Getting Our Brains To Re-Wire
In this article, I am going to focus in on the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to re-wire itself using new pathways and different storage areas to rebuild circuitry and improve function. This can be done whether or not you are living with some form of neurodegeneration (dementia). It can be done whether you live with some form of psychological or mental health challenge. It can be done if you have had incidents where you have lost some of your wiring or structures in your brain due to stroke, head injury, or normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). It can be something that can help you deal with and live with illnesses that affect the wiring that connects your body to your brain, like MS, Parkinsons, or other chronic illnesses that are systemic and painful.
To explore this topic, I am going to focus in on our new environmental and social reality, the COVID-19 world in which we live. This is an enormous change in our pattern of living life, engaging in the social world, the sensory world, the various places and spaces in the world, and the surfaces that we contact and come in contact with throughout each day.
My goal is to help you gain a sense of having some control over your emergency distress reaction. I want to help address our very real episodic feelings of acute distress related to risk, exposure, and social isolation. The idea is that we can develop and use different wiring in our brains so that we have something specific we can use if we are in a dangerous moment. If we have a motor action or pattern, a word sequence or sound, visual target or image, or a place to take ourselves that we have rehearsed for this situation, we are less likely to freeze or go into older unhelpful wiring circuits. This new wiring effort is challenging, but possible. It can help take something that seems beyond our control, restrictions that are limiting our actions, and rather than react to them, modify our response for improving outcomes, interactions, and options for living our lives. By building and using different pathways, we actually develop new abilities. We become more skilled. We start to manage our distress. We move into stress management, which has actually been demonstrated to improve our resiliency as we move forward. It improves our chances of not only survival, but provides an opportunity to find new ways of thriving in challenging situations. It’s simply our new normal.
It is a five-step process:
- Think back, when have you encountered a distressing situation recently?
- Now that you are through it, take a look back at it, with curiosity
- As you review, notice
- When did you begin to feel distressed versus just stressed?
- How do you know you went from stressed to distressed?
- What were some of the internal cues for this transition?
- What were some of the external factors or features when you transitioned?
- What happened after you became distressed?
- What ultimately happened overall? Good, bad, or ugly?
- What is one point at which you might be able to get yourself to notice a change in yourself that you could possibly pick up on?
- Next time you are in a similar situation, see whether or not you do indeed notice that change. Don’t necessarily try to do anything other than notice it.
If you were able to notice that moment of shifting, now you are ready to begin the process of re-wiring. Actually, you have already started to do it. Noticing and recognizing internal or external signals is a great way to begin. The ability to notice, here we go again, is vital to re-wiring.
If you found that you were all the way through the distressing event again, without noticing when you changed, that may indicate you would benefit from an observer or supporter of some type to help you pick-up on what you are not able to notice on your own. It may take some additional input to help your brain get to a place of awareness, possibly a video or audio recording of the interaction or the observation of a trusted person, so that you can move forward into change.
Once you note the moment in which you switched from stressed to distressed and recognized a signal you can pick-up on, then you are ready for a distress management exercise.
Teepa’s Top Five Tips for Distress Management
- Pause – Actively think, Whoa! Trade the fright-frozen moment for an active pause moment. Put the brakes on for a nanosecond. Move from a danger reflexive reaction to a considered response. Keep your entire brain actively engaged.
- Exhale with a whoosh! – You just got a surprise and your primitive brain wants to grab control. Something startled you or got you to believe you were endangered, not just threatened, but that you were facing a life or death situation. Force the indrawn breath out so that you can take in oxygen and keep your head in the game. Let go of that panicked breath, so you can process what is taking place and respond.
- Breathe in and blow out – Now, take in a fresh oxygen supply and keep your stress hormones at bay when you feel the initial pangs of distress. Notice that your body is going into emergency mode. It is vital to determine whether the threat is real and immediate or simply environmentally or historically triggered, and a risk not a danger. Then, blow out to allow for a second breath of personal support and brain activation.
- Assess the situation – Once oxygen is flowing to your brain and the stress hormones are ready for action, yet not taking over, use your senses to survey the environment for danger, risk, or annoyance. Notice any sensory, spatial, social, or surface to surface triggers. Recognize your ability to determine your risk status and your possible pathways out of this situation.
- Take control – Actively select – Dangerous or Risky? True or False? Now, you have this. You and your brain, senses, and body can sort this out. You have the ability to take this distressing moment and change it into a stressful but manageable situation. You are building resiliency. Like any other workout, it is the repetition and practice that help you become more fit. You are re-wiring your brain for your own well-being and the improved care of others.
This seems so simple, and yet it can be one of the toughest changes to make. Understand that you are actively re-wiring your brain and asking it to make this the new consistent pathway of choice. It will typically take six to eight weeks of daily, episodic practice to create the change you wish to see. If you commit yourself to changing, seek and get the right support in place, and expose yourself to situations that are risky or annoying, then you are in a better mind space. You can experience the reality of neuroplasticity in action. Without the practice, the support, and the commitment, typically the older pathway will still be the one that is used, even though it results in distress and dysfunction.
So, what am I asking each of us to do? It is actually pretty basic. Breathe! Let go of what is not working and what is causing your brain to shut down and not fire in a way that actually supports living well. Instead, explore what is possible. Recognizing the difference between something that is annoying, risky, or dangerous is at the heart of developing and using new synapses. Seeking out support and help to do this may well be a critical piece of the puzzle. Even someone living with the brain changes that come with dementia has the potential to develop new brain pathways and synaptic connections. Neuroplasticity can change how life is lived, when the just-right resources are in place, the brain is engaged, and there is firing in the wiring! Building and using wiring that works better for us is how we stay alive and thrive rather than just trying to survive when we are dealing with change.