Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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This is a draft of Chapter Seven – “The Awesome Power of Proactive Neuroplasticity” in ReChanneling’s upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. I present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions that I will gratefully consider and evaluate as I work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to a degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
The Awesome Power of Proactive Neuroplasticity
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path.”
– Siddhartha Gautama
Until we immerse ourselves in recovery, social anxiety disorder governs our emotional well-being and quality of life. We are subject to an irrational, and manipulative entity. Our thoughts are distorted and our behavior destructive due to our SAD-induced fears and anxieties. We feel helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. Until we dissociate ourselves from our symptoms and embrace our value and significance, we will continue to subordinate ourselves to an unscrupulous dysfunction that thrives on our misery and self-destructive behaviors.
Our phobias are not real, however; they are abstractions. They have no power on their own and cannot exist without us. They are figments of a SAD imagination run rampant. Once we learn to rationally examine and respond to them, they cease to be real. I will not minimize their impact, but our response to adversity is of our own making. SAD is the enemy, and it is well-weaponized. Proactive neuroplasticity is our weapons research facility, and we are in charge of development. The objective is to build an arsenal capable of countering that of the enemy and we can’t adequately do that until we know what we are defending against.
Recovery and empowerment work in concert. Recovery is regaining possession and control of what has been stolen or lost. Social anxiety disorder steals our autonomy, our hopes, and our self-esteem. Empowerment is reasserting our inherent capacity to control our emotional response to stressful situations. Recovery and empowerment complement each other through simultaneous, mutual interaction.
Our weapons research facility is operational; it is our neural network. Neuroplasticity is the scientific evidence of our brain’s constant adaptation to information. It is what makes learning and registering new experiences possible. Scientists refer to the process as structural remodeling of the brain.
All information notifies our neural network to realign, generating a correlated change in behavior and perspective. What is significant is our ability to accelerate and consolidate the process by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. The deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information (DRNI) develops new mindsets, skills, and abilities, replacing decades of negative self-beliefs. It empowers us to empower ourselves.
Human neuroplasticity comes in three forms. Reactive neuroplasticity is our brain’s natural adaption to information – thought, behavior, experience, sensation – anything and everything that impacts our neural network. Active neuroplasticity happens through cognitive pursuits like engaging in social interaction, teaching, aerobics, writing, and art.
Proactive neuroplasticity is the most effective means of learning the tools and techniques of recovery while unlearning the irrational thoughts and behaviors that annihilate our quality of life. By acting proactively, we compel change rather than responding to it after it has happened.
Neurons are the core components of our brain and central nervous system. They convey information through electrical activity. Information sparks a receptor neuron, sending electrical energy to a sensory neuron, stimulating postsynaptic neurons that forward it to millions of participating neurons, causing a cellular chain reaction in multiple interconnected areas of our brain.
Our brain’s natural plasticity was identified in the 1960s, stemming from research into brain functioning after a massive stroke. Before that, researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth.
Today, science recognizes that our neural pathways are dynamic and malleable. Our human brain continually reorganizes to information.
When behaviorist, B. F. Skinner claimed that the neural input of information was more important than the amount, he was half right. That was before we realized how our brain reacts to information – how repeated input results in repeated firing. Neurons don’t act by themselves but through circuits that strengthen or weaken their connections based on electrical activity. Like muscles, the more repetitions, the more robust the energy of the information
The deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information activates long-term potentiation, which increases the strength of the nerve impulses along the connecting pathways, generating more energy. The process creates higher levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) –proteins associated with improved cognitive functioning, mental health, and memory.
The neural chain reaction generated by repetition reciprocates, in abundance, the energy of the information. Millions of neurons amplify the electrical activity on a massive scale. Positive information in, positive energy reciprocated in abundance. Conversely, negative information in, negative energy reciprocated in abundance. This affirms the value of positive reinforcement
When the activity of the axon pathways is heightened, the neurotransmission of chemical hormones accelerates, feeding us GABA for relaxation, dopamine for pleasure and motivation, endorphins to boost our self-esteem, and serotonin for a sense of well-being. Acetylcholine supports neuroplasticity, glutamate enhances our memory, and noradrenalin improves concentration.
