In the past several years, we have been hearing more and more in the news about “neuroplasticity,” the ability of our brains to regenerate. I think of it as healing our brains, and John Arden, PhD, in his book, “Rewire Your Brain” uses the term “rewire.”
Arden is a great presenter and author, and I recently heard him speak at a conference. He uses the saying, “Cells that fire together wire together.”
Researchers now tell us that our brains are not static but in a constant state of change. Many of the changes in our brain occur due to our experiences. So, just as we can heal so many other parts of our body, we also can heal our brains by changing some of our health habits.
Our brains suffer from stress, trauma, anxiety and depression. But we can heal our brains by learning how to be calm and positive. Of course the tendency to experience anxiety and depression often has a genetic link, but regardless if it is genetics, trauma or stress, we can be a part of our own healing process. But it takes effort. Just as it takes effort to heal any other part of our body, our brain needs self-care.
For example, if a person has heart disease, they may choose to change their diet, exercise and reduce their stress. But some people choose to continue to eat a lot of junk food, remain a couch potato and maintain an unhealthy lifestyle. Why the difference? Because behavior change takes concerted effort, and our routines are well established. But it is well worth the determined effort to live in greater peace. And if we can think about making one small change at a time, baby-steps, it’s easier to swallow.
If you struggle with anxiety and/or depression, you need to know that this experience is very common. Just like the rest of our body parts, our brains are not perfect. But they are malleable. It’s painful to remain in these mood states, and much of it is within our control.
We are a culture that looks for easy fixes. And we have seen major advances in all sciences, such as antidepressant medications that increase the serotonin levels in the brain. But while medications can be a good tool, they are not a panacea. So how do we help “rewire” our brains?
Serotonin plays a major role in our emotional life. Low serotonin can contribute to anxiety, depression and even obsessive compulsive disorder. Within our brain is a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is triggered by intense emotional states like fear.
This little structure operates like our brain warrior. Its job is to helps us prepare for danger. It does this by automatically pumping adrenaline and cortisol so we can fight or run from potential perils.
This made more sense for our ancestors who were running from wild animals. But many of the current dangers in our lives are more imagined than real. So we have to learn to tame the amygdala and shut off this fight or flight response that is caused by our stressful thoughts and vivid imaginations.
Arden uses the acronym FEED to teach people how to remember the way to “rewire” our brain. F is for focus. Focus your attention on the here and now. E is for Effort. The second E is for the way it becomes Effortless once the pattern is established. And D is for the ongoing Determination it takes to maintain behavior change!
We can create positive mood states and change the reactivity of our overly sensitive amygdala with such actions as the use of humor, increased light, exercising, reframing our life stories, wiring in positive thinking, social connecting, taking action, changing our diets to fuel our brain, developing our ability to pay attention, getting enough sleep and prayer or meditation.
Take care of your mental well-being. Learn how to “rewire” your overactive brain and enjoy greater peace. And remember our brain is just another part of our body that deserves to be nurtured.
Dr. Jean Banks is a psychologist with Central Wisconsin Counseling Associates. CWCA has offices in Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point.