Neuroplasticity has been talked about as the greatest medical breakthrough in the last few hundred years. The idea that our brain can change its structure and function through mental experiences was considered heresay only a few decades ago. Now we know that the brain is constantly changing and adapting to experience. So not only were we wrong, we were embarrassingly wrong. Our new understanding of the ever changing brain has opened up insights into many very common issues that have traditionally been seen as difficult to treat. Anxiety is one such issue. Understanding neuroplasticity allows people to outsmart the anxiety by doing targeted neuroplastic interventions. Neuroplasticity also highlights how certain coping mechanisms or management techniques also create their own changes in the brain which may make coping easier but full recovery harder. Please read on to understand how anxiety IS neuroplasticity in action.
LIKE IT OR NOT IT’S HAPPENING
One thing that people often misunderstand about neuroplasticity is that it is always happening. Everything we do changes our brain. Whatever the experience, whether it is an action or a thought, the brain adapts and changes so we get better at that activity and in time it becomes easier and eventually automatic. But all experiences are not ‘equal’ when it comes to neuroplastic change. Those learnings necessary for survival or where a threat is detected, get priority in brain wiring.
GETTING STUCK IN ANXIETY
Thinking is a brain experience. So any lingering stressor that we worry over can leave a person with anxiety. Long after the triggering incident has passed (childhood trauma, financial issues, relationship problems, physical illness, work pressures) the echoes of that time can still be found in the wiring of our brain. So with repetition a thought or thinking style can become habitual – effortless and seemingly out of our control. But don’t worry….we also know that the flexible nature of our brain stays with us until death so we can learn to unwire our brains out of anxiety with focused neuroplastic work.
ALL CHANGES ARE NOT EQUAL
The devastating thing about anxiety is that by it’s nature it tends to place an exaggerated ‘threat value’ on things (i.e. produce more stress hormones than necessary). Because threats are given higher priority in brain changes, any activities that take place in these times have a major impact on neuroplastic change – these include our learnt coping mechanisms or avoidance behaviours.
MANAGING YOURSELF FURTHER INTO ANXIETY
Management techniques, avoidance behaviours, coping skills can create their own changes in the brain and in time become automatic. However they don’t solve anxiety but just help people get by. So the structure and function of our brain changes so we just get better at managing it rather than beating it permanently. This is a major concept that is often missed with many anxiety issues. The very things that might be used to help people manange their condition, can then become the sticking point for full recovery. The brain that helps us ‘get by’ is a different brain to the one that helps us flourish and move on.
WHAT IS COMPETITIVE PLASTICITY ?
Any brain changes are at the expense of other changes. The development of these parts of our brain that effortlessly trigger anxiety, is at the detriment of the ones that aid calmness and confidence. So it is not enough to just stop anxiety in any given moment which is often people’s focus. The anxiety wiring is still there and waiting to be triggered. We need to create competitive wiring. We need to create specific wiring of what we want to achieve which is ‘competitive wiring’ to the problem. Without this we loop endlessly in anxiety with no neural pathway to take us forward.
ARE YOU SAYING I’M CRAZY ?
When people hear that conditions have a neuroplastic component they can either think it’s very serious or impossible to beat (because it is the brain) or they are crazy (because it’s ‘in the head’). Neither of these are true. Remember the brain is changing daily with your experience. People just get caught in a loop. If it’s going to change anyway – why not change it in your favour? Secondly to worry is normal and useful. However if you lose control and flexibility over it, you become stuck. That’s the dark side of neuroplasticity. Anger is not ‘bad’ but if someone gets stuck in that as a habitual response, they will struggle. Fear or stress is normal, but the implications of getting stuck in it are massive on physical health. Even something like helping people, if you get stuck in that and have no flexibility to say no, you will have difficulties. So totally normal and healthy responses, with repetition become habitual. People feel stuck!
ANXIETY IS NOT JUST A THOUGHT PROBLEM
One of the reasons people often struggle to beat anxiety is that they see it purely as a ‘thought based issue’. They therefore solely attempt a cognitive based solution. As mentioned with competitive plasticity, just endlessly interrupting anxious thoughts is not always the best solution. So these approaches can be very hit and miss if its focus is purely on stopping negative thoughts. The other key issue here is that anxiety is much more than thoughts. The changes that have taken place are as much about bodily changes as well. There are many pieces to anxiety including the often addressed habitual thoughts and styles of thinking but also recall and memory patterning (implicit, semantic, priming, procedural), breathing habits, eye patterning, postural habits, body awareness and sensory perception changes. All these have corresponding neuroplastic changes that are standing between the sufferer and recovery.
SOUNDS DAUNTING BUT WAIT…..
The exciting news with neuroplasticity is that we know we can change this. It might take focus and repetition but change is possible. No one can do this work except the sufferer, however once they have the skills, they are empowered to reclaim their lives.
Neuroplasticity is neither good nor bad. It is just a mechanism of our brain. It happens daily whether you like it or not, but how it happens we can learn to influence. I love the saying – ‘the brain makes a terrible master but a wonderful slave’.
Change your brain and you change your life!