Posted on Oct 20, 2020, 3 p.m.
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” — Sigmund Freud
Ever since I was a child, I was consumed by anxiety and tormented by my mind. As I got older, my anxiety got worse, and so did my urge to escape it.
I began using drugs when I was 14 years old, and by the time I was 20, I was a heroin addict. I spent the next 15 years destroying my body and mind. But I was lucky. Pummelled into submission by the most painful night of my life, I was forced to look at the world from a completely new perspective.
Life gave me a second chance, and I devoured every second of it. Some might say that I switched addictions. But I like to call it intense curiosity, as I was bitten by the bug of life.
That was in October 2013, and since then, I’ve become a Ph.D. student, an author, a life change strategist, and a lecturer at the top two universities in Ireland, all in the area of the neuroscience.
My newfound curiosity also introduced me to the world of personal growth, where I designed a programme to help me to navigate my new life. The habits from this programme have not only helped me to achieve outward success; they’ve changed my physical, emotional, and mental health too.
As luck had it, I was part of a brain imaging study while I was in detox. Using scans from my addicted brain, we compared them to scans of my brain 5 years later and the differences were incredible.
With new innovative measurement tools, I’ve also been able to explore the predictive age of my brain. Astonishingly, not only did I reverse the age of my brain, it is now nearly 10 years younger than that of a normal man my age.
Below I describe how our brains can change, and then I discuss the 12 age-reversing habits that made mine 10 years younger.
How Our Brains Can Change
The Plastic Brain
Our brains are malleable, like playdough, and our experiences determine their shape. This process is best compared to physical exercise. For example, thirty reps lifting weights won’t make your muscles bigger, but thirty reps every day for a year will. The same is true for your brain, and over time, its shape will change.
I was a compulsive worrier before I found recovery. I always felt tense, uneasy, and anxious. If my mind wasn’t scanning the world for potential threats, it was looking for ways to relieve my unrelenting anxiety. Over time, I literally transformed my brain into a finely tuned anxiety machine.
It’s the same for any negative feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Whatever you rest your mind upon, be it anger, self-doubt, or fear, your brain will eventually take that shape.
Thankfully, you can shape your brain in a much more positive direction. For example, by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity via regular mindfulness practice, you can become more resilient, develop sharper focus, and manage your emotions more effectively.
Our lab at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience has worked on a way to predict brain age. We calculate brain-predicted age (brainPAD scores) by analysing the grey matter density of the brain. This is associated with increased mortality risk, cognitive decline, increased risk of dementia, and poorer physical function.
In 2013, my predicted brain-age was 2.84 years ‘younger’ than my chronological age. This was surprising after 15 years of drug addiction. In 2018, however, my brain was just under 10 years ‘younger’ than my chronological age.
In the 5 years between scans, this means I reduced the age of my brain by more than 6 years. It’s difficult to visually identify differences in grey-matter density, but if you look closely, you can see specific differences in the purple circles below. The scans on the right also look brighter all round.
12 Age-Reversing Habits That Changed My Brain
Many of the habits below are scientifically associated with changes in the brain. These include meditation, reduced stress, sleep, and nutrition.
Many others cannot be directly related to brain changes, but as neuroplasticity demonstrates, all types of learning results in changes in the brain.
1. Observe Without Engaging
‘Self’ means your self-concept, your story — who you think you are. If you are suffering in some way, like I was with anxiety, disconnecting from ‘self’ will give you the freedom to experience a greater sense of well-being.
Self-observation, which is a form of meditation, helps you to do just that. It involves mindfully observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
For example, if I asked you to observe how tense your body feels, you might take a step back and focus on a specific area, such as a lump in your throat or a tight chest. If I asked you about your anxious thoughts and feelings, you could observe this too. You might be worrying about money, why your chest feels so tight, or why everyone except you seems to be able to cope.
The point is, you can take an observer’s perspective of anxious thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. When you implement this practice, however, you must do so without engaging.
The clouds metaphor explains this best. Imagine your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry. Sometimes they’re light and calm. But ‘you’ are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who observes the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass.
Self-observation not only improves self-awareness — it provides you with a sense of detachment in challenging situations. Instead of being controlled by your thoughts and feelings, an ability to observe them will arise instead.