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Cortisol and Adrenaline
Those are the highlights. Scientists have identified over fifty chemical hormones in the human body. They are the messengers that control our physiological functions – our metabolism, homeostasis, and reproduction. Their distribution is precise. Even slight changes in levels can cause significant disruption to our health as in the cases of cortisol and adrenaline.
Among other things, cortisol helps to regulate our blood pressure and circadian rhythm. Adrenaline can relieve pain and boosts our body’s immune system. When transmitted into the bloodstream our body experiences a heightened state of physical and mental alertness. Normal amounts of the two hormones are necessary to our basic survival, and in most cases, beneficial to our overall health and well-being.
Cortisol and adrenaline are called fear and anxiety-provoking hormones. Both are designed to trigger the fight-or-flight response – our instinctive response to stress. Produced by our brain’s amygdala, cortisol increases our heart rate and blood pressure, altering our immune system, and suppressing our digestion.
Adrenaline, transmitted by our adrenal glands, causes our air passages to dilate, redirecting more oxygen to our muscles. Blood vessels contract and send blood to the heart, lungs, and other major muscle groups. These activities all contribute to the high stress that impacts our fears and anxieties.
Chronic stress induced by our SAD symptomatology causes a higher and constant influx of cortisol and adrenaline into our system. Not only does this increase the risk of health problems like heart disease and stroke, but it contributes significantly to our anxiety and depression, causing problems with memory, cognition, and sleep patterns.
Managing stress and learning how to reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline through coping mechanisms and skills is essential to our emotional well-being. We will explore these elements of recovery in Chapters 11 and 13.
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Each input of positive information factors in the release of these hormones. Here’s the challenge, however. Our brain doesn’t think; it provides the means for us to think. It does not distinguish healthy from toxic information. Our neurons transmit these wonderful hormones in response to negative as well as positive information. That’s one of the reasons breaking a habit, keeping to a resolution, or recovering from emotional dysfunction is challenging.
We are physiologically averse to change, making it difficult to remove ourselves from hostile environments and break habits that interfere with optimum functioning. We are hard-wired to resist anything that jeopardizes our status quo. Our brain’s inertia senses and repels change, and our basal ganglia resist any modification to behavior patterns.
So, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of positive reinforcement. Certain recovery coping skills like rational response, projected positive outcomes, and positive personal affirmations are guided by the electrical energy of our information. Positive information is crucial to our neural restructuring, and to moderate our fears and anxieties. I realize we’re getting ahead of ourselves with unfamiliar terms. Rest assured, we will delve deeply into them as we proceed. What’s important here is our mindfulness –recognition and acceptance of the power and effectiveness of positive information.
We are at war with our social anxiety disorder. Proactive neuroplasticity is our weapons research facility, responsible for developing a strategic advantage over our enemy. While the realignment of our neural network is the framework for recovery and empowerment, a coalescence of science and east-west psychologies is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience. Science gives us proactive neuroplasticity; cognitive-behavioral modification and positive psychology’s optimal functioning are western-oriented, and eastern practices provide the therapeutic benefits of Abhidharma psychology and the overarching truths of ethical behavior. Also crucial to recovery are approaches that focus on the recovery and rejuvenation of our self-esteem
A one-size-fits-all solution cannot comprehensively address our complexity. We are better served by integrating multiple traditional and non-traditional approaches, developed through client trust, cultural assimilation, and therapeutic innovation. Our environment, heritage, background, and associations reflect our wants, choices, and aspirations. If they are not given consideration, then we are not valued. Recovery builds upon our strengths, virtues, and accomplishments. We do not triumph in battle through incompetence and weakness but with skill and careful planning.
Recovery and empowerment require incentive and perseverance to endure the potential ennui of repetitive neural input. Once we start down the path, however, our capacity for change grows exponentially as we restore our confidence and self-appreciation. This book provides the tools and techniques for recovery. The onus is on you whether you choose to use them. Should you not, take responsibility for your inaction. Don’t blame the chef if you refuse to taste the food. Meaning, don’t dispute the methods of recovery if you decide not to avail yourself of them. Your resistance is formidable; that’s how SAD sustains itself. I only ask, for your sake, that you consider the possibility. Do not allow yourself to suffer the fate of Whitter spinster, Maud Miller. “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.”
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Comments. Suggestions. Constructive Criticism