What Neuroplasticity Means For Anxiety

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to structurally and functionally re-organize itself. Earlier, it was predominantly believed that it is an ability restricted to a critical period in early childhood after which the connections are fixed and so are our abilities. Now we know that the brain’s plasticity does not end after the critical period but continues into adulthood. With the latest advancements, the potential of the plastic nature of the brain has been brought to light.

Despite the tremendous potential associated with neuroplasticity, is it always beneficial for us? Sometimes, it can also be a curse. In cases of severe anxiety, the connections between the brain strengthen further with each anxiety attack. The result of this is that the brain devotes excessive resources to process the stress and will re-wire itself to generate exaggerated responses towards it. Many other parts of the brain engage themselves in processing negative thoughts, thus making it difficult to carry out everyday chores efficiently. The stress-inducing stimulus is given weightage over other stimuli and thus the brain is stuck in a loop of thoughts that induce anxiety.

But interestingly, the solution to get ourselves out of the vicious loop is also made possible through neuroplasticity. We must first understand that neuroplasticity can be both adaptive and maladaptive. When the changes in the structure and function of the brain become beneficial for survival those are adaptive as compared to the ones that give rise to the anxious brain. The interventions that are employed for such disadvantageous consequences of plasticity target at the level of circuitry or at the molecular level. The therapeutic interventions that harness the potential of neuroplasticity are brain stimulation, pharmacological drug therapy, physical exercises, cognitive training, neurofeedback, etc.

For an anxious brain, it is vital to overpower anxiety-related thoughts through competing stimuli. Engaging in distracting, arousing and attention-seeking tasks will slowly cause the anxiety-related connections to weaken and the brain will re-wire according to a potential competing task. Physical exercises are an asset to forming new connections which eventually eliminates the symptoms of anxiety. Learning new skills also engages the brain and induces plastic change. Michael Moskowitz, a pain scientist used a technique of visualizing brain maps wherein pain reduced when pain signals in the brain were visualized to be shrinking. This method of visualization could be applied to reduce the brain regions involved in anxiety-related processing.

Having said all of this, it is also worth mentioning the persistent efforts and attention required to re-wire the brain, but it is not impossible. Lastly, a little knowledge of neuroscience helps in the process of re-wiring, which is an active process requiring one’s involvement!

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