If mindfulness was last year’s most popular phrase in psychology and self-help, this year’s word is bound to be neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that the brain and nervous system can change. Of course psychotherapists have always believed this, else what have we been doing all these years. Meditation teachers have known this, as have experienced members of AA. Nevertheless, it is comforting and affirming to read the new science based on brain mapping that illustrates how this or that area in the brain lights up or dims on a computer screen based on relatively modest but steady individual activities — meditation, gratitude notebooks, exercise, yoga, the affirming and accepting human relationship. Steady being the operative word here.
But changing the nervous system is rarely easy. It demands hope, motivation and patience and, quite often, these must be replenished by outside supports – a therapist, a partner, a mentor or a friend. AA has always known this. That’s one of the reasons meetings for people in recovery are held every day of the week, because changing an ingrained nervous system habit is possible but difficult. Plasticity, after all, snaps both ways. While the nervous system is pliable, it also yearns to snap back to its old familiar pathway. It can take a village to keep a new pathway open, especially in the early stages of change.
Margaret Wehrenberg, an authority on The Anxious Brain once worked with a very anxious but determined client who told her: “I thought you were kidding when you told me I would have to thought-stop every time the cancer thought occurred, even if it were a thousand times a day. If you hadn’t warned me, I would have given up in despair after about 100 times the first day, thinking this method would never work for me. But you said 1,000 times a day so I figured I had better keep at it.”
Neuroplasticity can be a simple fix but it is not simply accomplished.