The term “principles of neuroplasticity” is less complicated than it sounds. It simply means the brain can change, both structurally and functionally, to help you recover from head injuries, cope with traumas, or even create healthier habits. This ability to change the brain is called neuroplasticity and it hinges on the idea that you have control of your thoughts.
While changes in the brain can happen as the result of a trauma or unintended experience, you can also make positive changes in your life using neuroplasticity. As you choose new ways of thinking or change your actions, you teach your brain to choose or think those things instead of something you may have been taught or learned earlier in life.
Changing your brain in this way can unlock positive changes for mental, emotional, and physical wellness in every aspect of your life. Even better, anyone can do it! Like all aspects of health, though, doing so requires consistent, mindful intentionality to achieve those juicy long-term results.
Whether you want to revitalize your health habits, shift the way you approach challenges and stress, or just want to know more about how you can change your brain, this is the guide to the principles of neuroplasticity—and how to apply them—you need.
Why Does Neuroplasticity Matter?
How often have you thought to yourself, “That’s just the way I am”? I know I’ve been there many times before, but that’s why I love learning about the principles of neuroplasticity and how this works. It reminds me that I have the power to change my thought patterns. I (you too!) have more control than I once thought I did.
Even better, research from the Human Brain Mapping Journal found that, no matter how old you are, consistent efforts to train, challenge, and sharpen the mind will result in dynamic cognitive shifts. It’s never too late to change your brain!
Principles of Neuroplasticity: An Overview
Let’s get into the principles of neuroplasticity with some science real quick. The National Library of Medicine defines neuroplasticity as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activities in response to intrinsic or external stimuli.” In other words, your brain can either reorganize its current network of neurons (nerve cells) to build stronger pathways or it can develop new neural connections altogether.
Ten main principles of neuroplasticity govern the many ways in which your brain can change. Let’s do a brief overview of each one so you understand how this works.
Use It or Lose It
Brain connections that are regularly used are strengthened, while those that are neglected or underused may weaken or be pruned. I love how this teaches us how our brains can release old thought patterns and beliefs if we just choose new ones over and over.
Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together
Simultaneous activation of neurons strengthens their connections. For example, when you repeatedly think about or practice a specific action, like taking three deep breaths when you’re stressed, the connections between the neurons involved in that action can be reinforced. This makes taking deep breaths when you’re stressed more automatic in the future.
Engaging in specific tasks or learning specific skills leads to changes in the corresponding neural networks. For example, endurance running primarily engages aerobic energy systems, while high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may involve anaerobic systems. Training specificity helps optimize the energy systems needed for a particular sport or activity.
The more a particular neural pathway is activated, the more likely it is to be strengthened and maintained. For example, when you consistently choose to do just ten minutes of movement each day, you build a habit—this is what I always talk about at Lindywell. Consistency matters!
The strength and impact of neuroplastic changes are influenced by the intensity of the experience or training. Intense and focused engagement tends to more significantly alter your neural circuits. For example, exposing your brain to manageable levels of stress, like with a challenging workout, can trigger adaptive responses, contributing to resilience and improved coping mechanisms.
Duration of Training
The length of time spent on a task or in a learning activity affects the extent of neuroplastic changes. In other words, the more you commit to your daily gratitude practice, the more your brain will adapt to a greater sense of gratitude naturally. As with most wellness changes, the more you commit, the greater the benefits.
Salience and Importance
Meaningful and significant experiences tend to have a greater impact on brain plasticity. We can use this when thinking about movement and how you can make the experience more meaningful and connected. For example, can you connect your next workout with a feeling you want to experience when it’s over?
Age Matters, but Plasticity Persists
While the brain is more adaptable during certain critical periods, neuroplasticity persists throughout life. The capacity for the brain to change may decline with age, but the brain remains capable of learning and adapting, even in adulthood!
Neuroplastic changes in one part of the brain can influence other, related areas. For example, the more you practice breathwork, the more you may notice you’re less impacted by stress on a day-to-day basis.
Recovery Is Possible
The brain can recover from injury or trauma. Rehabilitation efforts, including targeted exercises and therapies, can stimulate neuroplasticity and support the restoration of function. Breathwork for trauma is a powerful tool in facilitating this healing.
The thing is, you don’t need to understand the nitty-gritty of all of these principles to start changing your brain. But isn’t it fascinating to know how brilliant this organ is? Now, let’s get into what you do need to know (and do).
How to Use Neuroplasticity to Change Your Health Habits
The question you’re probably thinking is: this sounds awesome, how do I do it?! To leverage the principles of neuroplasticity to make positive changes in health habits, you need to be intentional and consistent. Here are a few health habits I know many of our Lindywell members are working on. Plus, how you can use the principles of neuroplasticity to make them your reality.
Make Movement a Part of Your Daily Routine
The Repetition principle suggests that consistently engaging in physical activity will lead to the strengthening and maintenance of neural connections associated with exercise. This is one of the biggest challenges most of us face—working out regularly—but it’s something you can make possible. It’s not about having willpower. (Read our blog post, Motivation vs. Consistency: Which One Helps You Build Lifelong Habits? to understand why.)
Instead, making this change is about working with your brain by making a few small tweaks to the way you approach movement. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Start with manageable exercise sessions, especially if you’re new to regular workouts. Starting small helps build a positive association with exercise and avoids overwhelming yourself. That’s why we have an entire section of our app devoted to workouts under 15 minutes!
- Set a regular and consistent workout schedule. Consistency is key to reinforcing neural pathways associated with the habit of exercising. Whether it’s morning, afternoon, or evening, having a set time for your workouts helps your brain recognize and adapt to this routine.
- Reflect on the benefits of exercise for your overall well-being. This mindful reflection can enhance your commitment to regular workouts by reinforcing the positive associations with physical activity. This is why your app is designed to help you do this by asking you to choose how you feel after a workout.
Start your free trial of our Pilates app, Lindywell, to get instant access to 300+ workouts. The most common piece of feedback we get from members is that Lindywell is the only workout program that helped them get consistent with daily workouts—after years and decades of trying!
Better Manage Stress
The Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together principle tells us that if two neurons are activated simultaneously, the connection between them strengthens. This can be a helpful principle to leverage for better managing stress. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Engage in mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques, like breathwork and meditation, regularly. When you intentionally pair relaxation with a state of mental presence, you strengthen the neural connections associated with calmness and reduce the firing of neurons linked to stress.
- Prioritize time with friends, which can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding and stress reduction. When you do this, your brain can wire social interactions with feelings of comfort and security allowing stress to feel less overwhelming.
- Challenge and change negative thought patterns around stress by consciously interrupting and replacing negative thoughts with more positive and realistic ones. For example, “Stress is normal, but I can handle anything that comes my way.” Or, “Stressful situations can be hard to deal with, but I know I can choose to stay calm regardless of what’s happening.”
Don’t forget breathwork as a tool to manage stress. Our blog post, The Healing Power of the Breath, helps explain this powerful connection.
Be More Present
As a mom of four with a business and active social life, I’m always working on being present. If you struggle to stay in the moment—let’s be honest, we live in a very distracting world—you can leverage the Specificity principle. This says that engaging in certain tasks or learning certain skills will lead to a change in the corresponding neural networks. Here are some examples of how you can create this change with simple shifts:
- Spend time doing mindful movement, like Pilates. Using intentional movement and breath awareness, you’re able to focus on the present moment, fostering that mind-body connection and boosting your brain’s ability to help you stay present. Start your free trial of Lindywell to get instant access to 300+ Pilates workouts!
- Practice mindful listening during conversations. Instead of thinking about your response while the other person is talking, truly listen and focus on their words. This deepens your connection with the present interaction.
- Keep a gratitude journal where you regularly write down things you are thankful for. Reflecting on positive aspects of your life fosters a positive mindset and strengthens neural connections associated with gratitude and appreciation. Check out, 5 Surprising Ways 30 Days of Gratitude Changed My Life, to see how this practice impacted my life.
Change Your Brain, Change Your Life
What I find most liberating about the principles of neuroplasticity is that they remind us that we’re in the driver’s seat of our lives—if we want to make something happen, we can. If you’re ready to create healthier habits, or just create change in your life in general, you can work with your brain’s unique abilities to make it happen.