Neuroplasticity is the magnificent way that our brains can change and repair themselves, even after trauma or injury (such as a stroke or a brain tumor).
Our brains have over 1 billion neurons, which are the electrical nerve cells that help us transmit and process information. Neurons are what help us remember, talk, walk, breathe, digest, and so on. They are also what drive our thoughts, which help to create our emotions and moods.
The thoughts in our heads directly affect the way we feel, whether it’s happiness, fear, sadness, worry, relief, or despair. For example, we may feel angry if our thoughts tell us that we were given an unfair evaluation at work. Or we may feel sad if we think that evaluation is because we are not competent or smart enough for the job. We may even feel motivated to improve our work skills if our thoughts tell us the evaluation was fairly given, and the areas for improvement are valid. Regardless, the neurons in our brains are constantly firing based on what we think.
When we have a thought, our neurons are making electrical connections in our brains. The more often we have a thought, or act out the same behaviour, the closer and closer the neural pathways become. In fact, they may fire so close together that the end of the neurons are almost touching. You can imagine it this way: if you frequently take a short-cut home through the woods, then eventually, you will leave a visible pathway. Neuroplasticity is the act of creating a new pathway, when the existing one is blocked or no longer useful.
We all have negative thoughts in our head, which some might call their “ego” or their “inner critic.” These egoic thoughts stem from occurrences in our past, such as trauma, childhood attachment, and learned coping skills. As time goes on, these thoughts become stronger and more automatic, and they play a part in how we develop our worldview and how we see ourselves and others. These are known as cognitive schemas, or core beliefs, and they become like a filter for the information we process. For instance, if your learned experience has created a core belief that you are ‘not worthy of love’, you are likely to begin filtering-in all information that supports that belief, for example a rejection or a breakup, and ignoring all information that conflicts with it, like a loving friendship, or being asked out on a date.
The information we allow to filter-in subconsciously, strengthens the voice of our inner critic, and the neurons start firing closer and closer together. It becomes like the path we created in the woods; we no longer require effort to get through the brush, and it’s so automatic that we can take the path without much conscious thought or effort. Now, those thoughts supporting our core beliefs that we are ‘not worthy of love’ are occurring automatically and so rapidly in our minds that we sometimes don’t even realize how frequent and persistent they are.
The reason our thoughts create so much emotion, is that we tend to put a lot of stake into the idea that all our thoughts are real. Just because you have a thought, it doesn’t make it true.
A thought that is hurting us may very well be an untrue thought being repeated to ourselves. For example, we may have automatic subconscious thoughts telling us things like ‘I’m ugly/boring/unattractive/uninteresting,’ stemming from a core belief that we feel we are not worthy of love. This is an example of a thought that is simply not true, as each and every one of us are born worthy of love. Simply put, we are looking at skewed data that supports our core beliefs, and ignoring evidence against it, because we are filtering it all through our own individual worldview. If thoughts we have are causing us so much distress, why not choose another thought?
Once we understand the concept that our thoughts are not always accurate and are always affected by our worldview and the world around us, we can begin to distance ourselves from the emotional sting of those thoughts. Neuroplasticity means that, with practice and effort, we can break those rigid connections and create new pathways. We can learn to observe the dramatic story of our thoughts, rather than suffer through as a character. 100% happiness and positivity all the time is not achievable, but we can learn to reduce the overall frequency of negative thinking, shift our core beliefs and thoughts to more positive or neutral ones, and have negative thoughts that don’t hurt our feelings so much.
With awareness, motivation, desire for change, and repetitive practice, we can alter our thoughts and emotions. We can make the choice not to connect with every thought that enters our minds, to then use the power within us to adapt our neural pathways, and strengthen new connections that lead to less distressing thoughts and feelings. We can take a new route home through the woods, until our old path grows over, and the new pathway becomes so worn that we can take it without much effort. That is the power of neuroplasticity that each one of us holds within.
I welcome you to join me, on the journey of wellbeing, by accessing the power you hold within. Let’s put neuroplasticity to work, shake off our self-limiting thinking styles, and leave unnecessary pain and distress behind us. I chose to use neuroplasticity to rewire my pathway to a happier life, and you can too. The choice is yours to make.
Laura Bloom is our video therapist who specializes in anxiety, health care, grief, and neuro-psycho-education.