Learning from Dr. Joan: Changing the Brain

mainImageI had the great opportunity today to participate in a workshop with Joan Borysenko. I bought her book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind many years ago, but never completed reading it. I was at The Red Shoes in December, and they had a display out advertising this workshop. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to participate in some workshops at The Red Shoes, so I signed up for her workshop and decided to re-read the book in preparation.

Joan is a Cell Biologist who graduated from Harvard but she became very interested in behavioral medicine later in life. For many years, she had a mind-body clinic where she helped people learn how to improve their health with mind/body practices like yoga, meditation and behavior change. What I like about her is that her recommendations are backed up by science, but she is focused on spiritual practices. She spoke for two-hours last night, and today she facilitated a 5 hour workshop. I got so much out of it. When I read the book in January, I immediately implemented some of her suggestions, and it really was part of the reason that I’m not having the anxiety issues that I experienced the second part of last year. The power of meditation on the brain is really remarkable.

There’s no way I can tell you everything she said, but her talk last night on being resilient was very powerful. Her discussion echoed the material in her book but gave me a simple checklist to follow when times are hard. She said that realists do better in times of struggle than optimists or pessimists. She gave us some tips on optimizing realism:

  • Change the story you tell yourself about the situation. Find some way to find meaning. For instance, what did you learn from this?
  • Connect with loved ones and community.
  • Exercise.
  • Be curious and open.
  • Know that every moment something new is emerging.
  • Love what is.
  • Use humor.
  • Practice gratitude for anything you can.

Her book is where I got the idea that I needed to start enjoying what was put in front of me. That was a real turning point in my feeling more optimistic. I started making a real effort to connect with others who were trying to turn things around, too. She explained that these practices actually change the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. All of us have default attitudes that are triggered when something bad happens. Some of us blame ourselves and go down a rabbit-hole that says nothing will ever change. Others naturally focus on handling the problem before them and reframing it as an opportunity. She says our default is part of our biology and our history and is set in our brain. It’s very difficult to change your default, but her research says certain things can slowly change the brain and eventually your default attitude. She said at 70 she is still working on changing her default attitude. The practices that change your mind are:

The meditation practice and the reframing I did in January very quickly got me out of the worst of my anxiety. I wished I’d read her book sooner to keep from going through all of that, but it takes what it takes, right? All I know is that I’m very thankful for the wisdom of Dr. Joan. With her help, and the help of my acupuncturist, my community and my Higher Power, I am feeling like a different person these days. That being said, I’m already dreading summer. I don’t know how I’m going to reframe that, but I’m working on it. At least I’ve got a few months yet. Maybe a little meditation will help me feel cooler. Who knows?

2 thoughts on “Learning from Dr. Joan: Changing the Brain

  1. So cool you got to participate in this workshop. She is awesome – and you got the extra energy from hearing her in person.

    The way you share your experiences here really speaks to me.

    Need to re-read Minding the Body…just recently read another of her books, A Woman’s Journey to God. Loved that one too.

    • I’ll be on a quest to read the rest. She was amazing. Yesterday, we did a reframing exercise where I got an opportunity to rewrite the story on a rather big issue. It was really cool.

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