Change is Always Possible: Utilising Neuroplasticity for Desired Change

By Tim Wildbore (Self Harm Therapist)

When you or someone you love has been struggling for a long time, change can feel impossible. Despite all efforts to seek support, take medication and try various wellness techniques, when those dark feelings remain or become worse, all hope of a brighter tomorrow can disappear. It is understandable to feel disillusioned if this has been your experience thus far. However, the good news is that change is always possible. 

Neurologically speaking (from the brain’s perspective), change is always happening. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as neuroplasticity. This means regardless of how long you have felt a certain way, or how long you’ve been doing (or not doing) something, that you are capable of changing and of crafting that better tomorrow. 

Neuroplasticity describes how repeating thoughts, feelings, and / or behaviours causes change on a neurobiological level. Consider how much your brain is processing at this very moment. Whilst you are reading this blog entry you are blinking, breathing, digesting any food / liquids you have consumed, scrolling, taking in all the information from this blog — you are doing a lot! It makes sense for the brain to find shortcuts to help manage the large amount of information and responses it needs to process and deliver. Therefore, anything that is repeated often enough can become automatic (i.e. without the need for conscious input).

Consider this analogy to help visualise this process: imagine that every day you are dropped into a forest in the exact same spot. Your sole task is to find your way home. Initially this journey would be difficult. You would have to figure out which route offers the best way. You would need to tackle any obstacles you found on your way and remember which path was most effective. Over time this journey would become easier. Following the same route would create a little dirt track in the grass, making it easier for you to follow. Any obstacles you would navigate around or remove. After regular use these dirt tracks become paved, eventually becoming roads, then dual carriageways, before finally being established as a motorway.

The motorway represents when things become automatic. This demonstrates on a neurological level how changes occur through neuroplasticity. How habitual occurrences become neural pathways in the brain, how those little dirt tracks literally become pathways in their own right in your brain through repeated exposure. This can be applied to various skills such as driving, sports, musical instruments, as well as emotional regulation and changing ways of coping and responding.

Neuroplasticity explains how we can become trapped in automatic feelings and responses. Paradoxically it also provides our way out of this trap — the same route that trapped us is also our way out. After utilising that motorway for a long time it can feel near impossible to achieve long-lasting change. Sometimes when experiencing a stressful period, we can find ourselves reverting back to old patterns of behaviour. This is because in times of distress our brains revert back to trusted coping strategies. Try not to get too disillusioned if you experience this. Practice makes perfect.

By consciously choosing to utilise a different strategy, over time this can lead to real change by literally building a new neural pathway in your brain. Just as you built your motorway (current ways of coping) you can also forge a new one through purposely altering your behaviours. If you keep utilising those new strategies then in time you can see that desired change.