Rewiring the brain

Our brains are constantly changing and evolving.

The term brain plasticity means that, regardless of age, our brains and minds can be positively or negatively impacted by exogenous events. In addition to physical changes in the brain that occur after trauma, there are also psychological changes.

Traumatic events in particular can create a stuck point that is difficult to move beyond. For example, for a child that is abused emotionally or sexually this can result in withdrawal, fear, anxiety and depression. As the child attempts to function in life, negative thoughts can serve to derail positive movement forward. Many children who are abused frequently believe that they did something wrong and feel shame and guilt. These negative emotions can have a lifelong impact.

The World Health Organization has reported that there are approximately 350 million depressed people in the world. This is a statistic that is catastrophic, and new and more effective methods of treating depression must be found to address this.

Most of us are aware of the medications, such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers, that can treat depression and anxiety. However the implementation of medication to treat these symptoms can result in adverse side effects.

There is also a great deal of controversy around the numbers and kinds of medications that are prescribed to patients in the United States. Some have criticized the current health care system for being a pill mill for throwing medications at every symptom or complaint that a patient has.

Moving away from the current obsession with taking the right pill, there are treatments that are more natural and effective. It is known that the lack of exercise in fact is a contributing factor to the experience of depression and other related symptoms, such as anxiety, suicidal ideation, poor sleep, low appetite, and lack of motivation and enjoyment of activities. The more one exercises the more the symptoms of depression can be potentially decreased.

Medical research has demonstrated that mind-body exercise, such as yoga and meditation, and aerobic exercise, such as swimming and rowing, can rewire and reshape the brain to function significantly better. In particular mind body exercise can decrease fatigue, and the cerebrovascular and cardiac side effects of depression. Depressed patients usually recall only negative experiences in their past, and can be unable to remember a time when they felt better. This memory deficit might be responsible for the guilt and shame that can sometimes accompany depression.

A relatively new evidence based treatment, known as cognitive processing therapy, can treat traumatic symptoms by actually rewiring the brain so that these memories and symptoms are weakened. What is even more remarkable is that this therapy, which is provided over 12 consecutive sessions, once completed does not require further PTSD therapy of any kind. It is remarkable that, unlike open ended therapy, where an individual can be in intensive psychotherapy treatment, or literally on the couch for years with questionable results, the outcomes with cognitive processing therapy are superior and certain.

The treatment includes several steps. One of the steps includes the exercise of jumping to conclusions. For a traumatized individual, the first component of this is to state a belief that feels real and valid, even though it isn’t. One might believe that because they were abused as children that everyone they encounter will abuse them. However, looking back at one’s life, these patients will almost certainly remember relationships where they weren’t abused and where they were respected. The reality versus the false belief is significant and helps the brain to evolve.

The second step of this exercise is to look at ways that one might embellish a false belief despite evidence to the contrary. For example, when one is younger, they don’t have power over an abusive relative and feelings of powerlessness are accurate. One can correct the negative thoughts with the reality that a child, who had no power over an adult, as an adult has more complete power over continuing or ending an adult relationship. This can also relate to the thought of knowing that if another adult is abusive to them, the legal system can punish this person by putting them in jail. This helps to liquidate the potency of the belief that was true during an earlier stage of life, but that, now as an adult, is no longer an issue.

The next step can be to look at how the abusive parent or relative suffered from a severe illness, and how their behavior wasn’t directed only at this one child, but likely towards many people. Psychologically, this illness in the parent resulted in many conflictual relationships with most people, and the abuse wasn’t directed only at one’s childhood. This understanding weakens the belief that there was something “bad” about this child that caused the parent to be abusive. As an adult, we recognize the problematic way that feelings and emotions from childhood can persist even though we are now adults and have more absolute control over who we develop relationships with.

Overgeneralizing is the next worksheet task. One might believe that their abusive parents will impact their relationships in all of the rest of their lives. Countering this false belief could be the realization that despite this childhood abuse, one has actually made friends and has had healthy relationships. They can realize with the guidance of their therapist that one’s abusive parent is not in fact the arbiter of relationships for the remainder of their lives.

Mind reading is another step to explore. This relates to the thought, as an example, that someone one meets at a party can discern the abuse in someone’s past, as if they could read the person’s mind and know all that has happened to this person. It also correlates with the false belief that one can read the mind of this other person and “know” that they will reject them. This can increase shame and embarrassment from a childhood trauma into the primary negative beliefs that are inaccurate and no longer relevant. This reality check will move an individual from embarrassment and withdrawal into a more comfortable psychological state where one’s past and shame from the past don’t falsely color and infect these views and memories later in adulthood.

The last phase of jumping to conclusions reveals emotional reasoning. Once can believe that because one feels guilty they must have done something wrong. One can counter this false belief by stating that, in my own words as an example, “the reality is that I am completely different from my mom and the way she makes me feel doesn’t relate in reality to anyone else. I can make friends and people usually like me. Just because my mother treated me poorly doesn’t mean I was at fault. She was universally seen as a sick person and she treated everyone poorly.” Such a thought weakens the negative emotional trajectory that can spring forth from childhood trauma and impact one’s entire life if not challenged with cognitive processing therapy.

Another component of this therapy is evaluating a pathological belief and countering it with evidence for and against it, and ultimately weakening its strength.

As an example, someone may have a belief that they are too short to be in a romantic relationship. Evidence for this belief could be something they overheard in late adolescence where a girl rejected a dating request by saying that the boy was too short. However there is also evidence against this such as, in this example, “I have dated women who were taller than me or the same height and it never interfered with my relationship.”

The second part of this belief challenge is to look at a stuck point and determine whether it is a habit or a fact. It many cases, if not most of them, this viewpoint is more a habit. There is no objective evidence in my current life that “being short will hurt my romantic inclinations.” Most people will find that their “habitual” way of thinking can be countered by facts that disprove it.

Other steps include all or none thinking. For example is one always going to be either completely healthy or completely ill. Looking at the gray between white and black can help provide a nuance to something that an individual might falsely believe to be a definite.

The brain is always evolving and growing. It seeks to maintain a balance and homeostasis. It can be impacted by listing to music or looking at art. How many of us literally have chills listening to our favorite musical artist, or feel more hopeful and resilient. Like computers, the brain too can be programmed and rewired to function better than ever, with a more hopeful and positive outlook. Studies on the hippocampus, the learning and memory capital of the nervous system, show that in depression the volume of the hippocampus actually decreases, causing the cognitive decline of the brain. Depression can lead to something that looks just like Alzheimer’s Syndrome, but once treated memory and learning ability bounce back. Looking through a corrective lens in seeing our life objectively, counteracting self destructive thoughts such as traumatic depression and anxiety, and building a new foundation of hope and positivity can be achieved with cognitive processing therapy. It is an extremely powerful tool that can help anyone who has traumatic memories and symptoms.


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