Stress Management Part 4 of 5: Joy and Neuroplasticity
“What you practice, grows stronger”, I first came across this quote while watching Shauna Shapiro’s TEDx talk on mindfulness, but it is a concept I’ve been working with in stress management for a long time; not only with others, but for myself as well.
It began with my first job as a teacher. This was my first career job and I took it very seriously. I wanted to do really well and knew that I was underprepared since my degree was in International Relations rather than Education. I worked really hard to figure out how to balance lesson planning, grading papers, implementing behavior management strategies, getting to know coworkers, cooking for myself and everything else that comes with living on your own. At the end of most days I was exhausted, and my brain would feel mushy and incapable of making any decisions. So I would flip on the TV and zone out for a bit before it was time to go to bed. And quickly that became my habit and soon my lifestyle.
I remember many people asking me what I was doing for fun, and dismissing their question with a “I don’t have time or energy for fun right now”. Having now been on both sides of that question as the asker and the responder, I can fully appreciate both the absurdity and the prevalence of that response.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are circumstances that are so hectic that they can leave us dizzy, and truly without time for fun or relaxation. But those circumstances that are fully out of our control tend to be short term. Over the long term, we have control and ultimately we do the things that we make time for.
Looking back at that first year of teaching I can see that the main reason I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t doing the things I enjoyed in life. It's completely obvious and logical to me now, just as it was to those around me at the time. But that's the trouble with a stressed brain. It gets so tangled on itself that it starts believing its own faulty logic and it causes us to miss the obvious.
Making time for joy is just like starting any other habit. And as with any other habit, understanding the role of neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to change, is key. A concept that parallels physical muscle memory, neuroplasticity explains how our thought patterns reinforce themselves. A friend and former coworker of mine describes it as creating a path in the forest. The first time you do something, it might be really challenging and you are having to cut your way through the undergrowth. The second time might still be challenging, but you might not need your machete this time. The third and each subsequent time will keep getting easier and easier until the path is so clear and distinct you can move along it without much effort.
But how does one cut a path for joy? There are so many possibilities. It could be returning to an old hobby that helps you play, or perhaps getting in touch with a friend or loved one who makes you smile, or maybe it is simply taking notice of the little things in your life that make you feel content, like a hot cup of tea or the sun shining through the window.
Taking notice of the small happinesses in your life might be both the most accessible and most challenging way to practice joy. Accessible because you can do it any time, anywhere, and with just a little effort. But it was challenging for me because I was easily overwhelmed by the big picture. It felt silly and hollow to notice the little things around me that were good when I was putting so much pressure on myself to succeed. But worrying about the big picture didn’t help me be a better teacher. In fact, I know now that it caused a lot of detrimental anxiety. I often wonder how things would have been different for me and my students if I had taken the time and energy to do things I enjoyed regularly. Would I have been more pleasant and resilient? Probably.
While I cannot go back and change my teaching experience I can remind myself to get anchored through the joyful details everyday. When I first started doing this, I sometimes felt silly and hollow. Then I began to notice a weak impact, but over time it began to get stronger, because the neuroplasticity in my brain was allowing my thought patterns around joy to reinforce themselves.
The practice of noticing joy or doing things you enjoy is going to be personal, but some possibilities might include keeping a list, commonly referred to as gratitude lists which can be helpful in formalizing the practice. You could schedule a time to add to it regularly, whether it is daily, weekly, etc. Or you could add to it when you are feeling particularly happy, or practice when you are feeling particularly stressed. Beyond noticing, you can set aside some time for joy, we schedule everything else, why not the thing we all seek? Plan a dinner or phone call with a friend or dedicate 10 min or an hour to a hobby, etc. Joy is a habit, and our habits are made of choices that we make over and over again. Spend time cutting a path of joy a little bit everyday and it will be easier to find in the challenging moments.