09 Mrz Can you rewire your brain in 2 weeks?
The answer is– yes. Following is a self-experiment to re-wire my brain. Spoiler: it does not involve placing electrodes around or inside my brain. Also, there are no technological tools necessary to try this – even though they really help.
How it started
I was a nervous wreck when I started this experiment. My relationship was going down the drain. My girlfriend wanted me to buy a house, start a family. My conundrum was, I couldn’t do that because I hated the place I was living. The place is an industrial town. Its view is dominated by a steel plant, the spirit of its people is dominated by small town dullness like fixing roofs and tuning their cars.
I hated my job. I was a turn-around manager for large scale steel plant projects that had gone bad. For this job I had to fly overseas once, sometimes twice a month. The places I was visiting were the most polluted, ugliest patches of land on earth. When the list of the 10 ugliest towns on earth was published in 2018, I had visited 5 of them. If a project had really turned sour, I had to stay for weeks and months at a time. This meant a standard work week from Monday to Saturday, on some days starting at 7am and ending the workday at 4am.
But the worst days were Sundays. If you are all alone, in the middle of nowhere in India, China or Russia there is literally nothing you can do on a Sunday. So, I typically also chose to work Sundays, at least the half-day to feel productive.
So, in a nutshell, I felt trapped. I was stressed, frustrated.
I had started to meditate a few years earlier, when I was already struggling with chronic stress, lack of sleep and an unhealthy lifestyle. At this point, meditation didn’t cut it for me anymore, I needed something different. Accepting the situation wouldn’t get me out of my situation. To get out of where I was, I needed to do something. I forged the plan to start a business and quit that job that ate up so much of my energy and my time.
The problem was that in the place I was there was no exit. I was sitting in a bleak town in China, with slow restricted internet and a few thousand kilometers away from potential customers, cofounders or investors. My creative energy was non-existent.
I had to pull myself out of my misery mentally first before I could think about my next endeavors. What I needed was positive energy to overcome my work, life and relationship problems and craft something new.
Brain to body or body to brain?
At this time, I always thought that the mind rules the body and change has to come from the mind. Being an experienced meditator, this had worked for me in the past. Thinking myself out of this situation got me only more frustrated and depressed.
I came across a radically different concept at this time. My brother asked me to read his Bachelor thesis, it was about a biomarker called HRV or heart rate variability. I was hooked immediately. HRV seemed to be THE biomarker that somehow got ignored by the general public so far. It’s a summary parameter that reflects your physical and mental fitness, long and short term. In other words, it reflects how much energy you have.
I dove into hours of research and found out that there is an easy way to boost HRV also. Back at home I immediately got myself a chest strap to measure my own HRV – it was super low because of my jetlag. But the next 20min changed my life. I sat down and did a practice called resonance breathing. This means that you breathe in and out at a certain frequency, designed to boost the HRV. After doing that for 20min my jetlag-drowsy head was gone and replaced by a feeling of eagerness to do something. Ideas popped up in my head of what businesses I could start and creative ways to get out of my job.
My journal entry from after the breathing session reads:
“So much energy, so many ideas… have to write them down. No jetlag, just pure eagerness.”
The burst of energy did wear off over the next hour, but I was in awe of what 20min of breathing could do with my brain. What had just happened?
The short answer is, I used my body to control my brain. My brain didn’t see a way out of my situation. By breathing slowly and with the resonance breathing frequency the heart and lung get into a state of resonance that activates both strands of the autonomous nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is much stronger for people who suffer from chronic stress. That is how it was also in my case. So, the 20min breathing session put my nervous system back into a state I hadn’t felt since I was a child.
Later when I looked at my HRV curve it had exploded during the breathing session. I used my HRV to tune my breathing even further. The combination of breathing practice and measuring the results was super effective. Compared to meditation that leaves you with little or no feedback this was a foolproof way to train.
The results after a few weeks
After a few sessions I already wrote in my journal:
“Gamechanger. I can hear every word people say. I listen on more than one level… I hear what they say and what they WANT TO HIDE!! THIS IS LIKE A SUPERPOWER! Don’t get offended anymore, can muster to stay calm, doesn’t even feel exhausting…”
I had rewired my brain with only a few sessions of resonance breathing training.
The big challenge for re-wiring my brain in the past was my own monkey mind. When my head is cluttered, I struggle to meditate. On days I struggle to meditate I also tend to procrastinate more. My mind becomes my own largest enemy.
The strength of the biofeedback and breathing training is that it works backwards. I use the body and the nervous system to straighten out the mind. The body signals to the mind: “You are safe, you are focused. I have lots of energy.” Miraculously the mind follows. So, no matter where I am in my life and how dire things are, I know I can do 20min of breathing and I will be fine.
What a few years of training did for me
A lot has happened in my life since. I immersed myself in HRV biofeedback training and resonance breathing. The more I learn about it the more astonished I am. This is really one of the techniques I wished I learned already way back as a child.
The results after several years of training are amazing. I managed to increase my average HRV level to almost 100 and I can really feel the difference.
The method became really powerful once I stopped relying on technology to track my stress level but to feel it. In times of immense stress, I manage to control my breathing and increase my energy levels. Unexpectedly the work on myself also helped me to understand others better and feel more compassion. This allows me to become a better leader. A lot has changed for the better – I changed jobs, I started my own company, I’m currently producing a movie and I’m in happy relationship.