Health & Wellbeing My Healing Journey

Neuroplasticity and its role in recovery from chronic illness

August 14, 2020

Today I want to share with you one of the most important tools I have found in my healing journey – Neuroplasticity.

Before we dive into what this is and how I see its effects in my own life I want to start with a crucial disclaimer: whilst Neuroplasticity states that all pain is experienced in the brain, and that changing our neural pathways can help heal said pain, it also makes abundantly clear that the pain we feel is very real.

The same is true for all symptoms of chronic illness, and I find this the most reassuring part of all. Because how many of us with chronic illnesses have been told by the doctors that all our tests have come back “normal” and they don’t really know what to do with us? They cannot see the cause of the symptoms, and sometimes that leads certain doctors to claim it is “all in the patient’s head”. This is not what is meant when talking about Neuroplasticity.

The distinction may seem minimal, but it is actually very important. Neuroplasticity affirms that the symptoms we feel, even though there is no clear cause for them, are very real. And therein lies the hope of Neuroplasticity – you didn’t consciously create these symptoms, neither are you imagining them, and yet you can consciously work to change them. How cool is that?

I hope that this alleviates any fears you may have that this is just another “it’s all in your head” response, because I promise you it isn’t. Read on to find out how it has had an impact in my own life so far.

Exploring the mind-body connection

I think I have mentioned learning about Neuroplasticity in a previous monthly update this year, but I hadn’t fully embraced the concept. I wanted to believe it was possible, but I hadn’t really invested the time and energy into actually working on it. Partly because as mentioned above, I had reservations over the idea that my thoughts and behaviour patterns could really cause such intense symptoms. But it turns out they really can.

You see, Neuroplasticity works on the premise that our neurons are constantly firing, and that chronic pain and symptoms are often the result of learned patterns over time. For many, many years scientists believed that the brain we are born with is the brain we will die with, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our brain can be “rewired”, both consciously and subconsciously, by the things we experience and the way we react to things. And rather than being a nature vs nurture situation, it’s actually a bit of both. Some of us are born with a natural tendency towards reacting in a certain way, but we also acquire certain things over time due to our environment and upbringing too.

When it comes to chronic pain and other symptoms, these are often caused by learned patterns in the brain, where certain neural pathways have been developed and strengthened over time. Sometimes this is due to a personality trait, such as being a perfectionist, a people pleaser, or having low self-esteem, and sometimes it is due to traumatic events that trigger an initial response that then becomes repeated over time. But the good news is that these neural pathways can be changed. We can learn and develop new ways of responding, which help take the body out of the fight-flight-freeze pattern that is so often behind our pain and symptoms.

Seeing these patterns in my own life

This all makes perfect sense to me, especially as I have intuitively felt for quite some time that my body became stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode back in 2014 which then had a disastrous effect when I fell ill in 2015 and simply never got better. My body had been pushed far beyond its limits for too long, and it seemed to forget how to recover. And I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past 5 years!

It seems as if a lot of the things I’ve been trying to do, like affirmations, meditation, rest, dietary and lifestyle changes etc are all keys to healing, but I was missing something that was crucial to bringing them all together. And that was the understanding that the patterns of thoughts and behaviours I have accumulated throughout my life were thwarting my attempts to heal. Because they are major components in why I am so ill.

Things like low self-esteem, which leads to a crushing need for external validation and therefore the tendency to be a people pleaser and a perfectionist, have plagued my life and influenced the way I respond to the world around me and how the things that happen to me affect me. And that includes getting sick. I have spent the past 5 years feeling less and less worthy as I have become more and more sick and debilitated. I haven’t been able to do all the things that I usually do to prove to myself that I am enough, and that has had a soul-defeating impact on my well-being.

The blessing within the curse

However I’ve come to realise that this isn’t such a bad thing. When I first fell ill I thought I just needed to rest for a while and then I’d be able to get right back to my life. Because after all that’s what I’d always done. I have had a pattern throughout my life of ignoring my needs and pushing myself beyond my limits so that I felt a little bit more secure in who I am. If I could just do enough then maybe I would be enough.

