Saturday, 12 May 2012

Neuroplasticity: How Talking and Walking Can Heal

Neuroplasticity is a fairly new buzzword in the field of treating anxiety, depression, and emotional trauma, but the idea behind it has been around for decades. The term "neuroplasticity" was first coined by Polish Neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski, in 1948.

Dr Norman Doidge, author of “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science”, defines neuroplasticity as: “that property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function by basically three things ... by perceiving the world, by acting in the world, and by thinking and imagining”.

For example: a traumatic event can alter the brain's structure and function resulting in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and shrinking of the memory centers of the brain. A person experiencing the tragic loss of someone they love, being in a terrifying car accident, or experiencing rape or abuse can be left with life-altering feelings of anxiety, depression and memory impairment.

What about healing?
Modern research is providing evidence disproving the old belief that the function and structure of the brain can’t be changed. The brain can be changed, and we are learning how that change occurs to help people heal.

For years, counsellors and therapists have seen positive results when using "talk therapies" such as Psychoanalysis, Psychodynamic Therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, EMDR, and other techniques. One vital part of these therapies is having their clients use a personal narrative to "tell their story" in a safe, non-judgmental environment. What is going on inside the brain during this process is only now becoming clear.

What "telling the story" does is to activate the brain structure where the traumatic memory is stored. This is an important part of recovery: Brain structure and function can only become plastic when the affected parts of the brain are active.

During this "plastic" stage, other parts of therapy can help the client reintegrate those memories and to reduce or even completely remove the anxiety or depressive symptoms that have accompanied them. The brain's own natural healing abilities come into play during this stage of therapy.

There is a misconception that the majority of therapeutic work only takes place during the one hour a week we spend with our therapist. We now know that our brain continues to work on the problem on its own. Even while we are asleep, the hippocampus [our memory center] and the cortex [our higher functioning brain] are exchanging information. This is why so many people who are in recovery from trauma report disturbing dreams: This is our brain working to reorganize itself by making sense of the traumatic memory.

One way we can speed up this healing process is by "swift walking" - basically going for a brisk walk in a safe place. What "swift walking" does is stimulate the connections between the hippocampus and the cortex as we experience the ever-changing environment during our walks. Think of it as exercising the memory muscles of the brain - the more we use them, the stronger they become. As the connections between our hippocampus and cortex are stimulated, they work more effectively on the problem memories as well.

So not only is a brisk walk good for our body, it is good for our mind.

Dr. Doidge states in his research that therapists who are familiar with neuroplasticity and use personal narrative as part of their treatment plans are seeing more effective outcomes for their clients struggling with a wide range of emotional problems including Posttraumatic Stress.

Unfortunately, there is no way [as of yet] to form set protocols for clinicians to follow in treating any specific condition using neuroplasticity. Though extensive training in dozens of different techniques is available, therapy still remains somewhat of an art form and relies on the experience, knowledge, and skills of the therapist and the trust a client has in their therapist.

So, how do you find a therapist who will fill your needs? Research the various therapies to see which one might work for you. See if anyone you know can recommend a therapist that has helped them. Shop around amongst therapists in your community; Ask questions of the therapists: What methods do they use? What is their level of knowledge about neuroplasticity? How much experience do they have? Finding a therapist that fits your needs and preferences is vitally important to help you feel safe in therapy.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPCc

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