Why are bad habits so hard to break? Why are healthy habits so hard to stick to? Both of these questions present themselves from time to time in therapy. At least some of the answer lies in the actual structure and chemical makeup of our brain.
The concept of neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain neurons and neuroconnections to change. These changes can happen throughout our lives, even into advanced age. In therapy this plasticity, or ability to change, is used to create positive, intentional changes, making our lives more in line with how we want them to be.
Neuroconnections make it so that our brain gets very efficient at recognizing a stimulus and moving instantaneously to a response. At a recent conference I attended, the speaker continued to state: “your brain gets good at what it consistently does.” Yes, people with anxiety are actually experts! Expert worriers.
Each time we have an experience we learn from it. Learning in our brain means a network is formed. A network is like a little road being built in our brain connecting one synapse to another. The things that we think and do repeatedly widen the road, over and over until the things that are done most frequently have created a connection that is like a 16 lane highway in our brain. The connection becomes strong and difficult to counteract.
Depression and Anxiety
Neuroplasticity relates in the therapeutic treatment of depression and anxiety. Anticipating negative events and negative self-talk are an example of a network that is prevalent in those experiencing anxiety and depression. There is an automatic voice that says “I am an idiot” after a joke falls flat, or “something bad must have happened” when our loved one is late getting home. The more we allow our mind to runaway with negative thinking the wider the highway of negativity gets. The neuroconnection is strengthened into the 16 lane highway.
An intervention of cognitive behavioral therapy is identifying the way we are talking to ourselves – our automatic thoughts – and actively examining them, challenging them, and counter-talking them. When we practice this we are strengthening the neuro network of automatic positive thinking. We are actually changing our brain each time we talk back to our negative voice in our head. Breaking off small bits of the old highway and creating a new one that gets wider and stronger everytime we reroute from the negative to the positive. Soon our positive highway can become used more, thus more automatic than the negative one.
Your brain is constantly changing – forming new connections and strengthening existing ones.