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Bonnieby Bonnie Katz, MA

The Mental Muscle Work-out

I had my brain changed on Thursday night.  Or, at least that was what Dr. Daniel J. Siegel told an audience of psychotherapists as he led us in a series of mental exercises during a lecture at U.C.L.A.   Dr. Siegel, a Harvard–trained physician , clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA school of Medicine, and co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center is a pioneer in the field of mental health.  He has scientifically proven that by following proper steps, people can learn how to focus their attention on the internal world of the mind in a way that will actually change the wiring and architecture of their brain.  He informed us that SNAGing the brain (stimulating neuronal activation and growth) strengthens neural connections and stimulates new patterns of neural firing to create new synaptic linkage.    

According to Dr. Sara W. Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist, “Neuronal plasticity, the ability of neurons in the brain to change in response to experience, has been one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience.  For a long time, it was assumed that only the young brain can undergo such structural changes.  However, recent findings have shown that the adult brain can also grow, reorganize and form new connections between neurons.  Thus, the research on neuroplasticity points to the brain as a growing organ that responds structurally, not only to the demands of the external environment, but also to internally generated states, including aspects of consciousness.”  Why is this information so relevant?  Because now it can be proven scientifically that you can be proactive in changing the way you feel through practicing good brain health.   If you have irrational fears, memories that torment you, get unreasonably angry and have difficulty calming down, feel stuck in repetitive negative patterns and can’t stop behaving the way you feel no matter how hard you try, SNAGing could be of interest to you.

As a psychotherapist, I am always on the lookout for information pertinent to helping individuals lead happy, productive lives.  Part of the work done in therapy is to cultivate the ability to know and control emotions, understand and heal relationships and ultimately reach one’s fullest potential.  Does that sound like a tall order?  Is it any taller than the work you do as actors when you land a role?  The characters are only words on a piece of paper until you breathe life into them.  You invest time and effort into creating a character study to understand your role inside out to give the best performance possible.  The work done in therapy has a similar path; taking the time to learn and understand yourself in order to achieve your fullest potential. This involves trying to understand how your early life experiences have made you the unique person you are today.   When you work at gaining self-understanding, you shed a light on those hidden obstacles that you keep bumping into.  Knowing yourself frees you from familiar unhealthy patterns and allows you to make wise, healthy choices.   There is a wonderful poem by Portia Nelson titled,  “Autobiography in Five Chapters,” which illustrates the process beautifully:

  1. I walk down the street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I fall in.  I am lost…I am hopeless.
    It isn’t my fault.
    It takes forever to find a way out.
  2. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I pretend I don’t see it.
    I fall in again.
    I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault.
    It still takes a long time to get out.
  3. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I see it is there.
    I still fall in…it’s a habit.
    My eyes are open.
    I know where I am.
    It is my fault.
    I get out immediately.
  4. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I walk around it.
  5. I walk down another street.

In order to avoid falling into another hole in the sidewalk, here are some tips to promote brain health and build mental muscle:

  •  Build a practice of focusing your attention.  You can do this through mindful meditation, yoga or qigong (Chinese system of physical and mental health training) .  Focused attention creates a more integrated nervous system resulting in having more compassionate connection with yourself and others.  It also helps build inner strength.
  •   Aerobic exercise. Just twenty minutes of aerobic exercise can boost your mood by easing the gloominess of depression, reduce the tension associated with anxiety and promoting relaxation.
  • Novelty or creating new experiences or ideas promotes new neuronal growth. Stimulate your mind by stepping out of your regular routine and trying something new.
  • Therapy enhances the activity of the frontal lobe which decreases the activity in the amygdala resulting in decreased levels of anxiety.  The amygdala isthe part of the brain that houses the fear fuel and stores our memories. Our memories and our ability to become frightened are intrinsically linked to one another.

Wishing you a happy and productive journey.  Have a great workout!


Bonnie Katz is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. One of her specialties is working with artists in the Entertainment Industry. Her skills and training as a psychotherapist and mindful meditator enable her to work with clients in an atmosphere of warmth and understanding. For more information on Bonnie’s psychotherapy practice,visit her website.Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.