Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences, learning, and environmental stimuli. This process involves the formation and reorganization of neural connections, which can lead to changes in behaviour, cognition, and emotions.
When we engage in healthy behaviours and experience positive emotions, our brain forms new neural pathways and strengthens existing ones, making it easier for us to repeat these behaviours and emotions in the future.
Although our habitual tendencies can keep us trapped in old patterns that may not align with our true selves, it’s encouraging to know we don’t have to repeat our past. Our brain is not an inflexible, static organ, but rather has the capacity to change throughout our lifetime, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. In 1968, Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist, discovered that while chronic stress can alter the structure of the brain and even cause shrinkage in certain regions, the impact is not necessarily permanent. Behavioural and thought patterns are made up of groups of brain cells that form neural pathways. The more frequently we engage in a thought or behaviour, the stronger the connections in the neural pathway become and the easier that thought or behaviour becomes. He revealed that our brain has the ability to rewire itself continually by forming new neural connections or synapses over time. This finding contradicted prior assumptions that the adult brain was more similar to a computer with a predetermined program.
Our brain is continually rewiring itself by reinforcing frequently utilized synapses and neural networks, while eliminating or “pruning” those that are less utilized. The thoughts and actions that we repeat regularly can strengthen some synapses and weaken others, resulting in most adults having approximately half the neural connections they had in childhood.
Consider your own life – you’ve likely had the same thoughts, emotions, and behaviours countless times. Through repetition, you’ve created neural pathways that have resulted in your current neurological structure, which influences your experiences in life. Some of these patterns are helpful while you might want to change repetitive harmful habits. For example; Someone with depression may automatically think things like, “I’m such a failure.” That’s because the neural pathways for critical self-talk have become entrenched after living with depression. On the other hand, thoughts like, “I’m worthy of love,” can be difficult because pathways of self-love are not well developed.The good news is that we have the ability to influence our brain and its neural development by engaging in daily intentional practices to facilitate the growth of new neural connections.
Consistent, daily repetition creates new neural pathways. Learning or trying something new is the most effective way to harness neuroplasticity. As you create new neural pathways, you may encounter mental resistance, a natural discomfort that accompanies change. You may experience frustration, procrastination, or lack of motivation to initiate or continue your efforts. However, this resistance is a typical aspect of the transformation process that we all encounter. The key is to persistently show up.
It’s essential to acknowledge the mental resistance that you will encounter. While the brain can change throughout life, changing habits can be challenging and draining for a reason. Creating new neural pathways demands a great deal of mental energy. Our brain is wired for survival and categorizes all unknown or unfamiliar experiences as potential threats on a subconscious level. Our brain prefers predictable or controllable situations. Predicting habitual outcomes is desirable to our survival-driven brain. The unknown or uncertain is perceived as a threat on a deep subconscious level, causing fear and discomfort around change. It’s hard to leave your “comfort zone”, even though it’s nothing like comfortable. Knowing that we all encounter mental resistance can alleviate the shame that many of us experience when we “fail” to make or maintain changes we desire.
Remember to be kind to yourself. Over time and with practice, you will realize that you can tolerate discomfort confidently. The unknown can be intimidating, so take breaks as you need and anticipate some degree of discomfort or anxiety. Because our habits (and the neural pathways they create) are formed over years or even decades, some degree of discomfort or anxiety during change is expected and reasonable.
By Ampara Bouwens
Ampara is an experienced Clinical Psychologist with over 19 years of experience, providing mental health services in private, governmental, and corporate sectors. She specializes in complex trauma, personality disorders, and other severe disorders, using a compassionate and non-judgmental approach to help clients regain control and autonomy over their lives. Since moving to New Zealand in 2016, Ampara has been running a successful private practice, offering personalised and effective treatment to individuals seeking to improve their mental health and well-being. Ampara is also the clinical lead and founder of MindGarage – a leading provider of psychological services, treatment, and assessment, with a team of skilled therapists who provide high-quality, personalised treatment via the same compassionate, non-judgmental approach. The MindGarage team takes a holistic approach to therapy, considering all aspects of a client’s life and offering tailor-made services to meet individual needs. MindGarage believes in empowering clients with the skills and knowledge needed to make positive changes in their lives, promoting long-term mental and emotional health.
Visit Ampara online: https://amparabouwens.co.nz/