Increasing the level of contentment in your life is simple science, says counselor and author Joan Leslie Woodruff, and her new book, “Mind Games,” published by AuthorHouse, will show you how.
Woodruff is a native of New Mexico and has a double master’s degree in counseling and psychological evaluation. She was a therapist early in her career, but quickly learned that one-on-one counseling wasn’t for her.
She went to work as an evaluator, facilitating tests and evaluations for judicial courts and schools as well as working as an occupational therapist with an orthopedic surgeon.
“Person-to-person counseling is theory, it is not science,” Woodruff said. “If you came to me and the surgeon with any kind of an injury, we used science to get you well. We didn’t use theory to fix injuries.”
Her interest in the science of health led her to study neuroscience. Over the years, she has kept up with the latest discoveries and taken extensive notes.
Her notes and understanding of how the brain functions led her to devise a 28-day program that promotes more immediate results in mental and emotional well-being.
Scientists have long since proven that you can actually change circuitry in the brain in 21 days, but the more modern neuroscience shows that you can actually completely erase old circuitry and replace it with new circuitry in 28 days, she said.
Her 28-day program became her book, “Mind Games,” and it is based on how brain cells fire together and wire together, particularly the patterns that develop over time, and how the average person can change undesirable patterns in their life for greater contentment on a day-to-day basis.
“You can really change your life if you get this book,” she said. “It’s a simple book. It’s day one through 28.”
You just need a notebook, a pen or a pencil and a willingness to follow the step-by-step exercises over the course of a month.
Each exercise is designed to trigger a release of “feel good chemicals” in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin.
“You have an experience in life, the experience happens, then you have thoughts about the experience,” she said. “Your thoughts create the feelings that you have about the experience. Your behavior is a direct result of your feelings, which were a result of the thoughts, that were the result of the experience, and it’s a formula, and I love it, because it’s a science. You can write it down like math.”
Over time, repeated thoughts create pathways in the brain that form the neuro-network of your mind. Some of the pathways could be described as ruts, consistent negative chatter or circular analyzing, like being on a mental hamster wheel. Woodruff calls this “ruminating.”
“Rumination never solves anything, because you’re trying to take a linear formula and you’re trying to make it a circle,” she explained. “If you start seeing your life as a linear occurrence, you can actually start catching and shaping the things that you do that don’t make you happy.”
For example, most people worry, and one worry can wreck an entire day, but you can ask yourself, “What can I do different?” The book teaches you what you can do different, Woodruff said.
One of the exercises calls for designating a particular “worry time,” followed by a “solution time.”
“You have to have a solution time, because a problem continues to be a problem, and only grows like an infection if you don’t also tie it with a solution time.”
In another exercise, as soon as you get out of bed in the morning, you place a pencil between your lips and hold it there for five minutes while you make your coffee or cook breakfast.
It may seem silly, Woodruff said, but the exercise forces you to use your smile muscles, and they signal to the brain that you are happy, so the brain releases natural opiates and serotonin that make you feel good. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a true smile and a forced smile.
“So, you actually start your day off feeling happy,” she said. “That’s actually the first exercise in the book, and you do it every day.”
Getting up in a rush for work triggers the stress hormone cortisone, which starts the adrenalin flowing and can make you irritable, but the pencil exercise helps override that neuro-pathway habit, and bathes the brain in serotonin, a feel-good chemical. This is the way you start the process of building positive pathways, she said.
“I started seeing a correlation between the ah-ha moment of the therapist, where you’re watching research change a field and you’re realizing this is what was missing from counseling, which is you cannot sit with a person and change them,” Woodruff said. “But with neuroscience, as a therapist you can teach a person how to step-by-step change the way they think, and change the way they use their brain, because there is a formula.”
The human brain is standard equipment, and the formula of how the brain works is the same for all of us.
“We all live our lives by a lot of different stories, but we all have a primary story that defines us, defines our life, defines who we are,” Woodruff said. “It’s our story.”
One of the exercises engages writing your story for 20 minutes over a four-day period.
Personal stories usually originate in some experience that shaped us early on in our lives, and it can influence how we relate to people and circumstances, similar to a filter that colors our experience.
Neuroscientists call this a “narrative integration of the brain,” she said. “They have found that if you just simply write about traumas, you can actually move yourself out of some pretty serious PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”
“Mind Games” is written to help people clear away mental clutter and initiate actual change for the better.
“You start your day with some specific exercises,” Woodruff said. “You set your timer, you’ve got five minutes … It tells you exactly what to do, and it doesn’t take much out of your day.”
The book is available in paperback or ebook at Barnes & Noble bookstores, www.barnesandnoble.com and www.amazon.com.
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