Neuroplasticity: What You Need to Know in PTSD Recovery
Wednesday, March 20 2013 Michele Rosenthal
Recent developments in the field of neuroplasticity prove how your brain is hardwired and genetically designed to heal, change and rewire itself after all types of traumas, including brain injury and stroke. Research also explains very explicitly how your brain changes, which means it also illustrates how you can collaborate with your brain and support it's posttraumatic growth and development.
How Neuroplasticity Affects PTSD Recovery
Back in the 1930s a Canadian behavioral psychologist suggested that learning links neurons (the foundational element of your brain and how it sends and receives information) in fresh ways. As Norman Doidge writes about Hebb's suggestion in The Brain That Changes Itself,
"[Hebb] Proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb's concept.... was neatly summarized ...: Neurons that fire together, wire together."
Hebb's entire theory argued that experience can change neuronal structure. What does that mean to you? It means that while trauma can alter your brain - and hence, the repetitive brain processes of PTSD - the basis for this change is experience. Following that philosophy and Hebb's suggestion, the idea that emerges is that the brain can change again, due to new experience. That has enormous implications for PTSD recovery.
One of the most disheartening (and untrue!) statements I hear from too many professionals and survivors is that, "Once you're broken you can't be fixed." That may be true for some people but when it is, the fault isn't necessarily that the brain is the problem. The brain likes to change. Sometimes, it's people who don't.
Neuroplasticity Can't Make You Recover from PTSD Automatically
Recovery is challenging. Not everyone commits to it or follows through. Not everyone wants to give up the lifestyle that PTSD offers. In the words of one of my clients early on in her (successful) recovery: "If it weren't for PTSD I would have to go to work, take care of my family and do what every friend asks me to do. It's easier to live my life if I stay in bed." If she had chosen to stay committed to that idea she would never have healed. And yet, it wouldn't be because she couldn't. It would have been because she, on some conscious or other level, chose not to.
Healing is hard and messy and often feels really, really crappy. You may get worse for a while instead of better. You may feel better and then have a triggering episode and think you've lost ground. You may use modalities that make you process in ways that leave you feeling raw and unprepared. You may experience all of these things and then decide it's not worth the fight. Still, it wouldn't be because your brain wasn't willing. It would be because you weren't.
As someone who literally took almost a decade to heal - because I fought the process, didn't engage in the process, and fought my diagnosis - I, too, might have been one of the many people who don't move through the recovery process and out the other side. Again, it wouldn't be because my brain wasn't willing but because I wasn't.
Everyone's recovery is different. How you move through it is unique to you. Still, the opportunity to feel better, scientifically speaking, is available to you.
Retrain Your Brain for PTSD Recovery with Neuroplasticity Basics
Experience got you into this mess. With neuroplasticity as your guide you can learn that it's entirely possible focused, strategized experience(s) can get you out of it. At the very least, supporting your brain with new and good experiences while you seek your recovery path can be a positive, balancing and economically accessible way to retrain your brain. Start firing neurons associated with positive experiences and you will start strengthening those neuronal structures in your brain, which can deeply impact your recovery process.
Recently I received an email from Anna (not her real name) saying, "Now that I'm moving forward in recovery everything feels so strange. Feeling better feels surreal, and feeling good feels even more surreal. Is this natural in PTSD recovery?"
What Anna's experiencing is actually very common in PTSD recovery. There are some valid reasons why feeling better feels strange, and some easy ways to make it all feel more normal.
PTSD Recovery Is a Lifestyle
PTSD is more than just a diagnosis or mental illness, it's a lifestyle. With poststraumatic stress you live every moment feeling, seeking and identifying the origin of danger, threat and fear. That's your new normal.
Oppositely, in healing you release all of those behaviors and begin to live life feeling safe, effective and confident. That's a big change! Especially if you have struggled with PTSD for any length of time, or if you ever despaired that you would never heal, it can seem very surreal to finally feel things changing for the better.
To mitigate this feeling so that it becomes more normalized, try this:
Go deeper into that surreal feeling and connect it to the present moment. For example, pause, take a deep breath in, notice the feeling and identify what about the present moment is making it appear and allowing you to feel it so acutely. Is this feeling coming from the people you're with, the place you're in, the thought you just had? Recognizing how your present experience relates to and even causes this feeling of well-being does some important things:
- Connects your good feeling to the present moment
- Highlights that your present feels safe
- Forms a new pathway in your mind for feeling good
- Teaches your mind and body that this feeling is real
The more you build on this experience the more you help your brain continue to make the changes that PTSD recovery requires. Research proves that it takes 10-20 seconds of a positive feeling for the brain to record it into a deeper neural structure.
In recovery you want as many of those experiences as possible as you retrain and rewire the brain to release fear and hypervigilance and embrace safety, calm and control. To take yourself to the next level with this experience focus on that good, surreal feeling for 20, 30 or even 60 seconds to allow your brain to fully record it.
Combining a practice of mindfulness with those surreal good feelings can also be a great way to facilitate creating a grounded centeredness in the feeling itself. There are lots of great mindfulness material online and you may have already become very familiar with this process. I like this article for easy mindfulness tips.
Healing forces you out of your comfort zone and into a place that requires you to feel the opposite of how you've learned to live. The brain will naturally find that unfamiliarity strange. Your job in recovery is to make that feeling familiar so that you develop a comfort level with it -- and keep moving into better and better territory.