To understand the treatments for complex post-traumatic stress disorder, it is helpful to understand the interaction between neuroplasticity and mindfulness.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Until the 1960s, mental health professionals and researchers believed that once we reach adulthood, our brains do not change. It was thought that after early adulthood what we had at that time regarding brain structure and size was permanent.
A book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science written by Norman Doidge, there is a possible explanation for these erroneous beliefs.
Norman Doidge wrote about the ancient belief that the brain could not grow and change and how these beliefs came from observations that people with brain damage often couldn’t recover. Physicians were unable to see the activities that occur microscopically in the brain, and this limitation kept researchers focusing on early childhood changes and not on what happens in adulthood.
However, modern research shows that the brain is not static after early adulthood, but a vibrant and changing organ which changes as we encounter new experiences.
Neuroplasticity is the term researchers gave to the way brain cells (neurons) grow and change because they are malleable (plastic).
Neurons change regularly and are shaped by our experiences. This helps adults learn, adapt, and remember. Every time we experience something new, a new neural pathway forms, and if repeated, reinforces and strengthens the connections between brain cells.
So, neuroplasticity happens throughout our lives based on our experiences which either strengthen or weaken our neural connections. What we don’t use will be pruned away. However, there is a way neuroplasticity can be harnessed to successfully mitigate the effects of adverse childhood experiences on our adult lives.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness does not have one definitive definition. However, the best answer is that mindfulness aids us in paying attention in a non-judgmental fashion to all our thoughts and actions, without focusing unnecessarily on faults and flaws.
Mindfulness is also a technique anyone can learn and involves making a special effort to notice what is happening around you in the now.
This skill can help us to:
- Become more self-aware
- Feel calmer and less stressed
- Feel able to make choices in responding to our thoughts and feelings
- Cope with intrusive thoughts
Another term for mindfulness, first coined by Daniel J. Siegel and the MARC at UCLA, is mindful awareness. By using intentional, directed focus, and paying close attention to the “now” one becomes aware of intrusive thoughts allowing for changes to thought patterns.
By paying more attention to the present moment, we can lower the stress hormones which are responsible for the hyperarousal which accompanies CPTSD. When these chemicals in our bodies decrease, we become less anxious, and we can better incorporate innovative ideas and new ways of thinking about ourselves.
Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is our greatest ally when it comes to healing from complex trauma.
A training post made in the Journal of Trauma Nursing, published in June 2018, offered a breakdown of how mindfulness changes the brain. They record that researchers have been studying via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), how mindfulness causes new neuropathways to form.
Mindfulness changes how we process incoming signals from the environment and helps to desensitize our reactions to them. If one practices mindfulness regularly, eventually our hyperattentive amygdalae will calm and we will no longer have the classic complex post-traumatic stress disorder response to triggers.
There are results from other research which found people who practice mindfulness make new neural connections between important prefrontal brain structures, which not only stabilizes arousal to stimuli but also reduces harmful risk-taking.
Through practicing mindfulness, one can learn to remain in the present. Our brains will make new neuropathways through mindfulness which will allow us to remember the calm we find through it, and thus reduce our anxiety. We learn how to be less hypervigilant, and for our mind to be less reactive to triggers than we once were.