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Customize Your Brain

A great thing about life is that we can change parts of it to better please us. We can fit our car with a more powerful engine, use chip tuning technology to modify its performance, detail the interior, and upgrade the sound system to make driving more fun.

         We often do the same thing with our homes, careers, friendship circles, cup of coffee, route to work… and the list goes on as long as we can imagine. We even customize our bodies with haircuts, tattoos, piercings, sun-tans, and exercise regimens to tone our muscles and improve our cardiovascular systems.

         While this is nothing new, what may surprise you is that our brains can be customized as well. Resiliency and self-esteem can be ‘upgraded,’ while things that get in our way, like self-defeating thoughts and social anxiety, can be reduced. Modifying our brains is made possible by what is called neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change and heal at any point in the lifespan (we used to think the brain stopped changing by adulthood—now we know better).

         When we’ve lived through hard experienceslike an abusive childhood, workplace trauma, or taking refuge from a war-torn countryour brains adapt so that we can best survive the ordeal. The problem is, our brains keep operating in ‘survival mode’ long after the hard times have ended. Below is one common example of how our brains may wire in a way that causes problems, and how we can change it.

Danger! & The Amygdala

         The amygdala is a small structure (technically there are two amygdalae, but people usually don’t talk about them that way) in the centre of our brains that tells us when we are in danger, preparing our body for ‘fight or flight.’ The amygdala was critical to survival tens of thousands of years ago when we were hunter-gatherers who could be killed by wild animals or rival tribes. Though our modern Western lives are generally more safe, the amygdala is still useful to warn us to avoid dangerous back alleys or to step back from a cliff edge.

         Unfortunately, painful past experiences wire deeply into our brains, so that our amygdala primes us for danger even when there is none. For many of us, the amygdala fires constant ‘false alarms,’ and our bodies mobilize for danger. We are flooded with adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol, as our heartbeat increases and we begin to shake or sweat. When this happens, the fine-tuned parts of our brain that let us be expressive, clever, warm, and available to others shut down.

         This can make us avoid going out, changing careers, dating, taking risks, and trying new things. Worse, the constant flooding of cortisol renders us more susceptible to illness and physical injury. This may set us up to self-medicate our stressful brain chemistry with too much alcohol, gambling, videogames, shopping, etc. Post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety are two instances of the amygdala working overtime.

Customizing Neural Functioning

         Fortunately, our neuroplastic brains are ready to change for the better in the right conditions. And what is the special ingredient that can rewire us for freedom to live our lives more fully? Human relationship. We are hardwired to attach to and connect with each other. When we feel seen, heard, and understood by others, a cascade of feel-good chemicals are released throughout our bodies. Serotonin and dopamine are involved in wellbeing and reward, while oxytocin, prolactin and vasopressin play roles in how we attach to and feel good in the company of others.

         The real magic of these chemicals is that they enhance neuroplasticity. What does this mean? Consider the brain like clay. When feel-good hormones and neuropeptides like serotonin and oxytocin are available, and when you are connected in a warm and safe relationship, the brain ‘warms up’ so that it can be shaped and changed. By repeating the experience of safety and feeling understood hundreds of times, the brain rewires towards optimal functioning.

Do I Need A Shrink For This?

         No! Any relationship that has security and trust will heal and change the brain. In the same way that you can work on your own car without going to a mechanic, good quality day-to-day relationships will soothe the brain and slowly rewire it for more resilience and freedom to explore the world.

         The advantage of working with a therapist is that they are a relationship expert, with specialized training in rewiring the brain in a controlled and often accelerated way. High quality therapy is a service that can essentially upgrade your brain, so the wiring that once helped you survive hard circumstances can be reshaped to optimize how you experience the present and how you achieve your goals in life.

         The next time you think to paint your kitchen or dye your hair, why not try customizing your brain instead? The mind is the window to how we experience everything around us. When it is in tip-top shape life itself changes. Modern neuroscience and its teamed up methods of psychotherapy help to build the mind and life that we choose.

Carson Kivari MA RCC is a private practice psychotherapist and one third of Thrive Consulting, located in downtown Vancouver. He also is the manager and a clinician for the Men’s Transition Program, a Movember Canada funded men’s life enhancement program based out the University of British Columbia.