Emotions Empowering Healthcare Growth Happiness Healthy Living

The Power to Change Your Brain


Instead of buying a new computer or smart phone when your old one can’t keep up with your needs, wouldn’t it be great if it had the limitless ability to upgrade its own hardware and software to meet the demands of the moment?

Your own brain already has this ability.

At birth, we are born with approximately 86 billion neurons and as they die, one by one, they are not replaced.

This has lead to the common assumption that our brains and therefore our capacity for thinking and remembering decline throughout adulthood. Associated with this assumption is the belief that we are less capable of change as we age. That’s the way the majority of adults think and behave. With time, we get stuck in habits of behaviour and thought; it gets harder to change our routine and how we see ourselves.

Although the actual of number of neurons (nerve cells) does not increase with age, up to adulthood, the human brain can increase to five times its size at birth. The increase in volume is due to myelination (the outer insulation of nerve fibres) and the growth of connections (or synapses) between neurons.

The principle of “use it or lose it” applies to your brain as well as your body. We know muscles that aren’t challenged will atrophy and become weaker. If we don’t move through a full range of motion, we become stiff, and if we limit our activity, we lose our agility and balance.

How your brain adapts and evolves over a lifetime, depends on how you use it because the brain is capable of creating new synapses (connections between neurons) at any age. Frequently used connections are reinforced and become stronger and more efficient. Seldom used connections are lost.

This creates habits of thought, which beget habits of behaviour and habits of feeling.

If we reinforce habits of drinking, smoking or using drugs when we are stressed or in response to particular situations, those habits become more entrenched over time as we strengthen the corresponding synaptic connections.

But if we stop the cycle, try out a new and healthier pattern of behaviour, and repeat that pattern repeatedly over time, we can reinforce an alternate neural pathway. The more we travel along this new connection of neurons, the more we strengthen the synapses until we have adopted the new and healthier habit.

The same principle applies to how we think about our selves, others and our world. It’s simpler and more efficient to hold onto assumptions and beliefs about others and our world, but too often it doesn’t keep up with the reality of change.

If we think of ourselves as being stuck in our ways, addicted to our attachments or incapable of positive change, we will live this self-fulfilling prophecy. Too often we limit our capacity for growth and happiness by our prejudices and unexamined assumptions; we see only evidence to reinforce our beliefs and are blind to evidence that show them to be false.

Certain patterns of thought reinforce particular emotional states, and once in these states, those patterns are reinforced. Thoughts focussed on negativity, judgment, blame and hopelessness reinforce feelings of anger and sadness. Thoughts of appreciation, personal empowerment and a positive purpose beget happiness.

With a healthy brain that can literally change itself, each of us is capable of positive change. Which free upgrades will you choose?

At 7 pm on Tuesday, September 22nd, I’ll be speaking on Emotional Wellness at the Bob Prittie Metrotown Library in Burnaby. I’ll talk about the key emotional health skills we all need to cope with life’s ups and downs; managing stress, difficult thoughts and feelings; recognizing the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, mood and other psychological conditions; and where to find help.

This free presentation is provided by the Burnaby Public Library in collaboration with the Burnaby Division of Family Practice as part of our Empowering Patients public health education series. As space is limited, please register by calling (604) 436-5400 or online

Caregiving Emotions

Let’s talk about your emotional health


Your emotional wellbeing is an essential part of your health, but many patients only see their doctors when something is wrong with their bodies.

In the daily reality of my family practice, I assist patients coping with overwhelming emotions, troublesome thoughts and anxiety. Many initially present a physical problem, such as abdominal pain or insomnia as the reason for the visit.

Physical problems themselves are a cause of distress and can have a significant impact on our lives. Yet emotional distress can result in even greater negative effects.

Our emotional states can narrow our thoughts and influence our behaviour, affecting our enjoyment of life, our performance at work or in school, and how we relate to others. This can create vicious cycles of distressing emotional states, negative or anxious thinking, and worsening of our circumstances that in turn leads to increasingly negative feelings.

Our feelings shape our thoughts. When anxious, we may see a more threatening, overwhelming and unpredictable world. We underestimate our ability to cope. We overestimate what we must deal with.

When we become depressed, we may see our selves, others and our circumstances in a negative light. We have more difficulty seeing our own good qualities and abilities, the good in our relationships and the positive aspects of our circumstances.

Many people suffering from emotional symptoms hesitate to get help because they think they should be able to manage on their own. Although normal emotional reactions are part of life – it’s human to feel sad if we lose a loved one and anxious when we’re threatened, we need help when our emotions are of an intensity and duration such that they negatively impact the important areas of our lives, including our relationships and our performance at school or work.

Family members and friends sometimes don’t know what to do when someone they care about is suffering emotionally. Some mistake depression for a minor case of the blues that we all suffer when things don’t go our way, but people with depression can’t just snap out of it.

They need more information on how to recognize serious emotional problems and how to get help.

The Doctors of BC (British Columbia Medical Association) has just launched a new website, as part of its Council on Health Promotion Youth Mental Health Project. It contains valuable links to resources for youth and young adult patients and families, teachers and health care providers.

You’ll find information about common emotional problems, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and psychosis. On the site, you can find online tools for self-assessment, practical self-help information, tips for managing stress and information to access professional help.

Even if you’re neither a youth nor a young adult, check out this invaluable website anyway. You’ll find helpful suggestions that anyone can use to manage stress and maintain emotional health.

And if you need some help with your emotional health, talk to your family doctor. It’s part of what we do to care for you as a whole person.

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician.