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Mind Over Matter Part I: It Works

Updated 4/15 1:30 pm

Mind Over Matter – It Works: Part 1

In the midst of such unfathomable times, we all have something more powerful than a virus -  our brain. The brain is the control center for every aspect of our functioning. It can help us make good decisions and cope during fear and uncertainty. We have all used thought to control our emotions, but you may not have realized it. The Little Engine That Could – “I think I can, I think I can…” Long hours of working despite fatigue. Pushing yourself to workout harder. Not devouring the entire pint of ice cream!

Mind over matter works by activating the “thinking” part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the wrinkly outer layer of the front part of our frontal lobe (see below). More than any other part of the brain, this area dictates our personality, our goals, and our values. 

The PFC’s fundamental activity is to manage thoughts and actions consistent with our internal goals. It is sometimes referred to as “the glue of cognition.” During a crisis, we want to activate the “thinking brain” to override our “emotional brain”.

We do this regularly through positive self-talk, compartmentalization, meditation, relaxation, hypnosis, cognitive-behavioral therapy – just to name a few ways. By directing your brain’s thoughts and actions, the mere suggestion can activate the PFC. And just for kicks, part of the PFC, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is also associated with courage, suppression of negative emotions, compassion, shame, and guilt. Areas we are all struggling with lately!

One Way to Activate the Thinking Brain

  1. Acknowledge what you feel and think. Spend only enough time on this step to achieve awareness.
  2. Identify the desired goal to redirect step #1. Focus on facts in the affirmative.
  3. Persevere. Old unwanted thoughts will fight harder for attention; they will subside.
  4. Repetition is key to build this new muscle. Don’t give up!

Examples:

  • I am terrified I will get sick while working with patients.
    • I will protect myself by properly donning/doffing PPE and practice if needed. 
  • I am scared to leave my house.
    • I will protect myself through social distancing, washing my hands, etc.
  • I’m too anxious, I can’t handle it.
    • I can handle this; I have overcome hardships in the past. Breathe.

Our thinking brain is so powerful, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (in collaboration with the Israeli Defense Forces) designed a protocol to teach service members how to recognize and respond to acute stress reactions by activating the thinking brain (stay-tuned for more info). We are currently in combat and are experiencing various intensities of stress. By placing new suggestions in your brain, you optimize your ability to overcome adversity and to minimize risk of debilitation. That is, allowing yourself to be as strong as you can be.

There are many ways to activate your thinking brain through suggestions, such as hypnotic relaxation. Contrary to what the media portrays, hypnosis is not about losing control. It is the entry way to greater awareness and greater control. Here is a link for a free hypnotic relaxation journey with added suggestions for maintaining COVID-19 precautions.

During these times, I suggest all who are physically at the hospital to enlist a “work buddy” for each day. Buddies will check-in with each other, and provide mutual support. Just knowing you have a buddy can offer comfort (like insurance). I encourage you to activate your thinking brain and help your buddy do the same - reinforce courage, fortitude, and amazing resilience.

I think I can…

Julie Kim, PhD
Clinical Psychologist

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