But this time my body was having none of that. I’ve spoken before about how 2014 was a breaking point for me. My tendency to put everyone else before my own well-being led me into a role where I could not protect myself with healthy boundaries. And when I was at my most vulnerable and asking for help, the responses I got were particularly damaging. So whilst I felt like things were better in 2015 after I left that world, the truth was I had trauma that ran far too deep for me to cope with. And getting so ill so soon after that simply reinforced the fear that I just wasn’t good enough.

That has been the battle I have waged ever since, with multiple micro-traumas re-triggering that major trauma. Like when I had to stop working, and then even stop self- employment because working around my health was no longer possible. When I had to fight the DWP on multiple occasions for support. When I had to cancel meetings with friends and family. When I couldn’t do things with my husband and son. And when the vertigo hit so severely and for such a prolonged time this year.

Learning to focus on what you want, not what you don’t want

Looking back on it all, knowing what I do now, everything seems to be falling into place. I can see the patterns of behaviour, learned in childhood, cemented in adolescence, and repeated throughout my adult life. I have spent so many years trying to avoid feeling the way I do, both physically and emotionally, that I haven’t known how to be or do anything else. But the irony of it all is that by focusing on what I don’t want to feel, I have reinforced the patterns over and over again. And herein lies the beauty of a Neuroplasticity – if you learn to focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want, new pathways can and will develop over time.

This is a concept I have come across in the past on many occasions on a spiritual level. Affirmations, the Law of Attraction, and even the New Testament stories of people being healed by their faith alone, have all taught me that it is entirely possible to heal simply by changing the way you view the world and yourself. But as much as I wanted to believe that, it all seemed too simplistic to be real. That part of me that seeks external validation so much could not believe that I had the power to heal myself.

But then along comes science drawing the same conclusions that faith has taught for millennia – our very thoughts can change our physical experiences. And the great thing about Neuroplasticity is that it comes with some very specific ways of doing so, meaning it is no longer something I have to take on faith alone but something where there is a guidebook to help me along the way.

Neuroplasticity resources I love

There are a couple of resources that I have found particularly helpful in all of this. The first is the Rock Steady Programme by Joey Remenyi, which I was lucky enough to get w scholarship for (you can apply for one too if it is out of your budget). This is for vertigo and tinnitus, so whilst there is a lot of actionable ideas that will help anyone the focus is rather specific. The second is the Curable App, which is an affordable annual payment that is worth its weight in gold as far as I’m concerned. The app combines short, bite-sized education pieces with meditations, brain training ideas, and writing exercises. I have made some major breakthroughs using the latter – if you do the work with an open heart and mind then it’s amazing what can happen.

Both of these have podcasts (Seeking Balance and Like Mind, Like Body) and there are recovery stories on YouTube (Joey Remenyi and Curable Health) as well. These have helped me immeasurably, as I have gone from feeling like I’ll never get better to repeating to myself, “others have recovered and so can I”. This is a monumental shift and gives me so much hope when just a couple of months ago I was, as Tim said, the most depressed he has ever seen me.

Changing the narrative

Healing takes time. There is a lot to work through, with a lifetime of patterns to uncover and begin to change. But I started working with Neuroplasticity just before we moved house when I was so worried about how well I’d cope with the move. But even within the first couple of weeks of doing this work I found myself coping far better than I could ever have imagined. I’m still struggling with migraines and vertigo and fatigue, but I no longer have the intense panic and anxiety that used to spiral out of control when it happened yet again. And a lot of that is down to changing the narrative, choosing to tell myself I’m okay, that I’m safe, that this is still part of my healing journey, and focusing on the things that bring me joy and that I want to do more of.

And that is why I’ve chosen to change the tag line of my blog, from “navigating life with chronic illness” to something around the idea of recovery (I’m still not sure I have the words down as I want them, but recovery is a key part). I’m going to be sharing more of the things that bring me joy, the simple pleasures that spark new neural pathways, and how recovery and life may be a spiral dance, but it’s a dance nonetheless.

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