Although brain research in this area is only just emerging, some promising studies have targeted an area known as the default mode network (DMN), also known as the ‘wandering mind.’
The DMN is active when our minds are directionless, aimlessly drifting from thought to thought. This has been linked to rumination and overthinking, which can have a detrimental impact on our personal well-being.
Mindful self-observation has been found to decrease activation of the DMN, which in effect, quietens our busy minds. In one study, regions of the DMN showed reduced activation in meditators compared to non-meditators, which has been interpreted as a diminished reference to self.
I have a wonderful relationship with anxiety today. I still get anxious in challenging situations — it’s natural after all — but with the help of self-observation, I watch it pass by, without engaging.
2. Seek Questions, Not Answers
We all feel stuck from time to time. But instead of looking for answers, I’ve found that questions are better for unraveling the complexities of life.
Here are 7 questions that I ask myself regularly:
- What Part of This Situation is Under My Control? This is a powerful question because very little is under our control. Many people see this as a problem, but if you focus on what you can control, you’ll realise that this is not a weakness — it’s a strength.
- What Are You Constantly Avoiding? It’s easier to put these things on the long finger, but they always come back to bite you in the ass. More times than not, you know what to do, but you constantly avoid it, despite the evidence.
- What Would My Mentors Think About This? This question allows you to take the perspective of others. And better still, the perspective of someone you greatly admire. Sidenote: You don’t have to personally know your mentor. Many of mine are dead hundreds of years, and most of them come from books.
- What Would Tomorrow-Me Think? Everything happens in a context, and our decisions are often reflected by that context. That’s why this question is so valuable. Just like taking the perspective of a mentor, you can take the perspective of your future self, or your former self, whatever serves you best.
- If I Am Saying Yes to This, What Am I Saying No To? Steve Jobs once said that it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on what’s important in life. I love this line because it helped me to realise the potency of this question. Be it our relationships our career, or our health, we need to reflect on what we hold most dear. Then, when we say yes to one thing, we know we’re not saying no to something that’s more important.
- Does This Align With My Values? People often make decisions that do not align with their values. There are many reasons for this, but most often it’s because they don’t ask themselves this simple question. Next time you’re doing something and it doesn’t feel quite right, ask yourself how it’s serving what you value most in life.
- What’s the Worst That’ll Happen if I Attempt This? Sometimes the worst thing that can happen isn’t as bad as you think. And if it is that bad, you can put contingencies in place by reflecting on this question.
These questions probably didn’t change my brain, but any time I feel stuck, they help me to sort out my life.
3. Eliminate (Or Reduce) Emotional Hi-jackings
Have you ever felt completely shaken and overcome by fear? I have. I was easily overwhelmed before and during my addiction — it was my default. Daniel Goleman calls this an emotional hijacking, where your amygdala — the fear centre of your brain — screams like a siren.
In today’s world, more often than not, the stress response, or the fight and flight response, is not activated by the external environment — it is activated by our own minds.
This comes in two flavours: ruminating about a past you cannot change, and worrying about an imaginary future. These internal stressors are the worst kind of triggers. External stressors come and go, but fighting with your own mind is constant.
What’s interesting about these internal stressors is that they don’t exist — not in reality anyway. They are projections of our minds, and some of them are entirely irrational.
My own anxiety, which resulted from childhood trauma, centred on bodily sensations. Ever since I can remember, I was terrified of my heartbeat, breath, and pulse. If someone asked me to feel my own heartbeat, or if I even talked about it, my amygdala lit up like a Christmas tree.
This emotional hi-jacking would then activate my hypothalamus — the relay station of the brain — which then sent a signal to my pituitary glands. These, in turn, sent a message to my adrenal glands, releasing cortisol throughout my bloodstream.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which prepares your body for fight or flight. But you can’t run away from or fight your mind. So what did I do?
I started to panic. This speedy bodily reaction is what gets you out of immediate or potential danger. Unfortunately, the danger was in my head, and I could neither fight nor run.
But I don’t struggle with emotional hi-jackings anymore. Today, through self-observation and meditation (see point 4 below), the rational part of the brain — the cortex — appraises the situation. I soon realize that my life is not in danger. The cortex then deactivates the amygdala, which in turn, inhibits the secretion of cortisol via the hypothalamus, thus bringing me into homeostasis and reducing the anxiety in my body.
4. Focus On the Present Moment
Research shows that a regular mindfulness practice weakens the amygdala’s ability to hijack your emotions. This happens in two ways. First, the amygdala decreases in physical size. Second, connections between the amygdala and the parts of the cortex associated with fear are weakened, while connections associated with higher-order brain functions (i.e. self-awareness) are strengthened.
My own mindfulness practice has given me both of these gifts. I have literally shrunk the fear centre of my brain, and as a result, I simply don’t feel anxiety like I used to. Stressful events still challenge me, but by creating a space between stimulus and response, I am no longer hijacked by my emotions.
Research also shows that mindfulness reduces the age of your brain. In a recent study, the estimated brain-age of meditators was 7.5 years younger than that on non-meditators. Interestingly, for every additional year over fifty, meditators’ brains were estimated to be an additional 1 month and 22 days younger than their chronological age.
If you’re new to mindfulness, you may find the practice difficult to access. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are a variety of techniques, each with a unique focus. Secondly, the language used to describe mindfulness can make it difficult for newcomers to understand.
At its core, however, mindfulness is really quite simple, best described as the state of ‘noticing things.’ If you are noticing things, you are mindful of them. If you are not noticing things, you are not mindful of them.
5. Tighten Up Your Sleep Routine
Sleep is important for many brain functions, including how neurons communicate with one another. Recent findings also suggest that sleep plays a vital role in removing brian toxins that build up while we are awake.
Ever since I found recovery, I get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep, and by having a structured routine, I don’t have a problem sleeping. Unfortunately, most people find that they can’t shut their minds off when they go to bed.
Nick Wignall, an expert in this area, suggests we should tighten up our habits and sleep routines to ensure better quality sleep. This is Nick’s personal insomnia guide, but here four ways he suggests we can tighten up our sleep, especially during times of stress:
- Don’t get into bed until you’re actually sleepy. Let your body, not the clock, dictate when you get into bed. If you go to bed before your body’s ready for sleep, you’re likely to end up worrying, which makes it even harder to sleep.
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed until you’re sleepy. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, don’t lie there fighting it. Instead, get out of bed until you’re sleepy again. You could read or watch some of your favourite sitcoms. The worst thing you can do is stay in bed worrying about not sleeping. Because this trains your mind to associate fear and worry with your bed, and as Nick points out, this is not good.
- Pick a consistent wake-up time. When we continually change our wake up time, we contribute to what’s called social jet lag, which leads to the same symptoms as real jet lag. This occurs because your body’s main signal for feeling sleepy is how long you’ve been awake. If you’re waking up at different times throughout the week, your body is never going to develop a consistent pattern of sleep.
- Don’t sleep in. When you first wake up in the morning, your brain is still “coming online,” which means it’s harder to think rationally. As a result, when you lay in bed after your alarm, your chances of becoming anxious go up. The best way to avoid this early morning anxiety is to get out of bed and get going straight upon hearing your alarm.
6. Limit Your Alcohol Consumption
The simplest solutions are often the most powerful. Sadly, because they’re so simple, most people overlook them. When it comes to brain health, these basics include what we put into our bodies and what we put into our minds.
I don’t take drugs or drink alcohol anymore. Alcohol, in particular, can damage our brains in many ways. Firstly, it blocks communication between neurons leading to immediate symptoms of intoxication, such as slurred speech, poor memory, and slowed reflexes. Secondly, alcohol is one of the primary causes of neurotoxicity. This occurs when too much exposure to a neurotransmitter can cause neurons to ‘burn out.’
Unfortunately, research shows that people are more interested in alcohol than their health, especially since the recent pandemic. This is not unexpected. Many people use alcohol to avoid how they feel, and with so many people experiencing anxiety and stress, many are taking the easier option.
Like a snake trying to eat its own tail, however, this is counterproductive. Alcohol might make you feel better in the short term, but hangovers can have an alarming impact on your mental health. It’s best to avoid alcohol, but if this seems unreasonable, you should limit your alcohol consumption, as this is a core cause of anxiety for many people.
It’s difficult to give an exact figure, but the NHS advises men and women not to drink more than 14 units a week, and if you drink regularly, to spread those units over 3 or more days. This factsheet from the WHO/Europe provides important information about alcohol consumption and COVID-19.
