Neuroplasticity - Healing's Greatest Ally
I have witnessed so many clients say that they feel like they can't heal from their trauma. That they will never return to the person they once were and will suffer from the symptoms of trauma forever. I get that and sometimes it can feel that way, especially if you've been struggling with trauma for a while. It also was believed in the field for a long time that our brains were fixed and unchanging over time. Nevertheless, research over the last few decades has uncovered that our brains have neuroplasticity - that it can change and adapt with new neural connections and pathways.
Neuroplasticity can be described as our brain's ability to form new neural connections, leading to changes and healing after injury, disease, or trauma. Basically, it's our brain's ability to change and develop throughout our lifetime. Typically, we repeat patterns that we have learned. This happens even through trauma. Reyes with PsychCentral says, "From a relational perspective, if a child is treated with consistent love, nurturing, and caring by his or her parents, the brain’s default is to find positive healthy relationships that repeat this pattern of receiving love and nurturance. If a child is treated with ongoing neglect or abuse, the brain’s default response would be to find relationships that fit this similar pattern of neglect or abuse. Because these neural pathways have been solidified through years of abuse, it can be difficult to change. These children grow into adults who enter unhealthy relationships, potentially resulting in symptoms of depression or anxiety in addition to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they may have developed from their childhood trauma." (Reyes, 2016). This also explains the phenomenon, 'we repeat what we don't repair.'
Following trauma, our brains' prefrontal cortex is significantly compromised. This means that we use our limbic (emotional) system to make decisions. This explains the fight, flight, or freeze mode we encounter following a trigger. Neuroplasticity is our greatest ally when healing from trauma. It allows us to change the repeated patterns and responses that we have developed in our lifetime. It's important to understand that healing is not one size fits all. The way you may embody your authentic self after trauma is most likely very different from others. Focus individually on what your goals, values, and struggles are.
Using Your Mind to Change Your Brain
It's something that we are still researching and understanding, but here are some ideas and ways that we can teach an old dog new tricks:
The importance of repetition
It's been said that it takes 3–6 months for a new behavior to become a habit, though this estimate varies by person. Repetitive behaviors of safety, control, and positive interactions can also help our brains reconsider the threat of the outside world.
Learning to stay in the present moment with mindfulness techniques can help us distinguish when the right time to fight, flight, or freeze is. Using meditation, visualization, and grounding techniques can aid in self-soothing which in turn can help our brains recognize real vs. perceived danger.
Therapy (EMDR, TF-CBT, SEP, mindfulness, body-based therapy)
Using your mind to change your brain is basically the basis of therapy itself. Studies have shown that modalities of therapy such as EMDR, trauma-focused CBT, and mindfulness-based interventions are helpful to input safety into our neural pathways. Body-based therapies like somatic experiencing processing, yoga, exercise, and dance have also been found effective for feeling safe within our own bodies.
Rewriting our Trauma Narrative with Self-Compassion
Providing ourselves compassion through mantras and positive self-statements can lead to changed beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Once we start believing that we are not responsible for our trauma and are confident in our ability to correctly perceive danger, we can start to heal from our past.
Disclaimer: Please seek out a licensed professional therapist for help with processing past trauma. It can be re-traumatizing and harmful to try to take on these efforts yourself without proper support. There is no replacement for good therapy, especially when it comes to healing trauma.
Reyes, Z. (2016). The Roles Neuroplasticity and EMDR Play in Healing from Childhood Trauma. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-roles-neuroplasticity-and-emdr-play-in-healing-from-childhood-trauma#1
Hani, J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Behavior Change. Medium.com. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@Fit4D?p=bcb567fa83c1