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Can We Rewire Our Brains?

Making change in the face of fear.

 Giovanni Cancemi/Shutterstock
Neurons activate and communicate, reinforcing frequently used pathways.
Source: Giovanni Cancemi/Shutterstock

According to Hebb’s law, neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, the simultaneous activation of neurons strengthens the connection between them. Hebb’s law is an attempt to explain how we learn and why a complex task becomes easier over time.

Observe a toddler just learning to walk. She stumbles, falls, gets back up, and repeats the process again and again until she can walk across a room effortlessly. All the while, neurons are firing and creating circuits that control muscle contractions, coordination, and balance.

In this same way, we develop new emotional habits, thought patterns, and interpersonal skills and expand our understanding of the world. This is how we develop and strengthen positive circuits for healing, developing empathy and wisdom, and deepening our relationships with others. This is how we change our minds.

Anything we learn, any habit we build or change, and anytime we suffer loss and experience grief, our brains are firing and wiring. Emotional circuits can become so strong that when a loved one dies, it may take months to quiet the urge to call them when we think of something we want to tell them. Those circuits keep lighting up but eventually fade when they’re no longer reinforced. When we quit smoking, we have to rewire all kinds of daily connections and impulses that trigger the craving for a cigarette. Although we don’t (yet) have tools to cure certain mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, we can work to build stronger neural connections that bypass or disrupt depressive or anxious neural circuitry, which took weeks, months, or years to develop.

Taking a Step-by-Step Approach

Consciously changing deeply wired-in responses is difficult, but it generally involves a clear step-by-step process:

  1. Label the response we want to change.
  2. Identify new responses we want to build.
  3. Explore what quiets the undesirable signals and what amplifies neural signals in the desired circuits.
  4. Find the energy and focus to repeatedly fire those new circuits so that they become hard-wired in our brain.

For example, suppose I become anxious at a restaurant when a server asks whether I’m ready to order. My step-by-step process for rewiring my brain to reduce anxiety in these situations may look like this:

  1. The response I want to change is anxiety.
  2. The desired response is to review my choices and place my order calmly and confidently.
  3. I can quiet the undesirable signals by taking a deep breath and telling the server I need more time, so I don’t feel pressured by him waiting for me. Two ways I can amplify the desired signal are to review the menu and order what appeals to me.
  4. To find the energy and focus needed to manage this process effectively, I must ensure that I am getting restful sleep, eating regularly, and engaging in regular physical activity. Being hungry or tired, for example, can negatively impact my ability to consciously adjust my thinking or behavioral patterns to build new neural circuits.

Personalizing the Process

Humans come in all different “flavors” in terms of our wiring and how we respond to different input and circumstances. So, when we try to change or to learn something—or we are living through changes in our lives—we must work to honor our own patterns and not beat ourselves up if other people’s patterns don’t work for us. For many of us, beating ourselves up is a deeply wired-in circuit, but it doesn’t support change because it turns up negative emotional heat—shame and guilt in particular. Those emotional circuits can quickly hijack our brains, leaving little focus and energy to build new responses and patterns.

Those living with mental illness experience unique emotional patterns and circuits that redirect focus and drain energy for building new responses. A painful paradox, for example, is that moving one’s body helps depression, but depression profoundly inhibits movement. It can be hard for those around someone who is depressed to comprehend why they can’t just get more exercise and feel better. But the wired-in depressive circuits are draining the very energy that would allow for that to happen.

Quieting the Emotional Response

Purposefully creating new circuits starts in the front of our brain—the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision-making. Emotional responses occur in deeper, more automatic, and habitual parts of the brain. When we have a strong “back of the brain” emotional response, it sucks our mental energy, which makes the process of consciously forming new neuron firing patterns in the prefrontal cortex (the change-making part of the brain) much more difficult.

Imagine you’re in a restaurant, and the server comes to your table and asks for your order. Your anxiety kicks in at the back of your brain, and this strong emotional response inhibits your ability to think clearly. You may rush your order, even though you told yourself before entering the restaurant that if this situation arose, you would tell the server you need a few more minutes.

Fear is a powerful emotion that hijacks brains and interferes with building new wiring. When our brain perceives a threat, it redirects resources into survival tactics, putting the front of the brain into "low power mode." This is why, for example, yelling at kids (or anyone for that matter) isn’t conducive to helping them change their behaviors in the long term. It may stop the child in their tracks, but it doesn’t engage the prefrontal cortex in a way that builds new neural circuitry for the desired behavior.

Dealing With Hurtful Fear Versus Helpful Fear

Fear isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Some fear response is appropriate when we are faced with threats to our lives and livelihoods. But if fear hijacks our thinking, it can drain our mental energy to fire up new responses, making it harder to change our behavior. Alternatively, if fear energizes us but doesn't take over, it can support new learning and responses, and this can be an equation for positive change.

COVID-19 is an extraordinary source of fear right now, compounded by waves of information and sometimes disinformation that we are receiving. Our brains have had to rely on previously built circuits based on more familiar situations while creating new circuits or new branches of existing circuits to accommodate this unfamiliar situation. Fortunately, there are well-established strategies that help us reign in fear that takes over while leaving room to respond in helpful ways to genuine threat and danger. Some of the important ones are:

  • Maintain loving, nurturing connections, which serve as antidotes for over-charged fear. Supportive, reciprocal relationships keep our brains healthy and signal to our fearful brain that we have a backup.
  • Access and communicate accurate information regarding the causes of our fear. Sorting out "fact" from "feeling" is one of the first steps in challenging fear that is disrupting your ability to think and problem solve.
  • Maintain adequate fuel for brain and body function. Getting enough sleep and eating regularly are important to maintaining the mental and physical energy to respond effectively to the unknown.
  • Have compassion for yourself. Acknowledge how hard things are and that everyone struggles. All of these strategies are hard for some, and many are hard for most. It's OK not to be OK.
  • Ask for help. Friends and family want to know if you are struggling. Find professional help through therapy or talk to your doctor. Call a hotline. You don't have to do this alone.

Rewiring the Brain to Battle the Stigma of Mental Illness

Fear of the unknown is one of the roots of stigma around mental illness. Changing people’s minds about mental illness has been and continues to be a heavy lift. Trying to spark different responses in individuals and in communities challenges us to navigate through the automatic fear circuits that have been firing and wiring for generations.

One way to reduce fear responses to something unknown is to make it known. This may be why celebrities speaking openly about their own struggles with mental illness seems to be reducing mental health stigma. This is also why speaking up in our own circles of humans can reduce stigma. It’s often surprising to find how many people share their own mental illness experiences (or those of family and friends) once one person is brave enough to speak of their own.

Education is another means for rewiring brains to improve understanding of mental illness and acceptance of those who have these illnesses. Programs such as NAMI’s In Our Own Voice help to expose communities to individuals who are living with mental illness to make them more aware of the challenges these individuals face and the valuable contributions they continue to make in spite of and often as a result of their unique experiences and insights.

Individually and together, we can build our understanding of how brains and minds fire and wire in people and communities. These concepts ground me professionally and in my lived experience. I look forward to using this space to explore stories of change—growth, healing, and recovery—rooted in both science and humanity, and always starting with compassion for ourselves and others.

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