Until not so long ago, it was widely thought that our brains were “hard-wired” by the time we reach five or six years old. This meant that any damage done in our early years would stay with us forever! But this simply isn’t true – at least it doesn’t have to be. Advances in neuroscience have since revealed a wonderful thing called neuroplasticity, which goes against the theory that anybody who experiences childhood trauma is doomed forever. So, what is neuroplasticity?
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What is Neuroplasticity? A Powerful Tool for Mental Illness Recovery
Well, neuroplasticity is defined as “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.”
This is all well and good, but may not make sense to most of us. So what is neuroplasticity really?
What is neuroplasticity and how does it work?
In more simple terms, neurons that fire together wire together. As we experience, learn and adapt, we literally change our brain structure.
In response to thoughts, feelings and experiences, our brains have the ability to strengthen/weaken connections between neurons (structural neuroplasticity) or permanently change our synapses (functional neuroplasticity).
Ever heard the term practice makes perfect? That’s because the things we do often we get stronger at! Our brains literally strengthen these synapses. Similarly, what we don’t use gets weaker and fades away.
This goes for our thoughts too! With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway. We can create new pathways by thinking new thoughts.
This is HUGE.
What this means for mental illness recovery
Well, it’s a mixture of good and bad really.
Remember that neuroplasticity is the result of what we use most. So it has the capability to have both catastrophic and incredible effects depending on what we’re using.
The downward spiral
If you’re familiar with mental illnesses, you may have heard of or experienced “the downward spiral”. This is where after one bad episode, an individual progressively gets worse and worse until they’re going rapidly downhill towards rock bottom.
This is a prime example of neuroplasticity in action.
Once you’ve thought that one negative thought, it’s easier for your brain to go down the same route.
And when it comes to psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, there is what has been called a “negative neuroplasticity”. This means that the brain has been permanently changed in a way that encourages unhealthy pathways and discourages healthy ones.
So it’s easy to see why it’s difficult for a depressed person to just “think happy thoughts”.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t change this.
Mental illness recovery
We can recover from mental illness with the power of neuroplasticity if we put in the work.
In the same way that we can enter the “downward spiral”, we can create an upward spiral if we create new pathways and start using them consistently. In doing so you can literally rewire your brain to be happy.
In the same way that we can enter a 'downward spiral', we can create an UPWARD spiral if we create new pathways and start using them consistently. In doing so you can literally rewire your brain to be happy!Click To Tweet
Cool, huh? But how do we do it?
With self-directed neuroplasticity exercises – exercises that we can do ourselves to train our brains to take the more positive routes when faced with everyday stressors.
Self-directed Neuroplasticity Exercises for Mental Illness Recovery
If you have ever practiced yoga consistently, you will be aware of the numerous benefits it can have on your life.
Neuroplasticity can help to explain this.
Whatever we think, perceive and feel (intentionally or unconsciously) while practicing yoga is wiring our brain to think, perceive and feel in other situations.
As yoga is such a calming practice, these benefits extend to your life “off the mat” too!
Did you know that a lot of us breathe incorrectly?
Breathing into our “belly” (or diaphragm) slowly can calm the nervous system, but most people are in the habit of breathing shallowly into the chest.
Research has shown that volitional modifications in breathing rate can alter subsequent automatic control. So neuroplasticity means that we can actually train ourselves to breathe better.
This means that after practice we can breathe in a calming way without even thinking about it.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of consistency when it comes to meditation. Because the more we practice, the more our brain actually adapts to this state as our default state.
Meditation teaches us to be more mindful, calm and at peace throughout the entire day, not just when we’re actively meditating.
Imagine being in a meditative state all day every day? Yes please!
You can learn more about how meditation can shape our brains with the ted talk below.
Similar to meditation, mindfulness exercises can rewire your brain to cope better with stressors.
This book explains it all!
Regularly practicing gratitude can change your mindset to experience general feelings of abundance and a sense of feeling “richer”.
We don’t have to be the most privileged people in the world, but focusing on what’s positive in our own lives can help us learn to have this grateful mindset in even the most negative or mundane experiences.
You could try starting a gratitude journal or simply bring your attention to gratitude every day. Whatever you do, don’t forget to make it consistent!
The power of visualisation is no joke, and is something I’ve spoken about when discussing the law of attraction.
The thing is, when we do it properly, our brains cannot tell the difference between an imagined event or a real one.
So we can create new positive pathways without even experiencing a positive event!
Exercise is the perfect compliment to all of your other practices, because exercising can actually stimulate the brain to grow and create/strengthen pathways.
Furthermore, studies of neuroplasticity have shown that exercise can improve memory function in depressed people. So get that cardio in!
Self-care is such an important factor in your mental health (and one you should never feel guilty for implementing).
Consciously making time for self-care practices every day can rewire your brain to favour these activities. This is how positive habits are formed!
Check out my list of 52 self care ideas for both good and bad mental health days!
Consistency is key
As with anything, consistency is key.
You may have to consciously do something many times for it to become unconscious, but this is okay! Your brain has to know that this is the path that is favourable to you so you need to be consistent.
If you’re not, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns (remember, these are already well established pathways!) Don’t be disheartened if this happens – recovery is not linear.
Have you experienced the power of neuroplasticity before? Let me know in the comments!