Can We Change Our Brain Chemistry?

I started to think about the brain when we adopted our first child. He was a burst of joy in one moment and in the next moment, he would scream unconsolably for hours. When my husband passed away, it triggered and associated with something in his brain, so with any memories of trauma or even the smallest negative stimuli, my son would be fall into a deep depression. I couldn’t quite explain it other than, the stress in him elevated to such a degree that I couldn’t reach him. I went to several doctors and they diagnosed him from having ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, Oppositional Defiant, Bipolar, to PTSD. One social worker told me about Karyn Purvis, the author of the Connected Child, and how she states that the child’s brain neurochemistry can be negatively changed not only due to negative life experiences, but also when the brain is developing in utero. I found this interesting.

I started to wonder if our brain chemistry could be changed or was it fixed at a certain age. I was excited to read more about neuroplasticity because it gives room to make a change and to influence our life. Neuroplasticity means that our brains are moldable and change and grow and develop our entire lives. It has been increasingly evident through imaging technology and research, that our brain actually have the ability to reorganize pathways, create new connections, weaken certain pathways, and in some cases create new neurons!

I want to advise you that I am not a medical professional. I am a Transformation Life Coach, an avid learner and researcher, and adoptive parent. I have put what I am about to say to the “test” with my son, myself, and many of my clients.

I think it’s important to first understand the brain. There are aspects of the brain and each performs a specific function. There is the brain structure that is made up of distinct structures that change based on how we use them. The two structures that are impacted by depression are the amygdala and the and the hippocampus. Is this starting to sound familiar from high school biology!? The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes the fight, flight, and freeze response. In people with depression it is shown to that the amygdala is actually larger and more active. The hippocampus processes emotions, and people with depression it is shown that the hippocampus is actually smaller, and it shrinks when people are depressed. There is good news! It can regain its size just after talking with another person that is helping you for 8 weeks. Another important aspect of the brain are the brain chemicals. Basically, the brain uses chemicals and those chemicals are neurotransmitters. Those chemicals, serotonin (confidence and happiness), dopamine (reward or pleasing chemical), norepinephrine
decreased pain sensitivity) oxytocin (bonding and love), and GABA (anxiety and stress) are what the brain uses to communicate. If you take medication, I am not saying to get off your medication or that it’s wrong, what I am saying is that there are other ways to impact our brain chemistry.

The way we think and act has been shown to be as effective as medication. As a coach, this is where it gets very interesting. So, how we think, affects our brain chemistry. For example, if I interpret a situation; for example, a homework assignment (referring to my son), as being threatening or impossible, then our brain releases adrenalin and cortisol. These are two chemicals that are proven to be higher with people with depression and anxiety. If this person, say my son, is taught how to think differently about his homework assignment and no longer sees it as a threat or overwhelming, then the brain creates a more healthier balance of chemicals. We can actually change those stress chemicals, decrease the stress chemicals, simply by changing how we think! Going from thinking, “this is impossible”, “Why even try, I will fail either way” to “I can do hard things”, “Even if I mess up, I will be ok”, will send a message to the brain to decrease those stress chemicals.

This is my favorite. The brain function is another aspect of the brain, and how we think changes our neuropathways. Whenever we think, we think along these channels or highways. The thoughts that we use a lot and are habits, they are like broad highways, and the ones that we rarely use become narrow and thin, and the roads that we don’t use, they become trimmed off (the brain likes to be efficient!). So, how does this work? When we start to say something negative, “I am no good” or “this is hopeless”, the pathways are thick and broad, a fast and easier road for the brain to send signals, it becomes a habitual thinking pattern, chemicals released, and all that shows up in our biology. But, when slow down and become aware of how we think, make a change, and start to think hopeful thoughts; such as, “I can reach out to others and they will respond”, then we start to gradually change those neuropathways and then those physical structures in our brain actually starts to change.

Of course, this takes time and awareness. There are many ways to begin to change your brain chemistry. Start by having a daily gratitude practice by noticing all the blessings around you, big and small. It can even be something so simple as you found a good parking spot at the grocery store. Other suggestions include; meditation and prayer, breathing exercises, journaling, prayer, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or hiring a Life Coach.

As for my son, he uses many techniques and he has found that understanding the brain has helped him have a better mindset and he is more positive and hopeful. This in turn, decreases those stress chemicals that have once overflooded his brain, and those old deeply grooved neuropathways are beginning to see weeds. He has found that being aware of what he is thinking and changing it to a more hopeful thought, has started to create new neuropathways and in turn, has keep his emotional state balanced.

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It's not what happens to you, but what you do with it and how you react to it that matters.