Thursday, 21 March 2013

Demystifying Neuroplasticity

The science of Neuroplasticity is finally entering the public consciousness through the media such as in the documentary “Changing Your Mind” on the Nature of Things.

We used to believe that once a person reached adulthood, their brain was set and unchangeable with the exception of damage through a stroke, brain injury, or other intracranial insult.  Medical science viewed the brain as a mechanical construct, not an organ that can heal or alter its function or structure.  But with the advent of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, science can now see the brain functioning as various areas become active.

One of the first things we learned was that Post Traumatic Stress actually changed not only the function of a person’s brain, but also its structure - in many PTS cases, the hippocampi [the brain organs responsible for memory storage and retrieval] shrink.  But as MRI technology was used to monitor treatment, we also discovered that this brain damage can be reversed.  A 2011 study conducted in Canada with people suffering from PTS showed that using targeted mindfulness therapies that enhance Neuroplasticity saw the patients’ hippocampi grow on average of 25%.  A result that startled the professionals conducting the study.

The analogy I often use to explain how mindfulness and other therapies enhance Neuroplasticity is to imagine a path through the forest; The more we use a specific path, the deeper and smoother that path becomes and being so, following it is easier that traveling through the forest any other way.  Our minds are the same - we develop neural pathways in our brain by repeated use and if those pathways lead us to depression, anxiety, or disordered thinking we feel stuck on those paths.

With targeted therapies such as mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and others, we can create new pathways.  And like paths through a forest, as we follow the new healthier paths and they become easier to walk down and the old troublesome ones will grow over and no longer be paths we choose to follow.

I integrated Neuroplasticity enhancement in my practice as a Multimodal therapist over a year ago, and my clients have experienced great success in overcoming mental health issues that have plagued them for years.  Because I employ a multimodal approach, I can utilize a vast array of therapeutic techniques that fit the strengths, needs, abilities, and preferences of each individual client.

Typically though, I begin with breathing and relaxation techniques to address their immediate symptoms, then move to mindfulness practice and Cognitive or Dialectic Behaviour Therapy as clients develop mastery over each progressive step.  Throughout the process, I provide psychoeducation for my clients so they are aware of the science behind each technique because I believe in taking a collaborative approach with my clients - to place their healing in their own hands.

With the growing knowledge of Neuroplasticity and techniques to enhance it, there is no better time for someone to embark on the road to mental health, no matter how long they have suffered from an anxiety, mood, or traumatic disorder.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPC -

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Why I Recommend Yoga to Clients

As a Multimodal Therapist, I not only look at the seven modalities that make us whole persons, but I employ therapeutic interventions that fall outside of standard “talk therapy” strategies.

One of the interventions I use is to encourage some clients to take up the practice of Yoga – specifically; Yoga styles that are gentle and incorporate measured diaphragmatic breathing as their core foundation.  The reason for this is that diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing enhances neuroplasticity, which is – after all – the key to effective psychological therapy.

 Yoga is also another form of mindfulness, which is emerging as one of the most effective therapies to help people overcome anxiety and mood disorders.  When combined with other traditional therapies, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, mindfulness is extremely effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.  I’ve added Yoga to that list.

Yoga is a winning adjunct to therapy for a number of reasons;
  • It helps us reconnect to our body
  • It teaches us distress tolerance much in the same way mindful meditation does
  • It helps us supply oxygen to, [and removes carbon dioxide from] our muscles – and being that excess carbon dioxide alone can trigger panic attacks, measured breathing can reduce symptoms of anxiety
  • It lowers the stress hormone Cortisol in our body
  • It lowers Dopamine levels – too much dopamine in the limbic system has been linked to paranoia and withdrawal from social situations
  • It lowers Norepinephrine levels which can trigger a flight or fight response, raise the heart rate, raise the blood pressure, and trigger the release of excess sugar into the bloodstream
  • It raises GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid] levels - a neurotransmitter that inhibits the fear and anxiety caused by overactive neurons
  • It raises Serotonin levels - a neurotransmitter used both in our brain and our digestive system that keeps everything working properly 
All of these, and other physiological actions, reduce depression and anxiety, increases cognition and the ability to focus, and helps us sleep better.

A recent paper titled; “Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatricdisorders”, by Meera Balasubramaniam, Shirley Telles, and P. Murali Doraiswamy explored 124 trials on the effectiveness of Yoga in treating symptoms of various mental and emotional disorders.  The study concluded that there is emerging evidence that Yoga has proven success in treating depression, sleep disorders, and anxiety when used as an augmentation therapy.

The styles of Yoga that have the highest efficacy for my clients are;
  • Hatha Yoga – postures, regulated breathing, and meditation
  • Viniyoga – gentle yoga with an emphasis on synchronizing postures and breathing
  • Tibetan Yoga – fine, flowing movements, and controlled breathing

There is little doubt that Yoga is a physically healthy practice, but with emerging studies indicating its ability to bring about healthy changes in brain chemistry, any therapist should explore it as an augmentation to traditional mental health therapy.

Aaron D. McClelland,