Most of us have heard about the Hebbian theory, ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ Trauma causes faulty neuronal brain wiring. Thus, healing from trauma entails changing how the neurons in our brain fire and wire.
How we feel, think, and react/behave are the result of maladaptive patterns we subconsciously follow. During our tumultuous childhood, we resorted to coping strategies like denial, withdrawal, dissociation approval-seeking, turning off our feelings, acting out, substance abuse, or bodily harm to protect ourselves from overwhelming feelings.
The traits and behaviors that were at one time beneficial in helping us survive, become stumbling blocks, impeding our return to wellness. They hinder and harm our health and happiness in adulthood.
Like Johnny Depp tolerating domestic violence, we become primed to accept and relate in dysfunctional ways. This further aggravates our mental health which in turn affects our physical health. It becomes an unending cycle of repetition compulsion. Our mind-body is in a constant state of dysregulation.
Overcoming our CPTSD survival response requires the deactivation of our conditioned reflexive patterns. Each time we do things differently, new neural pathways are formed. This process of neural rewiring is called neuroplasticity.
Brain Change – Neurons and Neuroplasticity
To change how we feel, think, and behave we have to undo the wiring of our brain and rewire it. This can be done by stopping bad habitual patterns and incorporating new better behaviors.
This change in our habits/behaviors changes how our brain neurons fire. Neurons are the neurochemical messenger system in our brain. They transmit nerve impulses that shape and control our thought processes and behavior. There are an estimated 86 billion neurons in the brain. Each neuron is connected to another 1,000 neurons, creating an incredibly complex network of communication.
Neuroplasticity involves novel repetitive practice for new neuronal connections to form. We have to consistently do things differently again and again while holding on to the belief that this will lead to the changes we desire. Keeping sight of the big picture while taking those tiny steps to dismantle the old paradigms.
However, change can be hard. Our brain is built to avoid the unfamiliar and stick to what it knows well even if is bad for us. In order to overcome our resistance to change, we begin by making little changes, progress will accumulate over time through consistency.
Small new daily routines can slowly lead to life-altering transformation.
Belief, Focus, Repetitive Practise, Consistency
First, we need to have a vision/ desire /expectation of what we would like to change. Next comes the belief that change is possible. According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief changing our thoughts changes the biochemistry of our mind and body. Having the faith of a mustard seed is all that is needed.
Then comes the action one needs to take:
To build new neural pathways first one must stop doing things that keep us stuck in the toxic repetitive spiral. For me, rumination had kept me stuck and prevented me from moving forward. You cannot use willpower to stop intrusive thoughts. One has to gently coax our minds to think of other things.
Initially, for neuroplastic changes to occur two very important factors must be adhered to –
1) Repetitive Practise
Think of your brain’s neural connection as a waterway – water flows through its usual course until it is blocked and redirected to flow in a different direction.
The same with your brain, you have to become aware of your maladaptive patterns, consciously stop them, and find better-coping strategies.
Initially, this will be hard, but slowly your brain will decouple and reorganize itself. However, this takes repetitive practice. The brain needs constant stimulation to help reinforce and strengthen neurological connections.
Furthermore, the more you repeat the faster the brain rewires.
At first, when I awoke I’d just do half an hour of guided meditation, but soon the euphoric feeling would dissipate. Now even after waking, I keep listening to positive affirmations and pep talks while doing my chores. This has helped me to continue staying in a positive mindset longer. Gradually, I have dismantled the habit of being my trauma self and incorporated a new state of being.
Practice not only makes you perfect, but it also makes habits/behavior reflexive.
Consistency is another key element to our recovery. Listening to a guided meditation or practicing yoga just once or twice a week does not provide enough reinforcement. Better results occur when an exercise is practiced consistently.
The brain prioritizes neuroplasticity based on how consistently a function is used. The more we practice a specific activity, the more the brain will adapt to execute that activity with greater ease.
Sticking to a manageable schedule is vital. Exercising is my Achilles heel. Nonetheless, now as soon as I wake up, I do some crawling, horse-stance, some qigong, and twirling ( it peps up the vestibular system). It hardly takes 5 minutes. I repeat this routine 3-4 times a day before meals. Like taking a pill before meals, I do a quick round of exercise.
Short consistent inputs are easier to follow than an hour-long exercise workout. My mind is less resistant and the new pathways in my brain are consistently being reinforced. There is less downtime – the brain should not be given the chance to slide back into its earlier pattern of feeling, thinking, and responding.
Creating a system of habits is a better way to approach healing than setting impossible goals.
Neuroplastic changes in our brain require a multi-pronged approach:
You have to have top-down ( using the mind) and bottom-up (using the body) to break habitual patterns of behavior.
Below are some important aspects to unhooking from our earlier maladaptive patterns:
1) Creating Your Oasis of Safety
You can’t heal in a toxic environment, more so the same environment that made you sick. You have to get out for your body to move out of the hyperaroused state.
Plan, plot, and find a way to move out. Or else, no matter, even if you get the best treatment or go to an expert therapist, your body will always be in a stress state of flight-fight-freeze or fawn. This will stall your healing from trauma. Our environment and relationships have a huge impact on our mental equilibrium.
Staying in a stressful environment will automatically keep you stuck in your earlier patterns of reacting. Mine was fawning, for years I reflexively went into my codependent mode even though I hated being taken advantage of.
2) Regular Physical Exercise
Regular exercise not just changes the structure of our bodies but also profoundly influences the structure of our brains.
