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Change Your Brain: How Neuroplasticity Offers Hope

woman looks toward ocean with optimism and determination
By Lifestance Health on December 15, 2020

When you’ve lived with a mental illness for a long time, you can start to believe that you will always have negative thought patterns. For example, people with chronic anxiety disorders may assume they will always worry a lot. People with depression may not see a way to be consistently happy or even content. Trauma survivors may believe that they will forever be on-edge.

With a mindset like that, it’s easy to lose all hope. One relatively new, hard-to-pronounce concept offers optimism: neuroplasticity.

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What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the term for the fact that the physical structure of the human brain can change, even in adulthood. These changes can transform a person’s thought patterns, personality traits, and behaviors can significantly. This phenomenon means that recovery is possible.

Though some evidence of neuroplasticity was found in the early 1900s, the idea didn’t start gaining traction until the 1960s. Before this time, scientists believed that once a brain was damaged by injury, trauma, or illness, recovery was impossible.

Scientists now know that recovery is possible by changing the pathways in your brain. This process is neuroplasticity. It’s also closely related to a process called neurogenesis.

What is Neurogenesis?

Neurogenesis is the process through which the human brain creates new brain cells, even in adulthood. When these neurons are formed, the brain develops and changes. Some people lump this in with neuroplasticity. though they are different concepts.

People once believed that at some point in adolescence or early adulthood, people lost the ability to form new brain cells, which are also called neurons. This belief is so common that you have probably heard something like this and may have even learned it in school.

In exciting news, neuroscientists now widely accept that people can form new neurons throughout the lifespan. Neurogenesis in particular offers hope for people who have sustained brain damage due to illness or injury.

We never stop growing and changing. Understanding this can be life-changing.

How Can Neuroplasticity Change Your Brain?

Neuroplasticity means that people can and do change. By changing how existing brain cells work function, we can make healthy behaviors and positive emotions easier to experience.

Behavioral and thought patterns are made up of groups of brain cells that form neural pathways. The more frequently you engage in a thought or behavior, the stronger the neural pathway and the easier that thought or behavior becomes.

For example, consider someone with depression. They may automatically think things like, “I’m such a failure.” That’s because the neural pathways for negative self-talk have become strong after living with depression. On the other hand, thoughts like, “I’m worthy of love,” can be difficult because pathways of self-love have become weaker.

Neuroplasticity can change all of that. You can strengthen neural pathways that serve you and lessen those that don’t. Not only can you change the pathways of your existing neurons, but you can grow new ones. Changing your brain is not easy, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

How to Start Retraining Your Brain

You should see a licensed therapist to start changing your thought and behavioral patterns. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of talk therapy offered today, and it’s rooted in the fact that people can make these changes. In many ways, neuroplasticity is the neuroscience that backs up the psychology of CBT.

A licensed therapist can give you tools to retrain your brain between sessions. For example, they may ask you to write down three things you love about yourself each day. This repetition strengthens those neural pathways, making it easier each time.

If you’ve considered therapy before but thought that your brain could never truly change, here’s the sign you needed. Though difficult to pronounce, neuroplasticity is scientific and physical proof that brains do change–and yours can too.

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