Brain Pathways and Self Talk

I have this great path that I walk or run in the mornings.  It is right along the beach.  I am blessed that there is a beautiful paved promenade that creates a smooth surface for my clumsy self to put one foot in front of the other without tripping and falling.  A trail runner, I […]

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I have this great path that I walk or run in the mornings.  It is right along the beach.  I am blessed that there is a beautiful paved promenade that creates a smooth surface for my clumsy self to put one foot in front of the other without tripping and falling.  A trail runner, I am not.  As I was out yesterday, I was on a smooth part of the path where the pavers curved to create an aesthetically pleasing arch. However I noticed that in the grassy area beside the pathway, there was a straight pathway that had been created by the repetitive trod of footsteps, leaving a well-worn pathway from one end of the arch to the other, right through the grass. Both of these pathways represent how signals in the brain connect our memories, form habits, and affect our movement and emotions. 

Brain Pathways

Pathways in our brains send messages to our bodies all the time to move or to feel a certain way.  The brain sends these messages through pathways.  Hormones such as dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin, and cortisol are all directed by the communications via this thoroughfare of intertwining pathways in our brain. And the more we use certain pathways, the stronger they become. 

The arched pavers created a very strong and sturdy pathway for travel, whereas the grassy path was well worn by numerous travelers, but not quite as strong as the pavers. However, with more traffic, the trail will become deeper and stronger, creating a consistent link to the same destination.

The same thing happens with neural pathways in the brain. The more we use a pathway, the stronger it becomes. 

We build pathways as we train our brain

Every time we think the same thought (whether it’s a positive or negative thought), or act in the same way (whether it’s something small like cracking an egg or larger like driving across the country), we deepen the neural pathways in our brain that are connected to that activity.  Every thought starts a neurochemical process that either creates a temporary pathway or strengthens an existing pathway. Want to know more about training the brain, go here. 

We also train our cells by strengthening or weakening those pathways

As well as creating and strengthening pathways, our  thoughts also program our cells. A thought is an electrochemical event taking place in your nerve cells, producing a cascade of physiological changes. There are thousands and thousands of tiny receptors on each cell in our body, kind of like specific shaped locks. Each receptor is specific to one specific neurotransmitter or key such as dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin, and cortisol. So, like a lock and key.

Thoughts create the neurotransmitters that travel the path

When we have thoughts that create feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, excitement, happiness or nervousness, each separate thought releases its own flurry of neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters, or keys, go down the pathway to then connect with the receptors, or locks, on cells. When the lock and key come together, it changes the structure of each cell.   If a cell has been exposed to a certain neurotransmitter more than others, the new cell that is produced when it divides  will have more of the receptor that matches with that specific lock and key.  Likewise, the cell will also have less receptors for those that it was NOT exposed to as often.  

This is how we train our brain. 

If you have been bombarding your cells with neurotransmitters from negative thoughts, you are literally programming your cells to receive more of the same negative transmitters in the future. What’s even worse is that you’re lessening the number of positive receptors or positive locks & keys.  This is how you train your brain to be more inclined towards negativity. 

The GOOD news

The good news is every cell in your body is replaced about every two months. You can reprogram your pessimistic cells to be more optimistic by adopting positive thinking practices. Also, the brain has neural plasticity, which means, much like the grass that over time was worn down to create a solid path, your brain can forge and create a new pathway of its own as well. When creating the new path, the one you choose, the one for more positive thoughts, the old path, or the negative path will let the grass grow back.  And with enough practise, the new pathway will begin to cement. 

So, what does all this have to do with Self Talk

ftentimes, negative self-talk is the reflection of the toxic influence of others in our lives. The musings of negative self-talk may sound a lot like a critical parent, friend, social acquaintance, or images from the media portraying what society is symbolizing as the perfect wife, mother, friend or employee. 

Negative self-talk is the inner dialogue that you have with yourself that diminishes you and your ability to make positive changes in your life.  It can also diminish your confidence in your ability to make positive changes. 

Negative self talk creates a pathway

This pathway of negative self talk creates neurotransmitters that produce our stress hormones.  Negative self-talk creates neurotransmitters that leave us with feelings of anxiety, stress, and overwhelm.  Negative self-talk can leave us with feelings of being unworthy and unloved.  Negative self-talk can create feelings of shame and resentment. These feelings are created by the neurotransmitters traveling the well worn pathways of negativity and despair.  

As you strengthen and cement those pathways of negativity, you decrease or weaken the pathways for happy neuro chemicals. 