Exercise activates the same endocannabinoid and reward pathways in the brain which releases feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These bring on the euphoric blissful feeling also known as ‘runner’s high’.
This in turn promotes adult neurogenesis – the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain.
3) Breathing Exercises
Our emotional state affects our breath, but we need not be in thrall to our emotions. We can avoid being controlled by people and situations by learning to control our breath. By controlling our breath we can effectively control our mind and thus our lives.
Eastern medicine and martial arts were very aware of the connection between breath, emotion, and energy. How the interplay of these three elements affects our health and well-being. It is only in recent times particularly with the popularity of Wim Hof, that the western world is waking up to the effect of the breath on the mind and body.
4) Changing Thought Patterns
I am not someone who can sit in meditation to quiet my mind. However, there are other ways to actually shift our thinking patterns. Sound healing music, guided meditation, listening to uplifting podcasts, EFT-tapping and movie therapy. There are so many ways one can shift our thoughts and prevent one from going down the rabbit hole of depression and hopelessness.
A daily writing/ journaling practice can also be beneficial. Here again, doing it consistently is important. When negative thoughts start immediately find ways to work through them and release them. Building self-awareness – as soon as I notice my rumination process building up, I immediately begin tapping around my eye area. It effectively stops me from spiraling into rage and resentment.
Once you have gotten yourself to the place where it has become automatic, you will notice a huge change in your life.
Gradually, calmness will become your default mode of being.
5) Finding Your Ikigai – Mindful Action
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means your ‘reason for being. Your Ikigai is your life purpose or your bliss. It’s what brings you joy, motivating you to get out of bed every day.
Find something that you really love, if it is your job, that’s great but for most that is not the case. So find a hobby, passion, an activity that makes you look forward to doing it. It could be something as inane as cooking, baking, gardening, carpentry, or bee-keeping.
My fave activities are baking and gardening. My mind automatically shifts to focus on the task at hand instead of wallowing in the past.
According to neuroscientist, Kelly Lambert, using our hands engages neurological circuitry in the brain that offsets symptoms of depression.
When we focus intently on doing things with our hands we are in a state of deep mindfulness. The repetitive and complex actions activate our brain’s neurons to focus on the present task at hand. You trick your brain into increasing dopamine levels by doing things that give you some pleasure, even if it is for a short time.
Just 10-20 seconds of focussed activity shifts in our thought process and have been proven to create new neural pathways.
6) Letting Go of Attachment
Familial relationships play a critical role in our sense of self. And even if we were maltreated and hurt by those close to us we continue to be attached – wanting to be loved and accepted by them. Interpersonal neurobiology is real – who we interact with most becomes part of our psyche, encoded in our DNA.
Moreover, the more we experienced intermittent reinforcement within our family of origin the more trauma bonded we are and the harder it is to let go. Dissolution of those hurtful energetic attachment bonds. is the difficult part of changing who we are.
Jeffrey Rediger in his book, Cured: The Life‑Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing says that healing our trauma identity that developed when we were helpless, dependent kids may be a vital aspect of our recovery.
For this to happen, we need an enlightened witness to mirror love and acceptance. This causes the amygdala to down-regulate our feelings of unworthiness and distress.
However, this is easier said than done, like finding a needle in a haystack. A therapist, a friend, or a sibling who is non-judgemental and has positive regard for us can help us undo those negative beliefs encoded into our psyches. I have been fortunate, my adult son’s validation and love have changed how I see myself. From dirty, ugly, and unlovable, to someone who is an amazing human being.
7) Self-Care, Play, and Indulging Yourself
Prioritizing ourselves and our needs is vital for our healing. For years we were so other focussed that we have lost the natural ability to interoceptive tune into what our mind-body is telling us.
We have to start by tuning in to our needs and our feelings. What makes me feel good? Why am I thinking that? Or what do I really need? What exactly do I want to do?
Trauma expert, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk claims that indulging in adult play, which includes dancing, laughter, walking, running, swimming, bicycle riding, wiggling, jumping, swinging, rolling down a hill on a grassy slope, etc., anything that gets the body moving, you can rewire the body and get it out of its stiff, protective mode. Playing relaxes our body and convinces our body that it is safe, to enjoy and explore.
Check out Andrew Huberman’s episode on play and how it rewires the brain.
Somedays we may just want to binge-watch Netflix or another time we may want to dance. The healing process should not be a rigid timetable of dos and don’t. Relax, let loose and indulge yourself sometimes.
A little indulgence is good, it gets our dopamine flowing. Dopamine increases neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) vital for brain neuroplasticity.
Change Your Life – One Tiny Step at a Time
Through The Healing Process
Staying on the healing journey is being in a state of faith. Believing that it is possible to change and get better. Some days will be especially tough to get through, so having a bagful of therapeutic modalities can help us. If something does not work, try something else. Keeping an open mind, and a growth mindset we can overcome the roadblocks we may face. This phase is temporary and will be able to get through this tough period.
Most importantly, don’t stress the when, and enjoy the process. According to Huberman, neuroplasticity is a 2 phase process: doing and not doing. New actions/behaviors become consolidated and integrated within our psyches during sleep and relaxation.
Healing takes time, it depends on the level of trauma and how long you lived through it. Do the work and rest in the faith that there is a higher force working out there.
‘Every day in every way I believe I am getting better,’ is the mantra I live by.