- Healing the mind is always possible because of neuroplasticity.
- Processing emotions through the body leads to transformation and healing.
- Emotionally connected relationships can foster healing.
Some people come to therapy feeling totally hopeless. I understand their hopelessness. They have been suffering for years, sometimes decades. They have tried many therapies. They have tried multiple medications that either didn't work or had intolerable side effects. However, no matter how hopeless someone feels, I always hold hope for healing for the following three reasons, all grounded in science.
1. The brain can change throughout our lives.
Research shows that the brain rewires at any age. Norman Doidge, M.D., author of The Brain that Changes Itself, says, “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” Doidge continues, “After the initial critical learning period of youth is over, the areas of the brain that need to be 'turned on' to allow enhanced, long-lasting learning can only be activated when something important, surprising, or novel occurs, or if we make the effort to pay close attention.”
We can prime the brain for change in various ways. For example, EMDR trauma psychotherapy uses tapping or other types of stimulation alternating on the left and right sides of the body. We can also stimulate brain change by focusing attention on the physical sensations associated with our emotions. This connects directly to the second and third reasons I always hold hope for healing.
2. The transformational power of core emotions.
Traumatic events can lead to unprocessed (buried) emotions that live in the body and adversely affect the mind, causing symptoms like depression. Thankfully, buried emotions can safely be released. But it helps to have the knowledge, skills, and techniques for how to understand and work with emotions. When we find a safe space that permits us to name and fully experience the core emotions that underlie our depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of trauma and ACEs (adverse childhood events), we come out the other side transformed by the experience. Processing emotions through the body, where emotions live, is a profoundly healing experience.
But experiencing core emotions is no easy task, especially if we have had many traumas that we coped with alone. Emotions are powerful and frightening at times, and without any education to make them more manageable, most of us avoid our emotions with protective defenses. (The Change Triangle explains more about how emotions work in the mind and body.) I’d encourage you to learn everything you can about emotions to help you gain the courage to name, validate, and process them.
Having the courage to process emotions brings me to the third reason that I always hold hope for healing the mind and body.
3. Certain kinds of relationships are healing.
Infant-mother research, attachment research, and interpersonal neurobiology show how sensitive, in tune, and connected humans are to one another. We’re wired for connection. Both connection and disconnection change us for better and worse, respectively.
Diana Fosha, Ph.D., the developer of accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), defines trauma as experiencing overwhelming emotions in the face of utter aloneness. When we find people who can “undo our aloneness,” we have found a source of healing.
When deep emotional processing is witnessed by a caring other, be they a therapist, counselor, friend, or family member, and the experience is positive, we are forever transformed by that experience.
Connection keeps us calm and safe as we process traumas and experiment with new and more adaptive ways of relating. Attachment-oriented therapists are trained to create a safe environment for emotion processing. And by sharing and processing with loved ones who have also worked to build their capacity for connection, we continue to heal and grow our well-being.
Creating a healing journey
You can work to create your own individual healing journey on any scale by helping your brain change for the better, by learning about and working with your emotions, and by seeking out nourishing human interactions and growth-promoting relationships.
Below are some regimens and activities that actively foster healing:
- Start with the basics: eat healthy foods, move your body, work on good sleeping habits.
- Study and work the Change Triangle—it’s a mindfulness practice to understand and work with emotions in the body. Practice naming your emotions by dropping into the body to listen to them.
- Start a mindfulness, meditation, or yoga practice to create positive neuroplasticity.
- Learn to breathe when you feel emotions instead of avoiding them, which exacerbates symptoms.
- Summon up huge courage, and start asking for therapeutic hugs from friends and family when you feel depressed.
- Work with an AEDP or other type of attachment-oriented, trauma-informed, emotion-centered psychotherapist.
- Doing something new creates brain changes. Learn a new language, play a new instrument, or read a new book. My recommendations are The Upward Spiral, The Gifts of Imperfection, and It's Not Always Depression.
- Do some challenging self-reflection: Get to know your defenses, the superpowers we all use to hide our emotions from even ourselves.
- Build your own plan for healing. Even a little change for the better can make a big difference in your life. What first step can you take?
Healing is a life-long process that takes time and effort. But healing is possible because of neuroplasticity, our ability to work with emotions, and the existence of loving humans who want to connect and be with us on our healing journeys. Never lose hope.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
- To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Fosha, D., Siegel, D., Solomon, M. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: W.W. Norton
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking