I just picked up my dog to help her to the couch. Her reaction to me is the same, every day, every time. She turns her back to me, hunches herself up, and puts her head down. Her reaction, it breaks my heart. It’s as if she is expecting me to hit her, hurt her, or punish her. I whisper in her ear as I gently stroke her back. “Remember my sweet girl, nothing will ever hurt you here. Here, there is only love. Only love, Only love.” She lived her first six years of life in a wire cage, absent any human touch, love or kindness. She has been with us now for longer than she was in that cage. Everyday of her life with us has been spent being loved, gently, warmly, and patiently. Held and comforted, kept safe and warm, cuddled and cared for, reassured and reminded. Yet her reactions are so engrained in her brain, that I can’t undo the damage. She knows she is safe and loved. She knows she can relax and play. She settles into her bed, feeling it’s softness and warmth, nestles in beside me, smelling the familiar calm of her momma, hears my gentle voice, and her fear abates. But that fear, that sadness, that unpredictability… it’s never going to completely heal.
Sound familiar? It does to me. When we, or any living creature, are exposed to similar conditions fear becomes hard wired in our brains. Our cortisol levels are abnormally high, all the time. We become hyper-vigilant, always waiting, always on guard, ready to fight or flee. My dog is at the mercy of her environment and us, to rewire those connections. Although there have been big improvements, the residual effects will remain.
For me, for us, we have the benefit of conscious thought (although sometime I wish I didn’t). We can work to rewire our brains. And when I say work, I mean WORK! There are a number of strategies that can help with this re-wiring. I am not a therapist or a psychiatrist, but I am a person with mental illness and chronic pain. Some of the strategies that I have found the most helpful for me are also the ones that I thought, initially, were the most ridiculous. But I tried them anyway, what could it hurt, right?
Mindfulness is one technique I use. Remaining in the moment, whether good or bad, and just letting myself sit with the emotion, acknowledge its existence, thank it for it’s purpose and then asking it to leave. The asking it to leave part is the hardest. That’s where the mindfulness comes in. I shift my focus to the sensory information that is going on around me. Smells, sounds, sensations. It changes the direction of the hardwired negative thoughts and interrupts the signals to something else that is neutral or positive. Our brain reads everything going on in our bodies 30 times a second, every minute, every day. So if you spend all of your time thinking negative thoughts, or thinking about pain, that signal is getting hardwired, stronger and stronger every second. If we stop that signal, even once a day, we are working to not only, decrease the strength of the negative signal but to also begin rewiring a new, more positive signal.
I’m still in a state of mind where the negative signals far outweigh the positive. I try to talk to myself in the same way I talk to my little pup in order to remind myself that I am loved, I am safe, I am protected, I am okay. But I have to also keep in mind how long I have been building those negative connections and that it’s probably never going to completely go away. Just like my little pup. And it isn’t easy. Some days it just feels like too much work. But tomorrow is another day and I can start again and keep practicing. Some books that have been helpful for me are “Neuroplastic Transformation – Your Brain on Pain” by Moskowitz and Golden, and “Thoughts and Feelings” by McKay, Davis and Flanning. And of course, the Internet has mountains of information related to neuroplasticity and changing your brain.
Peace, Love and Healing to All
~Till I Collapse~