However, positive self talk does the opposite

Positive self-talk reduces stress hormones, and helps to increase serotonin and endorphins, the happy hormones.  Words have power and positive self talk can decrease pain and distress tolerance.  Positive self talk can also help increase energy levels, because your body is not constantly  being rundown by all the unhappy and stress chemicals.  

The more we think about something the stronger the connections get in our brain, just like that pathway through the grass. 

I’ve lived overseas a long time, and I sometimes get boggled by how windy and curvy the roads are, especially in small towns in Europe.  I’ve found that the skinny little roads can lead to great adventures.  I like to imagine how these roads got started. I’m sure they started with a walking trail, then a dusty dirt road then to a modern paved thoroughfare that takes you from one place to the next.  

Just like the trail progression, when we have a thought, the more we think about it the stronger the memory gets.  Just like all the cute European cobblestone streets  and my grass pathway on my running trail.  

There are a few simple things we can do to help increase our positive self talk and strengthen positive pathways and cells in our brain. 

STOP*Change the Language*Write it out*Visualize*Practice

#1 We just need to learn to  STOP

Just take a moment to STOP and catch our  negative thoughts.  We need to learn to STOP and CATCH our negative thoughts by paying attention and being curious. Noticing them, challenging them and choosing thoughts that are more conducive to the pathways we want most. 

Master Yoda said “To be Jedi is to face the truth, and choose. Give off light, or darkness, Padawan. Be a candle, or the night.” You get to choose, light or darkness. You get to choose to strengthen the pathways of negativity or build and strengthen pathways of positivity and success. 

The process of changing your chronic negative thinking is the same regardless of the content of your thoughts:  As we STOP and catch our negative thoughts by paying attention and being curious. We can then challenge our thought and choose to substitute negative thoughts with something else instead. 

Remember, you choose which pathway to create and strengthen in your brain. 

#2 Change the Language. Use Positive self talk and Positive affirmations

Build pathways that look for positive locks and keys.  Strengthen the pathways that create the life you want.  Use positive words and positive affirmations and positive self talk to reinforce the positive pathways in your brain. Positive self-talk reduces stress hormones, and helps to increase serotonin and endorphins, our happy chemicals.  Positive self talk has shown to  decrease pain perception and increase distress tolerance and boost immunity. It allows your body to have more energy to do fun things, instead of constantly being in a state of fight or flight. It can lead to a life of peace, purpose and power. 

#3:  Write it out

Writing it out helps you get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper.  It lets you look at those thoughts objectively.  Looking at your thoughts more objectively allows you to choose your thoughts more consciously.  The process of writing it out, actually engages parts of the brain that help with executive function skills and rational thinking. It allows you to take some of the emotion out of the equation as you choose which pathway you want to reinforce.  

#4:   Visualization

I’m sure you guys have heard of professional athletics using visualization in their practise to perform better. Visualization changes and strengthens the pathways in our brain.  Visualization can help create more connections among different regions as it stimulates the brain regions involved in the rehearsal of movement. Visualization can prime the brain and the body for actions so that we move more effectively. 

Brain studies have shown that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions.  Mental imagery impacts cognitive process, motor control, attention, emotions  and memory.  Mental practices such as visualization can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance and  prime your brain for success.  And you don’t even have to get off the couch.  You just need to train your brain. You just need to build those pathways by using them over and over and over again.  And build more locks and keys for the feelings and emotions you want most in your life. 

 Imagine the future. Imagine a future where you have already achieved your goal. Hold a mental “picture” of it as if it were occurring to you right at that moment. Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. Engage as many of the five senses as you can in your visualization. Who are you with? Which emotions are you feeling right now? What are you wearing? Is there a smell in the air? What do you hear? What is your environment? Create a vivid picture and write it out and then use your brain to visualize it.  Use your brain to create the pathway in your brain. 

Visualize the pathways in your brain.  Visualize what you want most.  

#4: Practice, Practice, Practice – that path is not going to create itself. 

Thousands of trodding running shoes created the well worn pathway through the grass. Every time a new runner came along, it made the pathway that much stronger. But, if the runners all stopped and took a different pathway, the grass would grow back and there would be no worn pathway. Remember to STOP and just take a moment to catch your negative thoughts.  Stop strengthening that pathway.  Choose a different path.  Change the language.  Practice some positive self talk, and self affirmations. Write it down to help cement the path that you choose. Visualize it. And as you do, you will build strong neuro pathways that bring you joy, happiness, satisfaction, peace, purpose and power. 

  • STOP
  • Change the Language
  • Write it out
  • Visualize
  • Practise

Visualize your pathway this week and integrate more positive self talk to create the life you want to live and Discover Your Personal Power. 

Peggy Moore has twenty years in Critical Care Nursing and is a  Certified Professional Coach.  You can find her at

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