Neuroplasticity: How to Rewire Your Resilience

Article At A Glance

Our brains have the capacity to grow along with us. Explore the many ways we can utilize neuroplasticity to change and learn new habits.

According to Hebb’s law, what fires together, wires together. Whatever you repeatedly think, feel, and sense builds new or strengthens existing patterns of neural connections in the brain. The science of neuroplasticity teaches us that our brains are constantly learning and that we can shape our growth in a wanted direction. Accessing and focusing on positive states can help you to rewire your resilience.

Your mind is a powerful tool that allows you to focus your attention like a lens. Perhaps you notice a tendency to focus on losses from your past or fears for your future. While we do want to attend to these painful places, we also need to build our resources so that our hurts or worries do not dominate our worldview. 

Image concept of healthy brain wiring for positive brain neuroplasticity.

You can build your resources by recalling times when you have felt cared for, safe, or empowered. Mindful movement is also a powerful way to enhance positive feelings and jump-start your neuroplasticity. With ongoing practice, it can become easier to sustain a connection to the buoyancy that resources provide.

This post will help you identify one of the most common barriers to growth and guides you to courageously move toward your potential. 

Understanding NeuroplasticityNeuroplasticity Brain word cloud on a white background.

Until relatively recently, common wisdom posited that the brain only exhibited neuroplasticity, or the capacity to change, during early childhood. However, we now recognize that brain development continues throughout our lifespan. Our brains are malleable and have the capacity to develop new neural connections even as we age.

All our life experiences form neural networks in the brain. A neural network is a group of interconnected neurons in the brain that fire together and form the basis of all of our memories. For example, if you are learning a new piece of music on the piano, you are forming a neural network that includes the muscle memory of your hands, the sound of the music, and the feeling that you have in your body as you play the keys. Each time you practice the written music, you reinforce this neural network, and over time, it becomes easier to play. Eventually, you no longer need to look at the musical notes on the page; you can play by memory.

There are several key neurotransmitters that underlie neuroplasticity. Specifically, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a key molecule that enhances the neuronal growth and synaptic changes for all new learning and memories. Dopamine also has the potential to reinforce synaptic plasticity in a positive direction. In addition, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that helps your nerve cells communicate with the rest of your body.

The release of these chemicals can either support positive growth in the wanted direction or they can reinforce fear-based habits and behaviors.

Stress-Induced Neuroplasticity

Group of business workers working together. Partners stressing one of them at the office. Stress is a negative event for healthy brain neuroplasticity.

Unfortunately, when we are chronically stressed, the plasticity of our nervous systems can also strengthen the neural networks for unwanted habits, behaviors, and memories. This is referred to as Stress-Induced Neuroplasticity. Our nervous systems are wired to help us to survive, and very often, we will use the past to attempt to predict the future. Approximately 90 percent of what we think about or perceive our environment is based upon our past experiences. When events of the past were difficult or traumatic, we tend to ruminate on the past and anxiously anticipate the worst for the future.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a form of stress-induced neuroplasticity that enhances the formation of long-lasting memories that are linked to distressing emotional and somatic experiences. For example, disturbing images, sounds, and smells get wired in with fright or terror. Even in the absence of current threats, events can trigger flashbacks or nightmares. You might suddenly feel flooded with recollections of times when you felt unsafe. These recurrences continue to reinforce the fear-based neural network.

Wired by Fear

The underlying pain associated with difficult life events is meant to be felt. As a result, we recognize that even the most uncomfortable emotions are temporary. However, turning toward fear, shame, loss, loneliness, or helplessness emotions can feel threatening or even annihilating. So, we begin to avoid our pain. Each time we avoid our feelings, we unconsciously reinforce the perception that we have successfully escaped a threat. We have survived another day. 

Paradoxically, the idea that avoidance has “saved us” stimulates a reward response accompanied by the release of dopamine in the brain. Our urge to avoid our pain further reinforces the belief that those feelings are dangerous. Over time, fear and avoidance become wired into our sense of self, even if it is no longer beneficial for our survival. 

Avoidance becomes part of our identity and, when left unchallenged, becomes one of the biggest barriers to our growth. 

Rewire Your ResilienceDomains of Resilience for healthy brain neuroplasticity.

In order to rewire your resilience, you need to challenge your urge to avoid hard things. This doesn’t mean that you should jump in the deep end of the pool if you do not know how to swim. Rather, you grow by building enough positive resources that allow you to gradually face your fears with opportunities to feel successful in the process. It is much easier to engage in a difficult activity when you have enough safety, support, and connection. 

For example, imagine that you were once bitten by a dog. You might begin to avoid all dogs or believe that all dogs are dangerous. Perhaps you stop going to the park because you don’t want to risk seeing a dog. The only way to challenge this belief and overgeneralized fear is to eventually move out of avoidance by making contact with a dog. Now, hopefully, you choose a nice dog—one that doesn’t bite you. Perhaps you bring a friend along with you so that you are in good company as you face your fears.

Since this is a nice dog, you have now had a positive experience with a dog. This requires that you update your beliefs about dogs. You say, “Not all dogs bite,” or “Some dogs are nice.”  Eventually, your fear begins to decrease. You can also draw upon the experience you had with the dog that bit you—you know, that some dogs do bite. So you are smart and can make wise decisions about dogs in the future. Hopefully, you find more playful puppies, and you open up to a wider range of life experiences. You return to the park and find a greater sense of freedom. 

Yoga, Movement, and Neuroplasticity

Group of young sporty people practicing yoga with instructor, Virabhadrasana 1 or Warrior 1 Pose.

Sometimes when we have experienced stressful or traumatic life events, we don’t just avoid certain situations or people, we begin to avoid being in relationship with ourselves. We disconnect from our emotions and our bodies. We stop moving, we breathe shallowly, and we deaden our aliveness.

Exercise is considered to be one of the most powerful ways to jump-start neuroplasticity and rewire your resilience. Exercise appears to play a key role in this process because it stimulates the release of dopamine, GABA, and BDNF. A single session of exercise increases cerebellum blood flow, improves working memory and motor skills, and begins to lay down neural pathways that can be reinforced through repeated practice. There is an enhanced window of neuroplasticity immediately following movement that can allow for positive change. 

Yoga offers an opportunity to engage in mindful movement to gain the benefits of exercise-induced neuroplasticity with a combined emphasis on mental fitness. While exercise alone might stimulate neuronal growth, mindful movement helps to organize and sustain your growth in a wanted direction. Yoga focuses your attention and intention to inspire positive change. 

Indeed, reconnecting to your body might feel uncomfortable at first. You may need to move slowly and rebuild a sense of trust. Take your time and get support to move through the barriers of fear as you gently, lovingly reclaim your birthright of aliveness and embodiment. 

Vagus Nerve Yoga Practice: From Fear to Love

With practice, you can learn to relate to your pain with equanimity and self-compassion. Equanimity is often translated as “the ability to stand in the middle of all that.” Equanimity involves increasing your ability to stay present and be patient with uncomfortable experiences. I often liken this to riding the waves of change. Yes, you can learn to surf and play in the currents. 

This 30-minute practice invites you to ride the waves by exploring the nourishing effects of undulations in your spine from a variety of positions. Explore this practice to awaken your neuroplasticity and rewire your resilience: 

 

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested relational psychotherapy.

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