What does neuroplasticity mean? Neuroplasticity is the ability of our nervous system to grow and to change as a result of our environment influences and our life experiences. Thanks to neuroplasticity we can learn new things and we can modify our habits, thoughts, actions and behaviours, even permanently.
To better understand what neuroplasticity is, let’s see our brain and, more generally our whole nervous system, works. If we imagine our nervous system as a complex electric plant, then neurons, the cells that allow the passage of information throughout our nervous system, through may well be compared to wires that allow electricity to flow inside the electric plant in order to reach bulbs, computers, dishwashers, etc.
However, contrary to the electric plant that doesn’t change in time, neuronal connections can be modified as a result from given stimulus. Our nervous system is therefore as an intricate electric plant that can change in time to ensure our survival (or even just to secure us a fulfilling life).
Thanks to neuroplasticity, we now know that we may change our brain to our benefit in a conscious way. Thus, we can learn skills and abilities that we thought being innate, exactly like resilience or self-compassion.
However, we have to keep in mind that, in order to modify brain structures, we need to create new neuronal connections.
These connections may take place under the following conditions:
- New stimuli are supplied to our brains (a new situation, a training course, a new reading, someone who brings in a new fascinating idea to us). These stimuli push us to think and act in a different way than before.
- These stimuli are repeated. Neuroplasticity works like our muscles when working out as a single workout will not lead to any changes in our body, a single stimuli will likewise make no difference in our brain nor in our nervous system (as long as it is not a particularly emotionally intense stimulus).
- These stimuli should be emotionally intense (enough to create change). This is a very important condition. If indeed a stimulus is emotionally very strong, even a single experience could cause a change in our brain structures (for instance a trauma that suddenly changes our behaviour or an extremely enjoyable situation that completely changes our view on a certain topic).
Thanks to neuroscientific studies and research, especially Davidson’s and others (2012) we now know that the individuals with high resilience are the ones that have a major orbitofrontal cortex response (frontal lobe of our brain) and that in these individuals there is a major increased activity among their brain area and the amygdala, which regulates emotions.
These findings allow us to identify how to exercise our brain so it will handle stress in a more effective way and will become more resilient.
As a matter of fact the amygdala, which regulates emotions (including fear) and has a primary role over stress, may be controlled by activating our orbitofrontal cortex, which main activities are to organize thoughts and actions towards our goals, and, as a result, to keep under control our social behaviour.
In order to help us reduce the amygdala activity we might think to start an activity that promotes peacefulness like meditation, mindfulness, autogenic training and yoga. In fact, these activities increase the orbitofrontal cortex thickness reducing our reactivity to situations that we perceive as uncomfortable or dangerous. Consequently, these activities help us to manage the stress caused by these situations.
Below you’ll find other activities that may help our capacity to manage stress as they promote the orbitofrontal cortex (giving us the opportunity to control the amygdala):
- Create positive and meaningful emotional bonds
- Volunteer for a charity that is relevant to us
- Get enough sleep and create a nice routine that may lead to a good night sleep
- Grow a fun game attitude: any game may increase the orbitofrontal cortex, especially if done together with someone you like
- Learn how to cook new dishes that stimulate fantasy and creativity
- Learn a new language
- Engage in physical activities that you enjoy
- Create moments of intimacy and listening with close friends or relatives.
Clearly, psychotherapy, coaching and personal growing activities may help to change or modify thoughts and actions. These activities allow us to create new stable neuronal connections and to modify some of brain structures related to stress management.
Neuroplasticity reminds us that whatever we desire is nearer than we think. It leads us to consider that when we cannot be in control of what happens to us, we may still learn to control our thoughts, our behaviours and the way we react to challenges that lie before us.
Thanks to neuroplasticity we now know that it is possible to identify and find tools that may help us to become more resilient and navigate with courage, dignity and resilience the sea of life with its unavoidable storms.
If you’d like to learn how to better manage stress, please subscribe to the stress management program “LiFT – Life Flow Training for Stress Management” that will start on March 10, 2022.
“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain”
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
Author: Paolo Assandri is a Counselling Psychologist (HCPC and British Psychological Association registered), a Psychotherapist (UKCP) and Psychologist-psychotherapist (Ordine degli Psicologi del Piemonte). He is based in London where he lives and works.
No responsibility disclaimer: The information provided in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional health or medical/psychological advice or treatment. The article is for general informational purposes only to improve wellbeing. Consult with a licensed health care practitioner (doctor, psychologist or psychotherapist) in case of need. Authors, producers and consultants linked to this article are not responsible for choices nor actions of readers following the read of this article.