Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is the ability of the brain to change. It is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, an experience, or following an injury. Your neural pathways are like roads and highways in which information travels to and from your cerebral cortex, located in the brain. Neural pathways allow for storage and recall, such as how to do things or process things (such as pain). Neuroplasticity is easiest to achieve in younger years before age 25, however it can definitely be achieved when older and just takes more effort. So, I guess it is true when that say that we are more set in our ways as we get older! It is impressive that we can make changes to our brain that even shows up on brain scans, like MRI. Now, if we stop using a skill, the synapse leading to that information will no longer be a paved road, but maybe an overgrown dirt road. This is synapse pruning. This is why I can’t play my guitar as well as I did in my youth. However, if I really put my mind to it and practiced everyday, I bet I could generate a paved road again for that synapse.
Chronic pain is plasticity gone wrong. It is like PTSD. Just know, that the work is worth it, and that you can change your brain’s perception of your pain!!! Your spinal cord and brain are decoding sensory information coming from your body. Your pain is very REAL, but pain is very subjective and has a physical and mental component. Pain is a perceptual thing as much as it is a physical thing. Practice positive forward thinking by generating positive feelings. You can physically increase the areas of the brain’s structure that generate positive thoughts and feelings. This may take some work, but you can become naturally happier, more positive, and more pain free. This reminds me of scripture: “Consider it pure JOY…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” James 1:2-3. You will have negative thoughts that will try to convince you of being a failure, but you have to turn those thoughts into POSITIVE actionable thoughts. Know that failure is just a part of learning, so just view it as a learning experience.
Find ways to challenge yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Stay engaged in new activities and learn new skills. Socialize and strengthen your relationships. Yes, all of this takes effort. The key to neuroplasticity is to learn new things every day.
Exercise & Exploration, even just walking 30 minutes/day, aids in neuroplasticity. If you have asymmetry in your limbs, encourage activity of the affected side, provided that it does not cause pain. This often does not happen because we want to rest the affected limb longer than is necessary. This results in runaway plasticity. Ways to overcome this is by spending 1 to 2 hours a day on the affected limb, and to actually restrict the UNAFFECTED limb. Asymmetry needs to be corrected. With my left hip being much more troublesome than my right hip, I literally spend twice as much time with all my core exercises on the left. I intentionally pay attention to my gait, to ensure that I am not leaning towards my less affected side.
When exercising, pay attention to your surroundings, or what you are watching on the screen during exercise, as this improves brain function. Take different paths during your exercise, or watch something that you want to learn or improve on. Smell the flora and feel the breeze in your hair or on your skin; taste the water and feel it travel down your esophagus into your stomach; wave to people and take note of what they are wearing, the way they walk, and their facial expressions; check out landscaping or the way houses are designed; etc. Exploration is an attitude toward experiencing one’s environment. You need to have a childlike wonder. You may notice that you are exhausted when taking trips or submersing yourself in another culture, but that is because you are exercising your brain. This is good for you!
Also, LOVE reduces the pain threshold! For example, looking at a photo of someone/something that you love will change your pain perception. This is not just any kind of love; it is an obsession or infatuation for someone or something. I am a vocalist, and I experienced this very thing after my surgery when I was ready to go back on stage with the worship team at church. I still had a lot of pain with prolonged standing and suffered with this on a daily basis. I remember having so much FEAR about the amount of pain that I would experience by standing up there on stage for 30 minutes without the use of crutches. However, not once did I experience pain during or immediately following time of worship, and it remains true to this day. I truly believe that this is because of the relationship I have with the Holy Spirit; for His LOVE drove away the fear and pain. GOD is LOVE, and this very situation has affirmed that for me.
“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:16, 18 NIV
Remedy Grove: remedygrove.com, “Brain Anti-Aging: 9 Steps to Better Neuroplasticity.”
The Andrew Huberman Lab “Episode 9: Control pain & heal faster with your brain.”
Nicole Sachs, LCSW. Psychotherapist