The trauma stuck in your brain and your autonomic nervous system (ANS) patterns is the problem – not an inherent character weakness or an incorrect attitude.
The solution also lies within your brain and your ANS.
These aren’t fixed, immovable structures – they can be changed by trauma and by neural exercises.
That’s what the neurologists in this series call neuroplasticity. “Plastic,” as an adjective, actually just means easily shaped or molded.
All brains have plasticity, some more than others.
By encouraging and training neuroplasticity, you equip the brain to alter its pathways, strengthen certain areas, and remain flexible in its interpretation of events.
A brain with strong neuroplasticity can:
- Break free from habits that don’t serve them
- Build new habits
- Learn new skills
- Manage reactive emotions
- Expand ability to focus
- Think more clearly
- And so much more.
Incidentally, neuroplasticity – sometimes called psychological flexibility – is not only a powerful benefit to your own healing journey. It’s also the number one quality for ensuring lasting and loving relationships.
Let’s look at the four main ways the brain can change itself physically…
The Brain is a Four-Trick Pony
- New Synapses: When you learn new things and have new experiences, the brain creates new connections between neurons. A synapse is what holds those connections together.
- Neurogenesis: This is when new neurons are created as a result of positive experiences, exercise, lowered stress, and other experiences.
- Weakened Synapses: When you are breaking a habit, the synapses that connect those neurons, making the undesirable behavior easy to repeat, grow weaker through disuse.
- Strengthened Synapses: When are you building a habit, the synapses that connect those neurons, making the desirable behavior easy and available, grow stronger.
The brain has no moral standpoint. It doesn’t, on its own, decide whether something is good or bad. It simply does what it knows how to do.
You have a human brain. If you teach it to do something new, and repeat that action, it will do the new thing instead.
The double-edged sword?
Neural patterns are hard to break. This function of the nervous system was developed so that we could do things we have to do every day without thinking about them. Brush teeth, go to the bathroom, turn the key in the car with your foot on the break.
In order to break destructive habits reinforcing our traumas, we’ll need some exercises.
When you fast intermittently in a practiced, regular way, the body’s leptin levels are lowered.
Leptin is a hormone that signals to the brain you’ve got enough stored fat, and this makes it so you’re not hungry. When leptin levels are lowered during fasting, the brain receives a signal to produce more energy, which then repairs cells and promotes neuron growth.
Intermittent fasting also increases nerve growth and BDNF growth, which remember, allows those new neurons to connect to each other and form neural networks.
Traveling Somewhere New
Zoom out: In an evolutionary sense, the brain engages in new surroundings. It wants to suss out danger, gain a spatial understanding of this unfamiliar place, feel delight and curiosity, and activate parts that may have been dormant in your normal spaces.
Zoom in: New environments encourage the brain to create dendrites. Dendrites are dangling extensions of nerve cells, the ends of which connect to axons which form a synapse. Longer dendrites mean more neural networks become possible.
Simply walking through a new park or down a new street or in a town you’ve never been to will have the same effect.
Using your Non-Dominant Hand
Forcing your brain to perform familiar tasks with an unfamiliar tool (your non-dominant hand) can increase neuroplasticity by building up strength and dexterity where it wasn’t before.
Typically, using the preferred or dominant hand engages the contralateral hemisphere of the brain, or the opposite side of the brain to the hand that you’re using. (Right hand, left side of the brain.)
However, using the unfamiliar hand engages both hemispheres, including the ipsilateral hemisphere, or the same side of the brain to the hand that you’re using.
It’s doing that work on a side of the brain typically neglected during motor functions of the hand. Which means new neurons are growing, synaptic connections are strengthening, and neuroplasticity is advancing.
The answer is simple: you stretch your brain, and you extend the scope of what’s possible.