Neuroplasticity & Mental Health
May 28, 2021 | By Jennifer Leong, MSW, RSW
May 28, 2021 | By Jennifer Leong, MSW, RSW
In the past, the scientific community believed that by early adulthood, the adult brain structures were primarily fixed and permanent with a set number of brain cells. They once thought that changes to the brain structures only occurred during infancy and childhood. More recently, our understanding of the most complex machine – our brain – underwent a revolutionary paradigm shift.
The term neuroplasticity (aka brain plasticity) suggests that our brain and nervous system, which is made up of billions of nerve cells and neurons (neuro), is malleable and can change to help adapt to our experiences (plasticity). Neuroplasticity occurs when our brain is exercised to help us retain and learn new skills, tools, techniques, languages, habits, and making lifestyle changes.
Understanding Neuroplasticity and How it Impacts Mental Health
1) Neurons that fire together, wire together.
The more you practice something, the brain strengthens the neural connections that are engaged together. These connections become stronger when you learn and practice something new. Neural pathways are formed by doing something repeatedly and becomes a shortcut. Just like habits, whether good or bad. Re-learning something new may initially be difficult but overtime it becomes second nature. This is important to remember when practicing skills or tools that can help manage anxiety, stress and regulate emotions. Practice makes progress.
2) Change mainly occurs when the brain is engaged.
When you are focused, alert, and motivated, the brain produces and releases necessary neurochemicals that facilitate new learning and change to occur in your brain. When you are distracted, disengaged and do something without your full attention or interest, the chemicals in your brain and the process of change is turned “off.” This is perhaps why people who experience anxiety, stress and depression often express their difficulty with remembering something new. Likewise, when you are in a heightened state of anxiety or emotional distress, you will have trouble putting skills into use if you have never practiced them before when things were calmer, which can set you up for failure. It is beneficial to learn and practice something when things are going well so that you are better able to focus and stay attentive. Grounding yourself in mindfulness strategies can help you regroup and refocus on the task at hand.
3) The stronger the focus on something, the greater the brain change.
The more effort you put into something and the more you focus on something, the bigger the brain change. This is also true the other way around – if you focus on something negative and engaged in unhelpful behaviours, those neural pathways are strengthened. This is why they say, habits are hard to break – but it’s not impossible. Ask yourself: what are you focused on right now? Where do you want to shift your attention to? Is it helpful or unhelpful?
4) Use it or lose it.
Every new opportunity of learning and putting new things into practice allows the brain to stabilize and solidify neural pathways to help advance skill mastery. Similarly, this also weakens neural connections that were not implemented in that exact moment. This is extremely helpful with unlearning old unhealthy behaviours and patterns. Additionally, if healthy practices are not maintained, negative changes and negative plasticity can also occur. You always have a choice on what you can do and what you focus on!
How to Enhance Brain Plasticity
Below are some beneficial ways you can help promote your brain to kickstart the change and adaptation process.
1) Enriching Environment
Creating enriched learning experiences encourage positive changes in the brain. Find opportunities that allow you to challenge yourself and enhance focus attention, such as: reading, practicing new skills or instruments, teaching yourself a new language, traveling, and exploring.
2) Emotional Health
Enhancing emotional health can provide enriching experiences with ourselves and in relationships with others, which promotes positive neuroplasticity. Feeling safe and secure, trust and love serves as a strong foundation for bonding and thriving relationships with ourselves and others. Emotional health can be cultivated through emotional awareness, and mindfully expressing and communicating our feelings. Engaging in activities like socializing, volunteering, emotionally bonding, journaling and doing psychotherapy all contribute to healthy brain plasticity.
Moving our body through regular physical activity helps us better manage and overcome negative effects of stress and anxiety through the body’s natural physiological response – like endorphins, which would otherwise be turned off due to physical inactivity. When stress and anxiety is managed, you are in a better state of mind to learn and focus on new and novel experiences. Additionally, exercising and movement allows us to feel more empowered and in control of our body thus giving us some agency over our environment.
4) Relaxation and Rest
Getting plenty of sleep promotes dendritic growth in our brain. Dendrites are the roots of neurons that transmits neural information from one neuron to another, thus encouraging stronger connections for positive plasticity. Deep breathing and meditation helps with relaxation and better managing our stress-induced activity of fight/flight/freeze responses which fosters healthy brain changes.
To understand these concepts further and to apply it into your own life, please schedule your free consultation with Jennifer.