Setting a New Path Through Anxiety and Depression

Image: Sad Khorsid via Pinterest

Image: Sad Khorsid via Pinterest

For many years, we believed that the human brain was unable to generate new cells once we reached adulthood, meaning that our brains were hard-wired and couldn’t change. This is now no longer the case.

Neuroplasticity is what we call the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to the things that happen in our environment and the science of neuroplasticity has now shown us that although we may be given certain genes, the events and experiences of our adult lives actually continue to change our brain.  

Our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brain, and when we learn new things we can in fact create new pathways between our neurons; the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system. That means we can actually rewire our brains to think in a different way. 

With the understanding of neuroplasticity comes scientific credibility that the power of positive thinking actually works. We now know that human beings have much more control over their brain function than has previously been appreciated.

So, the good news is that neuroplasticity can be applied to help manage depression, and perhaps even ‘cure’ anxiety. It takes time and effort but it can be done. Repeating the same, new, positive behaviours can embed new neural pathways that eventually become easier to refer to than the previous, old and destructive ones. 

Image: John Nolan via Pinterest

Image: John Nolan via Pinterest

Imagine standing in a beautiful field with six-foot high corn surrounding you. For those of us with depression there will be a very clear pathway through this corn that we have trodden down over time with repeated, negative and destructive thinking. This is not your fault but this is your current preferred neural pathway. It’s clear and easy to take this path through the corn, and even though it’s destructive, it’s preferable at the moment to battling through six-foot high corn to make a new path. 

But, if one day you decide you do want to forge out a new path, you can expect it to be tough at the outset; beating down that corn and fighting your way through, but next time the path will get clearer, and the time after that, clearer still. So now, when you’re faced with a tough situation, you have a new path to choose from as well as your old well-beaten, familiar track of depression. 

The new track is a new neural pathway of different and positive thinking. If you keep diverting your thinking down this new, positive path then, over time, this track through the corn becomes clear and easy, and so the corn starts to grow up and block the old pathway so that you just automatically take the new route. 

One way of beginning to tread down this new path through your corn is to train yourself to start looking out for tiny positives in your day. Begin looking from the moment you wake up, and look for them throughout the day. When you get in to bed at night, take time to recall at least three of these positive moments. They can be tiny; a great cup of coffee, a phone call from a friend, clean sheets on the bed. It doesn’t matter. It sounds trite, but just noticing them and recalling them begins to train your intellectual mind; the part responsible for feeling good, and helps to start beating down that new pathway through the corn. 

Artist unknown

Artist unknown

The intellectual mind is known as the ‘left prefrontal cortex’, and when we operate within this part of our brains then we normally get things right. We come up with answers based on a proper assessment of the situation, and it’s generally very positive. The intellectual mind is where we want to be spending our time. 

But there’s another area of the mind to consider when looking at depression, and that is the primitive, central and influential area of the brain called the ‘amygdala’. The amygdala is often referred to as the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ zone, and can only operate within the parameters of depression, anxiety and anger, or a combination of all three. It’s primarily concerned with our survival, and has close links to the also primitive ‘hippocampus’ which is responsible for storing behavioural patterns. Often these patterns can be completely inappropriate and unhelpful, but when you experience something in life your brain tries to make sense of it by matching it to what’s happened in the past in order to give you the correct emotional response. This is known as ‘pattern matching’. 

If we now imagine these two areas as muscles, the amygdala (including the hippocampus), in the mind of someone struggling with depression, is strong and well-toned. The left prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is weak with little strength. Training the intellectual mind and strengthening that part of our brain is key to improving depression. 

Initially, it’s good to start being aware of our negative thinking and feelings.  If you’re feeling something negative, ask yourself if that’s really how you WANT to be feeling. If the answer is ‘no’ then the chances are your primitive ‘amygdala’ brain is in control.

Other strategies you can use to exercise your intellectual mind are:

·      Meditation/mindfulness

·      Deep breathing

·      Positive affirmations

·      Positive visualisations

·      Exercise

·      A good night’s sleep

Ultimately, just understanding that depression is likely to involve your brain ‘pattern matching’ to previous experiences, and that this is being consolidated by the amygdala, can be enough to make a conscious decision to take control of your brain, to change your thinking to your new positive path through the cornfield, and to start to recover from depression for good. 

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Lucy

Lucy Baxter is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and founder of  Blue Sky Hypnotherapy

Qualifications : CPHD, SFBT (hyp), MNCP

Emma Mainoo