You Are Not Stuck: Neuroplasticity and the Ability to Change

When we’re struggling with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and depersonalization, we can often begin to feel frustrated at our lack of progress. We might even begin to think that maybe it will always be this way. Even when we see others overcoming and flourishing, we might wonder whether we’re just stuck like this- that maybe our brains are just wired differently and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Especially when there’s an obvious biological and genetic component to our issues, we might think, “well it runs in my family and my biology is different so I’m just screwed.”

I’ll admit to having felt this way plenty of times. Anxiety runs in my family. My mother dealt with panic disorder and agoraphobia (though it wasn’t talked about back then and she had no name for what she was experiencing and had to suffer in silence), as well as my grandmother. So sometimes I think, “thanks for the faulty brain chemistry, guys!”

One thing I’ve struggled with is intrusive thoughts, which are unwanted thoughts that come whooshing in (often of a violent, sexual, or other horrible nature) and subsequently cause you great fear and distress. Intrusive thoughts can often be a part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and as I’ve learned in the past with my degree in psychology, OCD patients show different firing in the brain on scans, demonstrating that an anxious brain is notably different than a nonanxious brain.

So, great. Our anxious brains are messed up forever, right?

Not so fast. Scientists used to steadfastly believe that the adult brain was fixed, but over the past few decades, research has shown more and more that the brain is actually more “plastic” than we believed, and can be altered. This can be referred to as neuroplasticity.

In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, Sharon Begley describes one study on OCD patients where they underwent mindfulness-based therapy. PET scans were taken before and after treatment. They found that the “scans after treatment showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically compared to what it had been before mindfulness-based therapy.” In other words, the study showed our own power to “systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit.”

Similar findings have also been demonstrated in depression. Also, when I was writing my book on overcoming depersonalization, I came across a study that found no evidence that the brain is permanently altered in cases of dissociation.

For me, just knowing that it is possible to change helps me to take back the power into my own hands, instead of feeling victim to my thoughts and sensations. There’s no need to feel hopeless. There’s no need to feel as if we’ll NEVER change and never get better.

No matter how long we’ve felt a certain way, we can choose in this moment to change. We can change the way we relate to our anxiety. We can change how we respond to our thoughts. We can seek out helpful tools like therapy, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and more.

Remind yourself that it is possible for you to feel better. It is possible for you to grow and learn. You won’t always be this way and how wonderful that is. Adopting a growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset) can help us move beyond fear and hopeless and into growth and learning.

If you’re interested in reading more, the researcher behind the OCD/neuroplasticity study, Jeffrey Schwartz, has a book called Brain Lock, Twentieth Anniversary Edition: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior that talks more in depth about treatment.

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