Neuroplasticity and Mental Illness: Hope Exists For Rewiring Your Brain’s Circuitry
“Neurons that fire together wire together.” – Norman Doidge
Whether someone suffers from depression, anxiety, anger issues, substance abuse problems, overeating, low self-esteem, or the inability to break a pesky habit – it’s always possible to rewire their synapse-written roadways. Even if people suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury, the mind could rewire itself, and there’s evidence to prove it.
Many people don’t know that humans can rewire and change their brains, In fact, concerning past experiences and repetitive actions, pre-established pathways in the brain can be created and disposed of, depending on the specific steps someone takes. In the case of mental illness, especially, this idea proves crucial.
A Brief Definition
Neuroplasticity, as its name suggests, refers to the ability for the neural pathways in our brain to remain elastic for our entire lives – even into old age. Neuroplasticity also applies to the brain’s ability to adapt and learn new ways of being, thinking, and doing.
In other words, our mental processes, ideas about the world, and emotional reactions (and therefore, our physical actions) are changeable if we stay consistent. It may just be possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
A Background On Learning
According to most psychologists, the majority of our learning and brain development takes place within the first five years of someone’s life. An incredible amount of humans’ perceptions and thoughts about their lives have to do with what they were taught up to (quite early) age of five.
Far after the age of five, however, many people eventually find themselves in the grips of issues like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, utterly bad habits, addictions, and seemingly unbreakable behavioral patterns. Unfortunately, these diseases are often based on unhealthily-formed neural pathways.
Change Is Possible
Unhealthy, repetitive actions often cause harmful neural pathways, which cause more unhealthy, repetitive actions, causing a terrible downward spiral for many. Previously-paved neural pathways are evident when there is little space between stimuli and unwanted reactions.
For example, take the addict who cannot seem to curb their cravings. As soon as a trigger presents itself to the addict, they’re running to their dealer or the liquor store to achieve their high. No “pause” between their thoughts and their destructive action exists.
Or take someone who is depressed or anxious. Their thinking, more often than less, is “black and white” and quite extreme, leading to feelings of hopelessness, panic, or distress. However, studies show that restructuring the brain is possible – even when someone is clinically diagnosed with a chemical mental illness such as depression.
Even though these scary results of cognitive processes feel as though they can’t be changed or “rewired,” per se, scientists are discovering that there’s a lot of hope for brain transformation.
Rewire The Brain With Neuroplasticity
When people challenge new neural pathways by introducing new stimuli and exciting environments, such as what happens when people travel, they’re able to form new roadways in their brains. Memory exercises, learning a musical instrument, and even doing art can also lead to the “firing up” of new areas of the brain.
Take this study of taxi drivers, who demonstrated that “capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain [happens] in response to environmental demands.” Because these taxi drivers regularly placed themselves in new surroundings, a type of stimulation that causes the brain to make maps and solve problems, a different area of their brain was more lit up on MRIs.
Unfortunately, in the case of mental illness, negative Neuroplasticity can work against people, often reinforcing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders that involve impulsiveness or negative internal dialogue.
However, with talk therapy, medications, exercise, nutrition, alternative methods of improving mental illnesses such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and rewiring the brain is possible. These therapies also act on the brain’s electrical currents and firing of its synapses, therefore complementing one’s ability to reform their neural pathways.
Hope exists for those diagnosed with mental illnesses who wish to change their brains. With the new creations of healthy habits, medicinal advances, and incredible new technologies, changing the brain is more attainable than ever.
Amelia is a friend, daughter, writer, and content strategist residing in Orange County, California. Most of her writing falls into the healthcare realm, with a focus on mental health and psychology. Passionate about personal transformation, Amelia spends her days researching the most cutting-edge approaches to curing depression.