M-M-Murray’s M-M-Mountains: how to use your brain to get good at stuff that feels scary

There’s a poem in Saturdays at the Imaginarium called ‘M-M-Murray’s M-M-Mountains’. It’s about someone called Murray (which you probably guessed) who’s afraid of heights. The trouble is, Murray’s a mountain climber. So he spends quite a lot of time feeling anxious. Worrying. Fretting. Stressing out. Poor Murray.

I’ll read you the poem in a short while. First I want to share a few thoughts about…

Dealing with fear and other scary feelings

The poem ‘M-M-Murray’s M-M-Mountains’ was inspired by a book I read called Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, written by an American writer called Susan Jeffers. I thought it was an interesting title, because fear often stops us from doing all kinds of stuff.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. If I was on a boat in shark-infested waters I’d be way too scared to go for a swim. So fear can be useful. It tells us to look out for danger and keep ourselves safe.

But sometimes the ‘dangers’ we worry about aren’t really dangerous at all. Sometimes we avoid doing things because we’re scared of getting it wrong, scared of finding it too difficult, scared of not being good enough, scared of making a mistake, scared of looking silly in front of our friends and things like that. Can you think of the last time you felt nervous about doing something? Can you remember some of the thoughts that were whizzing around in your head that made you not want to even try doing it at all?

This is your imagination at work. You see, sometimes the imagination gets a bit too ‘what iffy’ – what if I can’t do it, what if this goes wrong, what if I make a cheesecake of myself? It’s not because our imagination has ‘gone bad’ or anything. Sometimes it just gets a bit stuck on trying to protect us when what we’d really like it to do is to say, Yeah, you got this dude, let’s go for it! and then supply us with bucketloads of courage and energy and bah-dah-boom.

Using your imagination to support you (rather than scare you)

Did you know that there’s a whole science, called ‘neuroplasticity’, that’s all about learning to use your very own imagination, your own mind, your own brain, to improve your thinking, your abilities and and your performance?

Cool, huh.

Neuro what?

Neuroplasticity is a word that describes the fact that our brain is constantly changing and growing throughout our lives (‘growing’ in terms of its abilities rather than its size, otherwise old people would have really huge heads!). Like the muscles in our bodies, our brain gets stronger the more we use it. And, the more we use it to do particular things, the better it gets at doing those particular things, and the easier it becomes for us to enjoy and excel at those things.

Just like talking

Take talking, for example. When you were really little, you couldn’t talk so you had to learn. From scratch. And to begin with, it was really, really full-on. First you had to hum before you could even think about anything else. Then your brain and your body had to somehow work out how to get your mouth and tongue and lips to make all kinds of different shapes. Then you had to link up those shapes with particular sounds and figure out how to make those sounds – ee and wuh and voo and all the rest, before tackling the tricky business of words, and then sentences. Then (as if that weren’t enough) you had to learn what those words actually meant. And don’t even get me started on reading and writing them, and spelling and grammar!

You had to think about all of these things and more, and you had to practise them – a lot. You made heaps of mistakes. I mean seriously, so, so many errors. You bit your tongue. You drooled (yuk). You said goo instead of good morning. You spat all over the dog (and yes, we all laughed – sorry about that). But, hero that you are, none of that stopped you. Long story short: you totally rocked it. I mean, look at you now: chatting, gabbing, whispering, yelling, questioning, gossiping – sometimes all at the same time – and without even thinking about it! Incredible, eh?

So come on, what’s your secret? How did you do it? Whaddya mean you have no idea, it ‘just happened’…

Okay, here’s what happened. When we use our brain to complete a task, the brain ‘remembers’ the task, so the next time we do it, it seems a little easier. The time after that, it’s even easier, and so on. So the more we practise, the better we get and the easier it gets. You were super-motivated to talk and so it never occurred to you to think, oh-oh, this is too hard, it’s scary, I keep embarrassing myself (and the dog), I’m no good at it, I give up. Like a true trojan, a warrior, a top banana, you fell down and got up, you stuttered and stalled, again and again, until one day, eventually, you got it mastered. But even then you didn’t quit. In fact you’ve kept at it, learning and growing, ever since… these days you can talk about all kinds of subjects, link up the sounds of words with lots of scribbles on a page (also known as ‘reading’), spell some pretty complicated words (including ‘complicated’), sing songs (sometimes even in tune), write your own poems, send texts, etc. Go you – you’re a total star!

Let’s have a closer look at how you did it.

