‘I’m a Cognitive Neuroscientist, and I Created a 5-Step Neurocycle To Ease Mental Spirals’

Photo: Getty Images/Lilly Roadstones
When you're stressed or anxious, you can feel it physically. But physical sensations like a tight chest and sweaty palms start in the mind, and it can be difficult to calm those racing thoughts before they ignite a mental spiral that's tough to pull out of. It turns out, though, that by taking advantage of the brain's ability to adapt and change, you can help relieve stress and stop chaotic thoughts in their tracks before they derail you. It’s the concept behind the 5-step Neurocycle, a method created by cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD.

What is the Neurocycle?

The five-step Neurocycle is a method of "mind management," that uses the brain's ability to change to reorient your thinking and thought patterns. It can be used to identify and diminish chaotic thought patterns that can contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression. "The Neurocycle takes you through the process of seeing how you show up, finding the thoughts those [behaviors or patterns] are attached to, deconstructing that thought to find the roots of the experience, and then reconciling, reconceptualizing, and reconstructing it without trying to change or eliminate anything," says Dr. Leaf, who is the author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and the forthcoming book How To Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess. "You can't change your story, but you can change what it looks like inside of you," she adds.

So how does this actually work? The Neurocycle is rooted in the concept of neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain isn’t hardwired and can adapt and change throughout our lifetimes. This principle has largely been used to help people recover from certain types of traumatic brain injuries and more than 40 years of research has shown that the brain can form new neural connections and change existing ones based on new information it receives, for example through our life experiences. By harnessing the brain's power to form new neural connections, the 5-step Neurocycle is a method to reorient the chaotic thoughts that come with stress and anxiety so they're more manageable. "It's a system that is creating mind-brain-body [connection] that turns things into habits," says Dr. Leaf.

How the 5-step Neurocycle works

The goal here isn't to eliminate chaotic or spiraling thoughts, because a certain degree of anxiety is healthy and necessary to keep us safe. However, anxiety and stress become detrimental when they're chronic and preclude someone from living their life in the way they want, says Dr. Leaf. "By focusing on the good, healthy thoughts, as well as detoxing, you create stronger networks inside your mind-brain-body connection that help you get the toxic stuff under control quicker," she says.

"By focusing on the good, healthy thoughts, as well as detoxing, you create stronger networks inside your mind-brain-body connection that help you get the toxic stuff under control quicker."—cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD

The brain is shaped by a combination of genes and our life experiences. "Every life experience we have is converted by the mind into a physical, structural thought inside the brain, mind, and body," says Dr. Leaf. "Basically, as humans, we are accumulations of every experience we've ever had, and each experience is there in its original form, but our life experiences change how we view them," she says. Dr. Leaf’s Neurocycle takes advantage of the brain’s adaptability to intentionally redirect thought patterns about these experiences into new ones that contribute to a more calm mind. “Our brain constantly changes and is never the same from moment to moment, and it’s empowering to know that you can direct that change,” she says. But these changes don’t happen automatically, and they need to be specifically repeated to really establish and bolster those new connections.

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As such, each step of the Neurocycle is designed to form a helpful and supportive pattern that you can engage when you most need it. Read on for how to actually use Dr. Leaf’s five-step Neurocycle to manage chaotic thoughts.

Calm and ready yourself before the Neurocycle

Because the five-step Neurocycle involves what Dr. Leaf calls “deep work,” it’s important to be in the right frame of mind before you start. To get there, she advises doing a stress-reducing activity, like a quick meditation or calming breathwork exercises. This could even be as simple as visualizing happy or pleasant thoughts. Any method of regulating your nervous system will do, she says.

It’s paramount to not skip this process and to not start the Neurocycle until you’re in a calm, ready place because you need to be prepared for what you may uncover. “Think of how the engineer checks everything before flying a plane—they only take off once they know everything is okay,” says Dr. Leaf. You’re doing the same thing here to get yourself in the right space for introspection.

The 5 step Neurocycle, and how to use each step to combat chaotic thoughts

Once you’re in the right headspace, you’re ready to undergo the Neurocycle process. Here are the five steps, and how they each go together to help calm chaotic thoughts:

  1. Gather: The first step in the process, says Dr. Leaf, is evidence-gathering. These are the signals you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious. Look at four realms: your emotions, your thoughts, your bodily behavior, and your perspective. For each of these four elements, form one sentence (either out loud or in your head) that describes what’s happening. For example, for the bodily behavior phase, consider any physical sensations you’re experiencing. Maybe it’s: “My chest feels tight.” Or for the perspective realm, it may be: “I feel out of control.”
  2. Reflect: After you’ve gathered evidence from the physical, mental, and emotional warning signals, it’s time to reflect on your first-step findings. “This is where you try to make sense of how this is showing up in your life because we are going through the deconstruction process of the thought,” says Dr. Leaf. Ask yourself “what,” “why,” and “how” questions: What was I doing right before I felt this way? Your aim here is a broad overview that sheds light on the patterns when these thoughts occur, and what signals them.
  3. Write: After you’ve gathered evidence and reflected on it, the next step in the Neurocycle is writing down these discoveries. The goal here is to produce a “brain dump” of your thoughts and feelings, says Dr. Leaf. Draw, write outside the lines, make lists—just get everything out on the page, whether that’s a physical page or one you visualize in your head (if you’re not able to physically write, Dr. Leaf recommends visualizing).
  4. Recheck: This step is an even deeper examination of the previous steps. In the recheck phase, look at what you produced in step three and check in with yourself—have your feelings changed in any way? Think about what you can actually do about what you’ve written about. Consider: Can you re-conceptualize this thought?
  5. Active reach: In the final part of the Neurocycle, you build on all the previous work you did. At this stage, Dr. Leaf says you’re creating a final statement to anchor where you are in that moment and that you can use to prevent your anxious thoughts from taking over when they creep up. Come up with a statement or visualization that can be your safe harbor by asking yourself: "What do I need right now to help me get through the day/moment/this conversation?" This shouldn't be complicated, and can be as simple as visualizing a specific image that conjures a feeling of calm, or even a personal mantra you can repeat. This is the closure step that helps establish your new thought pattern and weaken the old, unhelpful one.

Once you’ve completed all these steps, you’re on your way to more effective mind management. According to Dr. Leaf, it takes 63 days to rewire the brain, so she advises repeating this process daily for at least that long of time to make your work stick.

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