Brain, Heal Thyself – How Neuroplasticity Hurts and Heals

In looking into and trying techniques like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Neurofeedback, I am constantly coming across the concept of neuroplasticity.  This very concept should give people great hope for recovery from mental health issues!

Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain can adapt and change by forming new neuronal connections throughout life. This happens in response to stimuli, habits, traumas, thought patterns and even injury.

This incredible ability for the brain to adapt is core to our ability to survive and probably has something to do with why humans were able to adapt to such a diversity of environments throughout the world. The general idea doesn’t seem that revolutionary.  After all, how could we continue to learn if our brain wasn’t at least somewhat flexible? However, there are a few specific examples that demonstrate how powerful this is… it can hurt, but it can also heal!

First, let’s look at the hurt in emotional/psychological trauma. When someone undergoes an extreme stressor their brain can have lasting changes to how it functions.

This adaptive response can be beneficial. Think of the common occurrence of someone eating a certain food and getting food poisoning. Often, that stressor causes them to have an aversion to that food for a long time, maybe forever. This can be good because it indicates that this food could be poison so you should avoid it. This can save your life! (though in the modern world it’s probably less helpful)

If someone undergoes a psychological trauma this similar response can be put into hyperdrive without the helpful benefits, instead causing issues.

According to this study, Traumatic Stress: effects on the brain (2006) –

Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas.

I think this applies broadly to just about everyone. You don’t have to have diagnosed PTSD for this to affect you. Here’s an example:

Maybe as a child, you spoke up in a group and were shushed by a teacher or made fun of in some way by a friend. That may have been a psychological stressor for you causing you to have a fear of public speaking going forward. You  may not even remember the incident, but it rewired your neurons nonetheless.

These adaptations can save us from future dangers or they can hold us back when we perceived the danger to be more than it really was or when the stress is attached to something that isn’t truly a existential threat.  Maybe the stressor triggers an adaptation that you are generally depressed or have higher anxiety. This may not serve you very well going forward.

It’s important to note that the same stressor can affect different people differently. We shouldn’t make a judgement on whether or not it affected someone (or ourselves), but rather we should be open to the fact that something that seems small to one person, or in retrospect, can cause dramatic effects in the brain. Also, something that seems traumatic may not cause lasting effects. This is seen in soldiers. They all go through hell, but not all of them have full on PTSD.  This doesn’t mean the ones who get PTSD are weak.

The hopeful thing is that this is NOT a one-way street.  Because the brain is flexible there are methods to help the brain ‘un-learn what it has learned’ (in the words of yoda) as a result of the trauma.

From my research, experiments and understanding, the most effective methods of helping your brain heal/rewire after trauma are EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and Neurofeedback. 

EMDR uses the fact that a lot of neuronal/memory consolidation and trimming happens during the REM phase of sleep. EMDR uses eye movements to mimic the eye movements that happen during REM to help trigger the increased plasticity during sleep. And because…

REM sleep may be preferentially important for the consolidation of procedural memories and some types of emotional information (see Karni et al. 1994; Plihal and Born 1999a; Kuriyama et al. 2004; Smith et al. 2004),

…it turns out that it can be very effective at helping to ‘re-wire’ the brain after an emotional trauma.

Sound like some woo-woo fake science stuff?

Yeah, it kinda does…but then again the Department of Defense and VA recognize EMDR as an evidence-based therapy for soldiers suffering from PTSD. So… yeah it’s legit. (as a side note, the VA has a good quick overview of EMDR)

My first experience with EMDR

I was skeptical too at first. When I first learned about this I decided to try it on a very small scale on myself. (Note, if you have symptoms of PTSD please don’t try this on your own!)

