume we will feel happier sticking to ourselves, choosing to isolate. We squander the opportunity to interact and we are missing out on the mood boost these positive micro-moments can bring."

Don't Misuse Self-Care

Boardman believes that people can become overly fixated on self-care to the point that it becomes detrimental. Even if you have found the past few months of being alone more therapeutic, it's important not to turn too inward.

"Tunneling into ourselves too much by pulling away from people and social engagement may feel protective, but it's counter-productive to overall well-being," Boardman explains. "Humans are social animals by nature, and we need healthy connections in our lives."

Cultivate Healthy Connections

When patients complain about stomach issues, doctors may suggest following an elimination diet to figure out what is causing them to feel ill. The patient eliminates certain food groups and then slowly adds each one back into their diet to see what makes them feel good and what does not.

"In a sense, the whole world was on a social elimination diet last year, " says Boardman. "People were forced to hit pause and eliminate much of their social life."

As you re-enter your life, add in activities and people methodically.

"Before the pandemic, we were on autopilot, saying okay to things we didn't enjoy or that drained us emotionally," explains Boardman. "Now that we are re-entering, we don't need to feel obligated to add back in things you didn't miss."

So, she says, eliminate the shoulds in your life and replace them with wants. "This way, you will look forward to what you are doing rather than dreading it. Like Marie Kondo advises, only hold onto what brings you joy," says Boardman.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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