The Gift of Neuroplasticity

My son learned to walk earlier this spring. Those first steps, while sweet, were incredibly wobbly. He held his little hands up in the air trying to balance himself, only making it a few steps before toppling to the ground. Each time he fell, he would get up to walk again and continued to gain balance and strength. He still falls a lot, and while sometimes there are tears, usually, he is not phased and gets back up to continue practicing. As I have watched him figure out how to walk, he has reminded me of the importance of perseverance. What would happen if he told me after one of his falls that walking was just too hard and that he was going to quit or that it is not worth the energy required to learn the new skill? A response like that would be silly, and honestly quite abnormal. For him, walking means freedom, and so he continues to get up after each fall and learn a little bit more each time. His brain is undergoing the process of learning, growing, adapting, and making new connections thanks to something called neuroplasticity.  My son’s walking still requires a fair amount of focus, whereas mine is basically automatic. I am not usually even thinking about my steps or balance because my brain has developed the skill and knows how to execute it. This is the beauty of neuroplasticity.

The brain is filled with neurons – cells that send chemical signals (neurotransmitters) across the brain to communicate. Neurotransmitters create neural pathways when skills are learned to help the brain retain information. In college, one of my professors would repeatedly say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain recognizes when specific neurons repeatedly fire at the same time and develops a pathway (or a neural connection) so that the skill becomes more automatic. This means that less thought and energy must go into execution of the skill. Similarly, when neural pathways are not being used, the brain will clean them up through pruning.

What is happening in my son’s brain during the process of learning to walk is the same thing that happens in the brain during counseling. Had God not created our minds with the ability to grow and change, the prognosis for mental health concerns, among a host of other things, would be poor, but thanks to the gift of neuroplasticity, new coping strategies can be learned that completely alter the impact of mental health. Coping skills allow for anxiety or depression to be less debilitating. While the brain might learn more quickly during childhood, there is no age cap on neuroplasticity. Brain scientists once thought that the brain quit developing after adolescence but now know that the brain continues to develop and make new connections for life. Basically, it is never too late to learn new coping strategies! The way God designed the human brain to be able to continually change, adapt, grow, and learn throughout the entire lifespan is both a gift and a key element of counseling. Quite literally, counseling aids in the process of creating new neural pathways that enhance a person’s functioning and encourage resilience.

I love to teach healthy coping strategies in my office. After teaching a new skill, I give the homework assignment to go home and practice. Sometimes, people come back to my office after a week of practicing a new skill (breathing, mindfulness, challenging thoughts, etcetera) and tell me that the coping skill just did not work for them. It felt weird or awkward and did not improve the situation or change how they felt, and usually clients are at the point of wanting to give up. Often, the expectation seems to be that the skills will come naturally and be easy to implement, and sometimes people are surprised by the work required in developing a new coping skill.  

Teaching the brain a different way to respond is a process. It requires focus, repetition, and intentional work. Just like my son’s balance is improving daily, coping skills, when practiced with intentionality improve and become more natural. He continues to get up after every fall and keep trying. I wonder what might change if we took that same mindset and applied it to developing new coping strategies.

If you find yourself wanting to learn a new coping strategy, here is what I suggest to set yourself up for success.

  1. Keep the goal in mind. If there is promise of some type of reward, a person is more likely to stick things out even when it is difficult. Your goal might be to feel better or to learn something new.
  2. Practice, practice, practice! Skills are learned through repetition. Set aside specific time to focus on the new skill. I often recommend reviewing coping strategies prior to bed.
  3. Be patient and remember to persevere. When repeated practice occurs, change will eventually occur, too. Patience is necessary when changes are not automatic, and perseverance means to be persistent even if there is difficulty or delay.

Basically, all of this is a long-winded attempt to say keep practicing those coping skills. I fully recognize that implementing a different, healthy way of coping can be awkward or uncomfortable at first, but the brain can (and will!!) make new connections with repeated practice. Just like my son started out walking with super wobbly steps and a lot of falls, a new coping skill might feel strange at first, too, but with focus and attention, new pathways will develop, and eventually, the old pathways will be cleared out. If developing the coping skills seems like a daunting task, seek out a counselor who can walk you through the process. Remember, it is never too late to learn something new, thanks to the gift of neuroplasticity.

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