Two things to understand first:
- You can use your conscious mind to train your brain, changing its unconscious activity.
- AND, your brain learns from and changes due to unconscious activity, too.
Most of the brain’s activity is unconscious. Things like regulating your blood pressure, regulating your breathing, triggering feelings of hunger or thirst, triggering the release of chemicals and hormones (such as oxytocin, vasopressin, or cortisol) do not generally enter your consciousness.
But if every time you are around cleaning chemicals, your hypothalamus is scanning the environment, identifying bleach as a danger, and flooding your body with fight-or-flight hormones and chemicals, your brain will learn quickly that anything it thinks is related to bleach is a problem, whether you consciously smell it or not.
There is no question that anyone can train their brain to associate a stimulus with an unconscious response, thereby making the previously neutral stimulus a “trigger.” Most of the time, this happens without our conscious awareness or intent.
Ivan Pavlov was the first person to specifically document this and be recognized for this work. Neither dogs nor humans have conscious control of our salivation, but when Pavlov paired a bell ringing with the appearance of food, he “trained’ dog to drool at the sound of a bell.
Likewise, any of us can train our brains to turn on thirst or hunger — or shallow, fast breathing; a rise in blood pressure; or a release or oxytocin — with ANY stimulus. We could set up a training situation so that seeing a yellow card, hearing a horn honk, feeling something prickly, or smelling flowers changed our physiological response so that our breathing, hunger, blood pressure, or hormone levels change, even though there’s nothing intrinsic to seeing a yellow card that to making blood pressure rise. Like all animals, humans learn by association in the most primitive parts of our brain.
However, you can use your conscious mind to change your brain:
- If you feel an unbidden surge of anger and anxiety every time you think of someone, you can train your brain to react differently to the thought of that person by practicing lovingkindness meditation. This would make it more likely your brain would trigger the release of oxytocin (the bonding or love hormone) when you see that person instead of cortisol or epinephrine (stress hormones).
- If you have a spike in blood pressure when you smell fragrances, you can change your reaction to them by doing the DNRS steps when you smell fragrances.
- And likewise if your digestion comes to a halt or you start breathing shallow, fast breaths when you eat a certain food, you can retrain your mind using DNRS and thus, eventually, your brain, which will communicate with your GI tract and your lungs…
If you pair whatever the trigger (stimulus) is with a DIFFERENT association (response), you can change your body’s PHYSICAL reaction. I know it seems weird to think that physical changes — changes in the body — can be affected by the mind, but they can because the mind tells the brain what’s important.