Neuroplasticity: Hope and Cautionary Tale

Neuroplasticity offers hope. It has to do with our brain’s ability to reorganize connections in response to learning. Cognitive behavior therapy can help us reduce stress to life’s most challenging circumstances. One of the things I get to do about every couple of months or so is to talk with a group of women surviving breast cancer who participate in a class on self-care, I get to talk with these women about emotional regulation and stress inoculation. I’m fortunate to have gone down a path in my career that landed me in a profession in which I get to work with clients everyday who are facing their worst fears. With our team we developed an Intensive Outpatient Treatment Program for Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. This is relevant because we use a set of skills from a scientist/practitioner model of cognitive behavior therapy that is also applicable to many physical and emotional stresses, emotional disorders and everyday emotional regulation and coping.

 

I used to believe, as a young therapist that if you could successfully work with families of children and teens there wasn’t much you couldn’t do. Later, I thought if you could work with couples in the same room at the same time, there wasn’t much you couldn’t do. Over the decades as some of my clients suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I believed that if you could work with the folks who were stuck in obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior, you could do anything. What all of this has taught me is that everything we do is hard, but there are principles to learn that enable us and our clients to take care of our good brains.

 

Ultimately, life is about good healthy brains and mental health. Our clients have helped us learn that. Science has given us tools to regulate stress, improve our lives and the lives of our children and significant others. Technology has shown the world the brain effects of changing behavior and thinking through fMRI’s, PET scans and other methods. In addition to observing improvement in daily living through these methods, now you can see neurological effects of cognitive and behavioral change. We don’t really need to see brain effects in order to know what we are doing works, but I think it really helps to give people some evidence that what they are doing can make a difference in the structure and function of their brain because our brains have the capability of neuroplasticity.

 

The tale of neuroplasticity is also a cautionary tale. Our brains respond to whatever we pay attention to. If you want to be better at video games or arguing with your children or your spouse just keep it up. You will keep yourself tied up in knots and your brain will respond to the stress just as any other inflammatory process in the body. On the other hand, if you want to be more compassionate and kind, effective as a parent or a spouse, there are tools for emotional self-care. There are also manuals for becoming a better parent and attaining long-term marital or relationship satisfaction.

 

David Barnhart, EdD

Licensed Counselor

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor