Mental Muscle Memory

About five years ago, I started doing strenuous physical workouts for the first time in my life. I remember being horrendously sore every second of every day for at least three months straight. It took a great deal of perseverance to work through the physical pain and negative thoughts, but it was 100% worth it. I’ve been working out regularly ever since and haven’t looked back.

I recently moved to a different city and fell behind on exercising because my to-do list was packed with move related activities, but for the past couple weeks I’ve been getting back into my groove. And it’s been relatively easy to remind my body what it’s capable of doing, because my muscles have done this work before. During a yoga class earlier this week, my mind drifted to the concept of muscle memory. Once you’ve conditioned your muscles a certain way, it’s much easier to re-train them if you fall out of shape.

This brought me to the thought that our minds behave much like our muscles when it comes to memory. Teaching your mind to think in a different way for the very first time is an incredible challenge. You’ve already been conditioned to think and react in a particular way by your experiences and interactions with the world, so how can you change?

If you’ve ever been in a negative mental state for an extended period of time, it’s very easy for your mind to fall back into negativity. Not because it feels good, but because it’s familiar. Because your mind is accustomed to certain ways of thinking. So why not build an exercise regimen for your mind the same way you do for your body?

Sometimes I catch myself in negative thought loops that don’t serve me, so I thought I’d devise a mental exercise routine in an attempt to alter my mind’s muscle memory. Here’s a short list of exercises in the routine I devised with the goal of thinking positively:

  1. Keep a journal: you don’t have to be an epic writer or dedicate hours a day to this journal. Just make a practice of writing down your thoughts. Getting your thoughts on paper can help them stop playing in your head on repeat.
  2. Learn to identify when you are in a headspace you don’t like. If you’re detached from yourself and your feelings, you won’t be able to make any changes to your thoughts.
  3. Work through thoughts that may be irrational. If you think something negative about yourself like “I’m not good enough”, try to figure out how you arrived at that conclusion. And then, prove yourself wrong by coming up with reasons that your negative thought is completely bogus. Tell that thought “you’re not real”, and put it behind you.
  4. Breathe into your belly, not your chest. Breathe deeply and slowly. Breathing into your chest can bring tension into your shoulders. And hyperventilating can elevate your heart rate and bring you into an anxious state of mind. Catch yourself when you aren’t breathing properly and take a minute to slow down and re-focus.
  5. Remember to keep up with self-care routines, especially on days when you don’t feel at the top of your game. Think about it, if you already feel like crap, then you skip the gym, eat an entire pizza by yourself, and neglect to shower, are you going to feel better or worse?
  6. Always come back to gratefulness. Having a shitty day? That doesn’t negate all of the positive things in your life. No matter who you are, I guarantee you have something to be grateful for. So make a list, an actual physical list with a pen and paper listing things and people who make you feel grateful. Keep going as long as you can.

None of these practices are new or ground-breaking; they just work. With the right routine and enough effort, you can retrain your brain. Pick a mental goal, and come up with exercises that will get you there. The more you train yourself to stay in your desired mental state, the easier it will be to come back when you fall behind on your routine.