I’ve heard both her and Katy impart wisdom like this to their clients on a regular basis. It’s typically after a few sessions when the client realizes that they are feeling better after years, sometimes decades, of struggling. They’ve gleaned a sliver of hope, realized that things can improve. Now they want the whole kit and kaboodle. Instantly.
To quote one of my favorite commercials, “That’s not how any of this works.”
To be honest, Katy and Laura could be talking to me as well. I’ve been in this psychology game for over three years, but I’ve been a participant in self-help and therapy for as long as I can remember, and I too have wondered why – sometimes silently, mostly out loud – the process takes so long!
Neuroplasticity, or, the ability of the nervous system to change in response to experience or environmental stimulation, is scientifically proven (Two of our favorite words.) to be an effective way to help with anxiety. BUT, changing the wiring of your brain is not easy and it does take time.
No one wants to hear that part. That’s why we’re here.
When we talk about rewiring your brain, you may instantly conjure up an image from “Frankenstein” or a little man in a hard hat with a toolbelt in your cerebellum installing new wires into your brain. (I’ve imagined both of these scenarios when I was first learning about the process.)
I’ll let some people who got higher than a B-minus in Biology explain it.
“Neural pathways, comprised of neurons connected by dendrites, are created in the brain based on our habits and behaviors. The number of dendrites increases with the frequency a behavior is performed. Our brain cells communicate with each other via a process called “neuronal firing.” – Julie Hani, August 2017
The next explanation is my favorite because it talks about lights!
“Neural pathways are the connections between neurons that light up when you think of something for the first time, and the connections form a pattern in your brain. Your brain has now attached meaning to that specific pattern.” – Life Exchange Solutions
Let’s use learning how to ride a bike as an example. At first, you have no idea what you are supposed to do. The bicycle changes from the toy you dreamed about to a torture device in one afternoon. Your body, once so sure while coasting on training wheels, now has to grasp balance and coordination! It seems impossible!!!
Then, after some time, tears, practice, patience, and the occasional Band-Aid or five, you’re off! Your brain, which was once NOT AT ALL wired for bike riding, now allows you to pedal to your heart’s content with ease.
And even after you learned how to ride a bike, you would still lose balance and fall. If it’s been a while since you’ve ridden, you may have to go slower at first and reacquaint yourself with the brakes and the gears. Those neurons are firing, it just may take them a minute to get warmed up. Before you know it, you’re back to pedaling with ease.
As we mention repeatedly, anxiety is your brain’s alert system, and as such, awareness of any and all threats is hardwired into the brain. Those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that you exhibit when you perceive a threat are automatic and that’s part of the challenge. You have to be able to counter those thoughts as quickly as they arise, every time they come about.
Creating new neural pathways as a way to manage your anxiety symptoms can be done in a few ways. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular modalities and one that we utilize at ARC.
CBT is based on several core principles: 1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking. 2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior. And 3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives. – American Psychological Association.
So rewiring your brain involves examining what, if any, faulty thinking or learned behavior, leads to unhealthy behavior. Identifying this and learning better coping mechanisms means that you’re going to take those thoughts that came, pretty much factory standard, with your brain, examine them, and then alter those thoughts to more accurately assess a situation.
So basically what you are going to learn to do is…RETHINK ANXIETY.
It sounds pretty cut and dry and zero actual wires are involved, but we are talking about changing thought patterns that are automatic and have been wired deep into your brain. A brain that has been perfectly designed to protect you. It is not a quick fix. Just like learning to ride your bike, it takes time, patience, determination, and yes, even some tears.
Anyone who has worked to manage their anxiety or stress can tell you that when they are first able to shift their mindset and approach a situation that used to cause them duress in a new way, it’s a game-changer. And, as is with anything that makes our lives better, we’d want a complete overhaul of our anxiety to happen within 24-48 hours.
Unfortunately, we cannot rewire our brains with the same frequency that Apple gives us an IOS update for our phones.
A 2009 research paper by the University College of London says it takes on average about 66 days of repetition to form a habit (Which could indicate a change in the neural pathway). But it’s different from person to person. Some people change habits in as little as 18 days, others take as long as 254 days of repetition. – Life Exchange Solutions
66 days of repetition. That’s two months and some change, and that’s only if you are consistently utilizing effective tools and strategies for your symptoms.
It’s called ‘work’ for a reason. The rewiring of your brain begins as a collaborative effort between you and your psychologist. You will often find yourself combating the same thought or thoughts repeatedly. You may hit the same curb multiple times. But your therapist will not let go of the back of the bike until they know you are ready, but they still expect you to pedal and balance and focus on what’s in front of you.
You can’t have another person hold onto the back of your bike forever.
So yes, patience with and kindness to yourself is a requirement. You are undertaking quite a journey, and it doesn’t go in a straight line. Falling off that bike gets frustrating, and of course painful, but it’s all a part of the process. You will encounter challenges and want to quit dozens of times, but progress and freedom happen when you power through and get to the other side.
I recommend recalling that very first time you were able to navigate through territory that used to cause you problems. Remember a scenario that you were able to get through without your anxiety symptoms raring up. Let that sense of achievement and awe fuel you because the longer you work, the easier it will become.
Recognizing unhealthy thought patterns and seeking out help to fix them is commendable in and of itself. Self-compassion is paramount as you develop new neural pathways, especially because you will be battling against automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) regularly. You aren’t only working against years and decades of programming, you are actually trying to correct thought processes that have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Remember, you are re-wiring your BRAIN. A brain that doesn’t evolve nearly as fast as technology.
Two and a half months is a blip compared to that.
There are some great books and workbooks you can check out (I added the link to one that we recommend often below.) and there are a variety of effective techniques on the internet to try. YouTube and Tik Tok have helpful videos as well.
You can also find some top-notch information on our Facebook pages, Rethink Anxiety and Anxiety Resource Center!
There are excellent therapists like Katy and Laura who are solution-focused and will help you make impactful change in a way that works best for you, but even the best psychologists, books, and all of the YouTube tutorials in the world can’t want the change to happen enough for you to NOT do the work. It’s a collaborative effort. You want big changes, you have to work for them.
Undoing thought patterns and behaviors that you have had for decades is a considerable feat. You will fall. You will be bruised. You will get frustrated and want to give up, and you may give up for a while, but the prospect of finishing it is always there. You just have to get back up, dust yourself off, and try again. And again. Aaaaand again.
Before you know it, it will be as easy as riding a bike.
A useful resource that both Katy and Laura recommend to their clients is Rewire Your Anxious Brain.