7. Feed Yourself With Good Quality Brain Food
What you put into your head is just as important as what you put into your body. When I found recovery, I became obsessed with learning.
Fascinated by concepts such as awareness, meditation, and self, I devoured every book I could find. I became a student of life… and went back to college to study psychology and philosophy.
In essence, I developed a growth mindset. I invested my time and energy in developing new skills, solving new problems, acquiring new knowledge, and figuring out ways to enhance my life.
This kind of learning compounds over time, and once embraced, it opened up opportunities beyond my wildest dreams.
But I didn't just learn the good stuff. I also neutralized negative inputs into my life. This includes difficult people, negative news, and social media. These are all key drivers of stress and anxiety, which can shrink the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Avoiding negative inputs has become increasingly difficult since COVID-19. We need to stay informed of the latest developments, but because there is so much misinformation that it’s hard to know what to believe.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), pulls no punches on this topic: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
We could simply avoid anxiety-inducing platforms, but it’s not that easy — we need to stay informed. That’s why we need to get our information from reliable sources.
Like alcohol, however, it is important to limit your consumption of social media, even if it’s based on facts. Forty minutes per day broken into four chunks feels sufficient. I would also advise you to keep feeding yourself with good quality brain food to counteract these negative inputs.
8. Use Challenges As Fuel For Growth
Challenges can be used as fuel. You don’t just want fuel — you need it for growth. Resilient people know this. Instead of merely coping with what life throws at them, they lean into adversity and use it for growth.
If you want to practice this habit, you need to focus on progress when life throws you a curveball. It doesn’t have to be a major setback — opportunities for growth are everywhere.
If a difficult situation arises — one you cannot change — you can use it as a chance to practice acceptance. If you find yourself getting stressed, you can use it as an opportunity to practice non-reactivity.
You can do this with anything. If you fail at something you care about, you can use it as a chance to learn a valuable lesson. You can also use challenging relationships as a chance to practice your perspective-taking skills. It’s very hard not to be empathetic when you’re standing in someone else’s shoes.
Every situation is an opportunity to grow, especially challenging ones. So instead of simply trying to cope, use challenges as fuel for growth.
9. Lean Towards Your Fears
I was terrified of my emotions before I found sobriety. Panic attacks and anxiety is what drove me towards a life of addiction. I’ve since embraced these fears. I use meditation to sit with difficult emotions, and I use inner-child work to lean into the trauma I suffered as a child.
When I was a few years clean, I had a different kind of fear. I wanted to share the lessons I learned in recovery in schools around the country, but I was petrified of public speaking. I nearly backed out, several times, but then I imagined what was the worst that could happen, and it didn’t seem so bad.
Facing our fears isn’t easy, but they are rarely as big as we make them out to be. My emotional world is now one of my greatest strengths. It has helped me to build incredible new relationships in my life, and public speaking hasn’t just gotten easier, it’s now my greatest passion.
If you want to get over your fears, the best thing to do is lean into them. If you’re afraid of heights, do a bungee jump. If you’re nervous about a difficult conversation you need to have, go and speak to that person. If you’re afraid of failure, fail greatly and learn from the process — it’s the best way to succeed.
Don’t let your emotions define your reality. The biggest gains in life are often on the other side of fear.
10. Life It Up
This habit directs me to bring joy, energy, and present moment awareness into my encounters with others. Even if I don’t feel like it, I just ‘life it up’, and the energy it creates is astounding.
I recently extended this habit after reaching out to one of my favourite thought leaders, Adam Robinson. Adam suggests we should ‘lean into every moment and encounter expecting magic and miracles.’ What a way to live.
On the day I heard it, I found myself sitting in a busy coffee shop in Dublin City centre. There were no seats anywhere so I asked a couple if I could sit at the end of their 6-seater table. They kindly said yes.
As I sat down, I realised I was sitting beside Pat Kenny and his wife Kathy. Pat is one of Ireland’s most famous TV broadcasters. I was looking to interview leading figures for my new book at the time, so without overthinking it, I decided to lean in and expect magic.
Pat suddenly got up from the table, so I told Kathy all about my addiction and how I now lean into every moment expecting magic and miracles. She was ever so nice, but she thought I was bonkers, which in hindsight, I can see why. I apologised for interrupting her lunch and got back to my book.
