What is neuroplasticity?
Neurons can be thought of as the building blocks of your brain and nervous system. Your brain is thought to contain roughly 86 million of them. Plasticity refers to your brain’s malleability, in other words, its ability to change. Neuroplasticity simply refers to the ability of your brain to adapt and change in structure and function.
For decades it was wrongly thought that as adults we lost this ability of our brains to adapt and change. We now know that this ability stays with us throughout our lifetime, though it is most prevalent before the age of 25.
Neuroplasticity can be functional or structural;
Functional Plasticity; the brain’s ability to move functions from one damaged area to another. If we lose our sight, for example, all of our other senses will become heightened to help compensate.
Structural Plasticity; the brain’s ability to physically restructure as a result of new learning. London cabbies were not born with the ability to remember hundreds of different routes around the capital. Years of repetition and learning has meant that their hippocampus (one of our brain’s parts associated with memory) is actually larger than ours.
When does neuroplasticity happen?
Neuroplasticity is happening all the time. Our brain’s plasticity is molded and shaped by everything we experience. Our brains are constantly taking in information through what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Repetition of these experiences causes neural pathways to form in our brain which then become our way of thinking or doing.
How can neuroplasticity help me to lower my anxiety levels?
Anxiety is created by our thoughts. It’s not the events in our lives that cause anxiety but our thoughts around them. Anxiety causes us to think negatively about ourselves, our abilities and our current situation. When we have anxiety we will tend to negatively retrospect on the past and start to catastrophise about the future.
Negative thinking becomes normal which in itself leads to greater anxiety.
It is however possible to change this way of thinking just by highlighting a few positive things that have happened during your day. If you start a journal and write down 2 to 3 positive things that have happened during your day, your brain will start to take notice. It’s not going to have an immediate effect but over a number of weeks, the amazing neuroplasticity of your brain will mean that you will be forming new neural pathways.
Instead of looking out for all the negative things that are going on in your life, a part of your brain called the reticular activating system will start to look out for the positive things. Instead of focusing on 90% of the sky which is grey and miserable, for example, subconsciously it will be looking out for the small patch of blue sky. When it finds it you will be rewarded with a little hit of serotonin. Serotonin gives us the power to influence our thinking and mood. Once we can get a nice constant flow of serotonin during the day then we enable our thinking to come from the positive, rational, logical part of our brain as opposed to the anxious and depressed part.