Healing the Brain, Heart & Psyche
Recently, back-to-back bouts with two distinct flu viruses have managed to take hold of my habitual energy and squash it into a tiny, nearly non-existent ball of fluff. And as I was prostrated, I thought about how the body heals itself. And that, of course, led me to a favorite topic: the brain and its role in healing the heart and the emotions.
Rachel* came to see me the first time about ten years ago when she was in her mid-thirties. Her self-esteem was low. She was depressed, sad, and over-weight from stuffing herself with sugary products in a blind attempt to comfort eat her way to feeling better about herself. Recently out of a failed marriage that had eked away at her already low self-regard, she believed she was worthless and useless, despite rather amazing artistic abilities that I came to know more closely over time. She cried a lot during those early sessions.
Albert* came some years after Rachel, and was also plagued by deep feelings of lacking in self-esteem. He was just short of 50 and suffered from numerous physical ailments. He was also overweight and his own marriage was on the verge of divorce. He was co-dependent and highly needy towards his partner Brenda.
Both Rachel and Albert had poor boundaries, which is generally consistent with a lack of self-love, and the neediness that both had expressed towards their respective partners during the marriages had been reciprocated by an enabling behavior on their partners’ part that meant that neither Rachel nor Albert had been given the opportunity to become more autonomous. Lest you believe I’m blaming their partners for their neediness, that is absolutely not the case, but the neediness and the enabling behaviour were part of a dance in which they all had a role to play and of course, they all had issues to resolve.
The brain – as you will have read if you have been following my newsletters over these last 12 years – is plastic. It’s malleable. It can change. New neural pathways can emerge, while others can fade. Healthy regions of the brain can learn to take over for broken – or even non-existent - links. How that happens all depends on what you do with your brain. That is what is meant with the term neuroplasticity. Amazing stories of healing involving this plasticity of the brain are told by scientists, neuro-psychiatrists, cognitive psychologists, and learning developmental specialists, as well as vision therapists and neuro-developmental optometrists.
The brain is also plastic with regards to how we deal with (or not) our hidden emotions, unhealthy boundaries, neediness, with how we react to everything that goes on in our world, and whether we love ourselves (or not), and so forth. Whether we look at the glass as half full or half empty is also a question of what we do with the brain, and it all is connected in very important ways to how aware we are of ourselves at all times, and how conscious we are of what is going on inside of us with regards to what is going on outside of us.
So healing in the areas just mentioned in the last paragraph is something that can be learned, depending on how plastic our brains become, based on what we do with our brains. Involved in this is, as stated, self-awareness. Also involved is the self-dialogue associated with the thing we are interested in healing. Being addicted to biting your nails, for example, would require becoming aware of the thoughts or emotions you have just prior to biting. Once you are aware of those, the next step is to change, as said, the self-dialogue associated with what happens next. In other words, the self-dialogue might become: "I know I have this problem (nail biting) and at this time I don’t yet know how to solve it … but … just for now, just for today, instead of biting my nails, I’m going to consciously focus on something different."
I might focus on beauty in nature (look out the window), and this will bring mindfulness into your brain’s neural pathways (also see below: Mindfulness: Change Your Life With This 15-Minute Daily Exercise), because I want to show myself that I care enough about myself in order to remove this habit from my life.
Then, if ten minutes later you want to bite your nails again, repeat the above process. Each time you do this, the neural pathways associated with nail biting will diminish slightly, and the ones associated with not biting, will begin to grow.
As you can imagine, similar ways of dealing with poor boundaries, lack of self-esteem, etc., as seen in the cases of Rachel and Albert above, can be applied, although admittedly, the process is somewhat more involved. But the essential foundation on which the healing changes in the brain are based is the same: becoming aware of the thing that you wish to change, creating new – and conscious - self-dialogue, and thus neuroplasticity begins to work its magic and literally change your neural real estate; it changes your habits, your accustomed way of dealing with life. In other words, your new ways of dealing with the situation in question eventually become the norm. This is the promise of mindfulness and neuroplasticity.
*All names have been changed & specific personal circumstances altered to protect the identities of the individuals involved.
Arrowsmith-Young, Barbara. The Woman Who Changed Her Brain
Barry, Susan. Fixing My Gaze
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself
Doidge, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing
Elliot, Clark. The Ghost in My Brain
Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Mindfulness: Change Your Life With This 15-Minute Daily Exercise
Most people lead stressful lives and find it hard to take time off to relax. Not good. You see it in the lines on their faces, in the way their voices sound strained, and in the way they find it hard to focus on your face because in their mind they are probably already wandering off to the next subject or meeting. They may not sleep well, they may have blood pressure issues, weight issues, less than prime cholesterol readings, as well as a low threshold for irritation. Typically their thoughts run amok. All day. This is all understandable, yet needs to be dealt with in order to improve the quality of your life.
Consider taking a brief, 15-minute walk every day, a relaxing walk, not one in which you walk so fast that you can't catch your breath. The main focus in this walk is to become aware of your present surroundings by using the beauty of what there is. Simply focus on the first beautiful thing you see or hear - perhaps an oak tree that has just begun to show its first green buds in the spring, or the song of robins; perhaps you perceive the perfume of a jasmine in flower. As you look at, smell, or listen to whatever it is you have chosen, feel grateful for that presence in your life just now, and notice a light sensation of relaxation or peace in your solar plexus.
Now notice the next thing. Perhaps you now see a crocus bursting through the ground or you hear the sound of wind through the trees. Again, notice the beauty, feel the gratitude, and notice the sensation of peace. Now perhaps you see a kitten trying to catch a fly, or you hear the sound of wind through palm fronds. Remember to notice the beauty, feel the gratitude, and then notice the sensation of peace. And this time perhaps you see a trail of busy worker ants carrying tiny bits of a crumb into their hill, or you hear the sound of cicadas. As before, notice the beauty, feel the gratitude, and notice the sensation of peace. Simply continue to do this for 15 minutes until you come to the end of your walk.
Here is what typically happens. You will feel great during those first few moments of awareness as you take in beauty and notice peace. Then, before you realize it, you will very quickly forget the purpose of your walk and will go into a relatively unaware world of thoughts and hence back to stress. And only when your fifteen minutes are up, will you remember what you were supposed to be doing ...
Don't worry. If you do this every day for about three weeks, your neural pathways will begin to change such that you will get closer and closer to managing the 15 minutes of noticing beauty and feeling appreciation and gratitude, and hence feeling more relaxed and at peace.
What literally happens while you are focusing on beauty and gratitude as you practice this deceptively simple exercise, is that you train yourself to remain present and aware. In doing this, your neural pathways begin to take on new shapes. There is an enormous amount of neuroscientific research that supports this, and that has proven that by so doing, you bring yourself to greater and greater states of inner peace - inner peace that you are able to summon at will after practicing for some time, no matter what your outer circumstances. This will impact all areas of your life. So simple. All you have to do is do it.