I had recently had a semi-heated discussion and I had felt like I didn’t think on my feet very well. I didn’t convey my actual thoughts clearly and even conveyed something that I didn’t really believe because I was nervous. This bothered me and I was replaying what happened in my head over and over. Remember, stressors affect people differently. The person I was speaking with probably doesn’t remember the conversation, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

I decided to give EMDR a shot on my own. So, I focused on the memory and a mental image of the conversation. I then moved my eyes back and forth for about 10 seconds. It was side to side and kinda fast but still comfortable.

Side note: This is really not how EMDR is supposed to be done in a clinical setting, so again, don’t try this on your own if you have serious issues as it involves revisiting those traumas which should be done in a safe environment. Also, don’t expect big results doing what I did because the actual process is a bit more in depth.

So what happened? After just those 10 seconds of doing it, I tried to focus on that memory again and I could barely access it. It was like the emotional side of the memory was partially erased or hidden.

It was weird!

It was also very helpful!

I remembered what happened still, but it was no longer stuck in my brain and I stopped going over it again and again in my head. I also didn’t feel like such an idiot anymore.

This convinced me that there was something to EMDR. I went on to try it for real with someone who’s actually trained. I can give you more info on that in the future.  But the take-away here is that in this small way EMDR improved my mental performance.

There’s copious evidence that it can help in big ways with mental performance as well. Clinical applications include:

  • PTSD (this is what it’s best known for)
  • Panic disorders
  • OCD
  • Generalized Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Excessive Grief
  • Depression caused by disturbing life experiences
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Addiction
  • Click here for a long and impressive list backed up by research.

It’s pretty impressive.

The second thing that I think helps your brain heal itself is neurofeedback.

I’ve done two sessions of this so far and haven’t really noticed much change yet. However, they say that it usually takes 6 sessions to make a difference. So we will see what it does for me down the road.

Neurofeedback works a little differently. It listens to your brain waves and then communicates information about what your brain is doing to your brain through sound. This feedback is like putting a mirror in front of the brain. It lets your brain (usually unable to observe itself) see what it’s doing. When your brain falls into a sub-optimal pattern the audio reflects that and your brain then learns to stop following those patterns.

Because the brain has neuroplasticity, over time this training helps your brain form new neuronal connections that follow a more optimal pattern overriding the ingrained patterns that may be associated with issues. It’s suggested that this can provide relief for various issues:

Here’s some interesting overlap (and a difference) between these two methods.

My neurofeedback practitioner suggests that it works best if you fall asleep during the training. Maybe this is a way to access the REM stage of sleep to accelerate the effects of the training by doing during a time when the brain is primed for plasticity. I hope someone looks into combining these approaches someday as I think they could be synergistic in combination.

I’m sure if I got my EMDR practitioner and my neurofeedback practitioner in a room they would each say that theirs is better. In fact, my neurfeedback practitioner made a good point. She told me that she thinks NFB is better because you don’t have to trigger yourself as part of the process. If you have very traumatic events that you’re healing from, triggering yourself can be very painful. So this makes sense. Though, it’s not clear which is actually better. I suspect it’s different for different issues.

So, my initial suggestion would probably be to give NFB a try first since it could be more comfortable 🙂 But take that with a grain of salts since I’m no expert and everyone is different.

So, how does this all relate to having an Extraordinary Brain?

Having traumas, big or small, can affect your cognitive function. Whether it’s giving you a slight fear of public speaking, or making it so you can’t stop replaying something in your head or causing a more serious mental health issue, these things all affect the performance of your brain!

I’ll continue updating you on my journey with these two methods of improving brain performance.

An interesting aside about neuroplasticity.

There are examples of people who have had injury (or congenital defect) to specific regions of their brains that are traditionally used for a specific purpose. In the normal brain, for example, when someone smells something a certain area of the brain lights up showing that this area is responsible for processing smells. However, some people who have damage to that area of the brain can still smell. Looking at the brain scans of those people show that while the area normally responsible for smells is not lighting up there is another area that has compensated. This is a great positive effect of neuroplasticity and I think it’s another reason for hope that your brain can heal itself!

Click here to see my full review of Neuroptimal.

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