Building bridges in your brain

Inside your brain (and mine) is a network of billions of brain cells. Around 100 billion actually – which, coincidentally, is about the same amount as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

Every time you think a thought or do a task, messages have to flow at high speed between many of these different brain cells to activate all of the different parts of your brain that are needed for that particular thought or task. As these messages flow, they create ‘pathways’ or ‘connections’ between your brain’s cells, kind of like a network of roads going to all kinds of places. Each time you do something new, something that your brain hasn’t tackled in the same way before, it has to make a bunch of new pathways, or a series of new bridges, to link up all the different places and brain cells that are needed for that particular activity or behaviour.

The more we repeat something or practise it (a thought, a task, a habit, a skill) the stronger those pathways or bridges get, and the more easily and automatically we find we can do that thing (‘automatically’ means without thinking about it).

The more we keep challenging our brains with new thoughts and activities, the more we build different types of pathways or bridges in our brains. So our brains get stronger and smarter the more we use them and the more we challenge them with different ways of thinking and behaving.

Isn’t that amazing?

Here’s me having a go at imagining what those pathways and bridges in our brains might look like (I don’t think they actually do look anything like this, but I had fun imagining and painting!).

Kissing goodbye to the ‘what ifs’

Remember the ‘what iffy’ imagination we talked about earlier?  What if I can’t do it, what if this goes wrong, what if I look like a weasel in a wardrobe, etc etc…

Perhaps the real reason you’re getting ‘what iffy’ is because your brain knows it hasn’t yet built up the pathways and bridges around this new thing that you’re trying to do, so it’s feeling a bit Uh-oh! Feeling a bit Slam-on-the-brakes-folks! Feeling a bit Can’t we just stick to good ol’ easy street?

But now we know the secret to getting our brain to build those pathways or bridges: by going ahead and doing the thing, giving it our best shot, repeating it, practising it, making mistakes, correcting ourselves and then giving it another go. In the process of doing that, our brain automatically gets on with the business of building the very pathways and bridges we need. Whoop! Go brain!

So, feel the fear and do it anyway. Because now you know that the worrying is just an uncomfortable side effect of the normal process of training your brain, like a muscle, and once you’ve kept at it for a while you’ll have it licked, in the bag, sorted – and no more worry. Once those pathways or bridges are all built in your brain, there’ll be no more what ifs. Only high fives and bring it ons.

In a nutshell

Five important things to remember:

  1. Every time you set out to try something new or different, it’s going to feel scary to begin with.
  2. This is completely normal. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. Not a thing. We all feel this way. Seriously.
  3. Don’t let the scary feelings stop you from doing the thing (unless ‘the thing’ happens to be swimming in shark-infested waters). When we feel scared it’s really tempting to turn tail and run the other way. But when we do the things we fear, the fear goes away. It may take a bit of repetition, a bit of practise. But once those bridges and pathways in your brain start being built, that thing you once thought of as scary and difficult will now feel normal, natural and easy-as-the-breeze.
  4. Mistakes aren’t a mistake. They’re how we learn, how our brain grows. So, if you fall on your flip-flops, make a total tiger’s tail of it and now you feel like a right can of kidney beans – this is excellent news! Your brain is deep in building new pathways and bridges. Look, if you were always finding everything easy or getting everything right, then you wouldn’t be pushing your brain and your brain wouldn’t be growing much. So the next time somebody gives you a hard time about struggling or making a mistake, you can just shrug and quietly smile the inner smile of someone who knows that their brain is busy being amazing.
  5. Keep an eye on your thinking. Remember, the more you practise something, the more your brain does it automatically. So if you keep ‘practising’ thoughts like, I shouldn’t make mistakes, I can’t do this, I don’t know how to do it, I’m no good at it, I hate feeling scared so I’d rather avoid things that make me feel scared, then the better you’ll get at thinking that way – which pretty much sucks. Try practising thoughts like these ones instead:
  • Everybody feels scared when they start something new, it’s normal.
  • I’m not much good at this – yet, but but with practise I will be.
  • I don’t know how to do it – yet, but other people have done it before and I’ll find a way too.
  • It feels really difficult – to begin with, but with practise it’ll get easier.
  • Mistakes feel a bit awkward sometimes, but they aren’t wrong or bad, they’re just part of how we learn.
  • The more I keep ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, the more confident I feel that I can learn and grow and master new things.
  • The more I keep ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, the more I learn that feeling scared isn’t the end of the world, it’s just a feeling, and I can handle it.

A final word from Murray

So how about our friend Murray – does he manage to feel the fear and do it anyway? Let’s find out… 

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