Pat came back several minutes later and then they left. Although Kathy was a little perplexed by my request, she was very friendly upon leaving and said best of luck. To my surprise, she must have told Pat about our conversation. Within a few minutes, he came back to the table with his contact details and we arranged to meet up for an interview.
I’ve been leaning in and expecting magic ever since.
11. Listen To Your Heart
Societies’ rules don’t always apply: “You’re not supposed to do that.” That’s a bit weird.” “You can’t say that.” Says who? Society? Do we even know who that is?
If you’re following your heart, and you’re not breaking the law, don’t be afraid to challenge societal norms. Follow your passion when people think you should play it safe. When the crowd go one way, you go the other. If it feels right, go with your gut.
When I found sobriety in 2013, my family wanted me to play it safe. “Do something you’re familiar with,” they said, “don’t take any risks.” It came out of both love and fear, but in reality, they were playing by societal norms.
Luckily for me, my heart was singing loud and clear. Having experienced a perspective shift in detox, I became intensely curious about the human mind. I wanted to go to college to learn about human suffering, why my own suffering disappeared, and to share these experiences with others.
My head was telling me to get a normal job, but my heart was screaming at me to follow my passion. That was nearly 7 years ago. I’m now a lecturer in Ireland’s top two universities, I’ve just published my memoir, and in less than 12-months time, I’ll have completed my Ph.D.
So the next time your mind and gut are conflicted, take a leaf out of Paulo Coelho’s book: ‘Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.’
12. Write A New Story
We all have a story, and it is written with the words we use. If you tell yourself you procrastinate, you’re going to act accordingly. If you tell yourself you can’t cope, it’s likely that you won’t.
This is backed by research which shows that language is a vehicle for emotion. As a result, how you think, and the language that you use determines how you feel. It is therefore critical that you choose your words carefully, especially when talking to yourself.
My old story drove me into the world of addiction: ‘I cannot cope with anxiety and I need heroin to survive.’
But I was lucky. The most painful night of my life was also the most important. It forced me to let go of my story, the one that protected my addiction. By dropping this story, I was able to write a new one:
‘I can cope with anything life throws my way. Adversity doesn’t stop me — it fuels my ability to thrive.’
If you want to change your story, you have to become aware of the self-talk that is keeping your narrative alive. These stories are generally negative. Maybe it’s an inner critic constantly berating you. You might be a perennial worrier, telling yourself you can’t cope. Or maybe you play the victim role, completely unknownst to yourself.
Self-observation is an excellent tool for bringing these stories into awareness. But once you catch this internal dialogue in flight, you need to change it. The best way to do this is to reframe your self-talk.
In the world of COVID-19, our stories about anxiety are particularly problematic, with many people crippled by uncertainty. “When is this going to end?” “I need to drink because I feel overwhelmed.” “What if I lose my job?”
When this kind of internal dialogue goes unchecked, you’re in serious trouble. It is therefore crucial that you reframe this self-talk. For example, words and phrases such as “I can’t,” “If only,” “I must,” or “COVID-19 made me feel that way” should be replaced with proactive language such as “I will,” “I choose to,” and “Let’s look at this another way.”
You should also monitor the questions you ask yourself. For instance, replacing “Why me?” with “What can I do about this?” will provide you with a sense of control. When you replace such reactive language with more proactive language, it will instil in you a sense of strength, directing you toward corrective action rather than worrying about what you cannot change.
Take Away Message
Our lives are defined by what we repeatedly do. These habitual behaviours not only impact our external world — but they determine how we think and feel. As neuroscience shows, these actions also change the shape of our brains.
But it’s not just our brain structure that changes. When we implement positive habits into our lives, we also change the age of our brains. By doing this, we live longer, reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline, and we have superior physical function over those with an ‘older brain.’
Whether they be positive or negative habits are kind of the fabric of our beings, when you change your habits to be more positive you can beneficially change your brain. When you change your brain you can change your life, whether that be for the better or worse is up to you.
Brain Pennie believes that change is possible, and he writes to show that. He is an author, recovered addict, speaker, lecturer in the area of neuroscience at two Ireland Universities, and a Ph.D. candidate.
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.