Help Your Brain Change and Heal: Sensitize Your Amygdala
Last week I wrote about how possible it is for the brain to change after trauma. This week I want to share with you one of the ways you can do that. It's all about creating positive experiences that last for long enough that your brain can record the experience through neural activity.
Whew, sounds like a lot of science and hard work, doesn't it? Actually, it's as easy as eating a ripe strawberry. Here's what I mean...
How You Can Help Your Brain Change
According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, "the brain takes it's shape from whatever it rests upon." What he means is that brain structure constantly changes as a result of the information flowing through it. Indulge your negativity bias (focus on the bad things) and your brain's activity and development will reinforce all of the feelings and neuronal structures that support that.
But, develop your positivity bias (your ability to be optimistic, for example) and you can develop a wholly different set of neural pathways that create a very healthy, whole and healing brain indeed.
How the Amygdala Affects Brain Change
The fact is, the brain makes structural changes according to how you use your mind. Take your amygdala, for example. An almond shaped mass deep within your brain, the amygdala is the seat of your survival emotions and response. Studies have proven that the amygdala can actually enlarge in people with PTSD. It's almost as if it's a muscle; the more you work it the bigger it gets.
However, studies have also proven that the amygdala can shrink back to it's original size when PTSD reduces. Want to know how to help that happen? In PTSD your amygdala gets sensitized to pain, fear, anxiety, panic, terror, etc. Starting today, however, you can start sensitizing it to something else, say, joy, delight, happiness, contentment, gratitude, etc.
How to Change Your Brain by Sensitizing the Amygdala
The major key to doing this? Creating experiences that allow your mind (hence, your amygdala) to have positive experiences and combining them with mindfulness practices that allow you to hold onto the feeling that experience creates for at least 10-20 seconds. This way you can sensitize your brain and different parts of it to good things and desensitize your brain and its part to the bad. Doing this will literally change your brain.
The equation looks like this:
Positive experience + mindfulness = neuronal change
Effecting this equation can be as simple as:
1. Choose a food you really, really love.
2. Eat it slower than you ever have before and really be aware of how it tastes in your mouth, how it smells, how it feels sliding down your throat, how it rests in your stomach and makes your whole body feel.
3. Focus on that good feeling for a solid 10-20 seconds. For best results: do this over and over and over again.
That's just one simple example. The truth is, whatever brings you pleasure can be used. For me dance and movement is a huge pleasure zone. So was cuddling up with my pup. It's up to you to decide, discover, explore and find what makes you feel good, even if only for 10-20 seconds at a time.
This all sounds very simple and maybe even ridiculous, doesn't it? Make healing progress while having fun eating? Yes, exactly. No one ever said PTSD recovery had to be a red hot mess all the time. It's just that until now, science never suggested that it could be so pleasurable either.
Rosenthal, M. (2013, February 6). Help Your Brain Change and Heal: Sensitize Your Amygdala, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/02/are-you-sensitizing-your-amygdala
Author: Michele Rosenthal
Hope this helps.
Today, I think I did what you discuss. I was at an event at work that brought up an array of uncomfortable emotions. I said to myself "I need to leave." I left. (Big move since the president of the job was speaking.) When I got outside I said I need to replace my pain with something good or I'll turn to my addiction. I saw a bag with a camera store on it so I went. There I had fun looking at the electronics talking to people etc. Tonight I found your article. So I did what you write about. I experienced a fun thing to make up for the pain I had just experienced.
One perspective on this page -- it's a great idea, but I deal with clients with severe early (family) trauma -- which often shows up connected to eating disorders...which mean, "no pleasure in eating." Food is something to be endured or avoided.
So this article's helpfulness is not accessible to them. Might be helpful to reframe this excellent idea and re-present it with a less charged subject...like looking at the starts or sunset? or, yes, cuddling with a favorite animal or even stuffed animal?
I'm wondering why treatment centers don't use MRI, EEG or other similar brain activity scans to take patient benchmarks and baselines when they are admitted with a diagnosis of PTSD (or any other diagnosis for that matter). Wouldn't that be able to pinpoint not only a correct diagnosis but the severity of the illness? I would think insurance coverage would be a factor, however there are many patients and family members who would be more than willing to pay out of pocket to have a solid starting point for treatment. Because of the nature of PTSD and disassociation, a full and complete accounting of indications and symptoms by the patient cannot be reliable at all times. In this sense, wouldn't brain imaging and mapping be an absolute necessity before medication and treatment be introduced? Thanks so much!
While I agree that MRI and EEG can be useful I wouldn't say they're a "necessity". PTSD recovery can be accomplished in a myriad of ways and many of us without access to the machines have emerged into freedom.
Indeed the brain is complex, and so is the mind. Put them both together and it's tough to predict the response to any experience. I'm so happy to know that we can, in fact, predict the brain's ability to continually change!