The Gift of Neuroplasticity
My journey to consciousness is the result of doing the grueling inner excavation of past trauma, pain and shame. One of the fringe benefits of doing this inner work is the opportunity to retrain our brains to live life in a new way, one in which our brains become our allies instead of our enemies. I always believed my mind existed in a fixed state, never imagining I could experience the world in a different way, one in which I controlled my internal voice and the stories I tell myself. As I worked through the reasons I had anxiety, I realized that my negative self talk and the stories about myself that I believed to be true were major contributors to my poor mental health. Changing the stories I live by is one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself. In learning that I can change the way my brain processes experiences and information, I have gained the means to manage my anxiety.
Neuroplasticity is a relatively new scientific discovery, with first reports of research appearing in the 1970's. The research showed that parts of the brain can be re-wired or create new connections through behavioral, environmental and neural changes. Our brains are not static, we can learn new ways of doing things and experiencing life. In the past, if my internal voice started to spin a story in my brain, it ran its course because I wasn’t aware that I could control it. While the story was churning away in my brain, my body would begin to react as if the story was real causing me to spin into a cyclone of anxiety.
For example, let’s say I didn’t complete a work project on time. My brain would then begin to take that one kernel of truth and develop its own dramatic story rife with drama and, often times, pain. I may start to imagine that my manager would get angry and then if the company would need to cut costs, I would be laid off. I don’t have any information at this point in time to know that this scenario could happen, it’s just my anxious brain spinning a story. My body then starts to physiologically react to this story as if it were true. My palms might sweat, I may start to breathe heavier, and my thoughts might start racing all because my inner voice is making up a story that I fully believe. Not only do I believe the story, but I also believe I can’t control it. I let the anxiety rule my reactions. Now after learning about neuroplasticity, I know that I can stop those stories dead in their tracks be telling my inner voice that it’s making up a story and that it doesn’t have enough information to know any potential outcome for my late work project. I’ve stopped the story from starting to take hold of my brain and I’ve saved my body from having the physical reactions to a false narrative. Essentially, I’ve staved off a panic attack.
Research indicates that there are activities such as yoga, memory tasks and games, regular exercise and learning new languages or an instruments, that improve neuroplasticity specifically for people that suffer from depression and anxiety. I’ve found that a regular meditation practice is essential for me in my quest to take advantage of my brain’s neuroplasticity. Mindful meditation has been key in helping me to learn how to let negative self talk pass through my conscious mind without being triggered by it.
Even more surprising, I’ve been able to keep these stories from starting to germinate in my brain now that I’ve become practiced in noticing how they take form. Like a storm looming on the horizon, I can see the dark clouds of an ominous and untrue story beginning to form in my brain and I can stop its progression by telling my internal voice that it’s not going to instigate trouble for me. I can even laugh at the inner voice, which is my ego, trying to cause a scene for my brain and body to react to. It’s like watching a small child stomp its feet in frustration when it doesn’t get its way. Being aware of these patterns that can take hold in my brain and learning to thwart them has gone a long way to alleviate my anxiety. I can now read the days’ news without bursting into a full blown panic attack because I know that the future is unknown so I don't make up stories about potential dangers that once led me to live in fear.
Neuroplasticity has been a revelation for me and I never imagined that it could alleviate so much of my anxiety. The fear-based stories and negative self talk that once ruled my brain are now, for the most part, behind me. With their passing I’ve gained peace, calm and presence. It doesn’t mean I still don’t have anxious thoughts, but they are less frequent and I now have the tools to usher those thoughts out of my brain before they wreak havoc in my life. It’s been a gift beyond my wildest dreams. Neuroplasticity has given me new life and new stories to live by.