This month we are diving into the heavy and murky waters of trauma and abuse. With the recent spotlight on sexual abuse, domestic violence, and traumatic experiences overall, we are beginning to understand the lasting impact these can have on our mental and physical wellbeing, and the growing need for getting into the details of this topic. Our environment and our experiences have the potential to shape the way we think, feel, behave and treat others. This makes trauma and abuse a topic that should not be taken lightly or ignored because it is too complex to delve into or because it paints an ugly story.
From a scientific perspective, our brain is a dynamic, well-connected power grid, with billions of roads and pathways lighting up every time we think, feel, experience or do something. Some of these roads are well-travelled. These are our established ways of thinking, feeling and doing; in other words, our habits. Every time we think in a certain way, practice a particular task, or feel a specific emotion, we strengthen this road, and it becomes easier for our brain to travel this pathway.
This means that being on the giving or receiving end of a traumatic or abusive experience can have strong effects on our body, as well as more permanent outcomes in our brain. These experiences can affect the cellular structures and wiring in our brain, and alter them for a long period of time. This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.
Neuroplasticity is a blanket term used to describe the brain’s ability to change, remodel and reorganize, like plastic, throughout life for the purpose of adapting to new situations. This is quite a recent concept that gained scientific prominence in the latter half of the 20th century because it contradicted the previous belief that the brain develops in early childhood and then remains unchanged for the rest of life. Studies have shown that numerous traumatic experiences can cause neuroplastic changes in one’s brain, which can result in altered brain structure, function or both. These factors include, but are not limited to:
- Brain injury, such as concussions, stroke or cerebral haemorrhage
- Psychological, sexual and physical abuse/violence
- Chronic stress and anxiety
- Clinical depression and related mental disorders
These factors can lead to long-term transformations in our brain’s neurodevelopment. You may wonder why this has to happen. Think of it like this:
When we physically put our hands on a hot object, like a hot dish of food, a signal is sent to the brain through our nervous system to ask it what to do, and our brain comes back with the response in mere seconds that we need to move our hand away – the most obvious response. Now, for whatever reason, if we repeatedly place our hands on the hot object or cannot escape the heat, the brain needs to figure out an alternative strategy to carry out the task or deal with the sensation of pain. This could result in the introduction of new inputs into our brain area responsible for pain, or a physical rearrangement of the structure or function in this part of the brain. This would then translate into us behaving differently – we may actively shy away from coming near a hot object again, apply some balm or medication to heal our injury, and equip ourselves with the tools needed to not touch the hot object with our bare hands again. With time, this becomes a response that is second-nature to us as our brain lays down a new neural pathway to carry this task out.
Similarly, when a person experiences trauma or abuse, the brain is left shocked from the event and tries to cope in different ways depending on the situation. For example, it can shut-down from the shock and overwhelming experiences, resulting in the person losing consciousness and maybe even dropping into a coma. There can also be loss of function in the damaged part of the brain, which can cause changes in movement, speech/hearing/sight, behaviour, memory and emotional regulation. In some cases, with time and therapy, the brain would be able to recruit other areas, alter their structure and fulfil these functions – but this is largely dependent on the individual’s circumstance.
Therefore, our brain is constantly adapting and rewiring itself. Our thoughts, behaviours and experiences influence this process and if certain thoughts, behaviours and experiences are repeated often enough then a strong connection, also known as a neural pathway, is created. In this way, the concept of neuroplasticity can be scary, because our beliefs have formed corresponding neural pathways early in our life, which have been reinforced and strengthened, with time, over and over again. In other words, our brain activity has carved out a deep and well-travelled road. If that road remains and no new roads are built and then strengthened, it becomes very difficult to change our habits and ways.
Neuroplasticity also means that, with practice and dedication, we have the ability of creating and strengthening new, positive neural pathways – a process that is essential to achieving lasting change. This gives us a new hope: that even though we experience hardship and trauma, or have habits that are not positive, with repeated and motivated attention, we can achieve our desired change. We have the capability of effectively rewiring our brain to adapt, heal and eventually lead a better life.
This month we also want to start an active discussion by asking you, our readers, to share in the comments section:
- Your views, opinions and experiences on this topic
- Do you think this topic should be discussed? Why?
- What other reasons can there be for finding it difficult to change our habits?
- How can we become more conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours?