Reading time: 5 minutes
Our brain is a complex, connected, and in many ways, mysterious system. It is a system that involves the working of millions of neurons firing at lightning speed, sending signals throughout our body, and structuring our internal world. So how exactly can we try to rewire such an efficient system and how can it be used in trauma recovery? The answer to this question lies in the recently discovered concept of Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is based on evidence that the way in which our brain is made up is not as fixed as we once believed it to be. Our reactions to our experiences are recorded in our brains through the creation of neural pathways. The more we associate our experiences, the stronger these neural pathways become, and the stronger they become, the more frequently impulses are directed through them. This, in turn, strengthens the used pathways further and weakens those not used. For example, research on London taxi drivers showed they have more grey matter in their brains than the average person, something which has developed to better the visuospatial abilities that they need to navigate the city on a daily basis.
This neuroplasticity plays a significant role in how trauma impacts us. When we are exposed to, or experience trauma, features of the event are recorded in our memories, and an appropriate neural pathway is created in reaction to it. Usually, these reactions involve the limbic system, as our survival instincts search for a way to protect us from the trauma (engaging the fight or flight response). Future traumatic events become associated with this network, working to strengthen the pathway and the connections between them, creating a fear network. Once this is fully formed, a single memory associated with the traumatic event can trigger the activation of the entire network. This explains why a small trigger such as an item of clothing or a sound that we have associated with the event can cause such an intense bodily reaction before we are able to rationalize.
The strengthening of established neuropathways and fear networks means that our brain begins to change as the synapses we don’t use are cut away to make room for growing the synapses that we do use. The dangers of neuroplasticity are then, that they can perpetuate negative reactions and thought patterns that are out of touch with reality. Which is the case for most people who suffer from Anxiety, Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as repeated negative thought patterns become more easily followed and fear networks more quickly activated.
However, if it can be said that we can unconsciously change our brain to facilitate negative reactions, could we not make a conscious decision to create more positive and healthy patterns?
Neuroplasticity can indeed be used in a positive way. Research has shown that by practising being present and mindful we can create neuropathways that create self-awareness, support and better coping skills. A particularly effective way of gaining this sense of mindfulness is through something like meditation. Meditation helps to form new neural pathways that direct away from the trauma response that has been established, and towards reasoning and self-regulation. Regular exercise, creating art, and quality sleep are other positive ways to harness neuroplasticity and improve, not only our cognitive abilities but also our emotional regulation.
Neuroplasticity ultimately showcases our brain’s ability to change and adapt to external conditions. Whilst the creation of fear networks has allowed us as humans to survive as long as we have, it can also have particularly damaging effects on us in the modern world where we are constantly overstimulated. So, it is particularly useful that we can apply the power of neuroplasticity and use it to better process, understand, and adapt to the world around us.
 J. Hari. Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, (USA: Bloomsbury, 2018).