Why is it so hard to change? Can I really rewire my brain?
“I’m such an idiot.” “Ugh why am I like this?” Ever spoken to yourself this way? I sure have. For as long as I could remember. At some point I decided to change - I was going to squash my inner critic, and change the way I showed up in the world.
But my commitment to change seemed to sharpen my inner critic. I would make some progress, and then, just as I was starting to see some progress, I would screw up and do the very thing I was committed to changing. I’d tell myself I was going to stop yelling at my kids - and I would - for a few days. Then I’d get triggered and there I was, throat hoarse from screaming, trapped in a guilt and shame spiral, the voice in my head more critical than ever. It was discouraging and sometimes even debilitating. As I kept pushing, I started to realize* that healing was cyclical, not linear. And I started to understand the true power of the human brain.
The brain is extraordinarily powerful! It manages an incredible array of tasks - simultaneously! Studies on the brain, and neuroplasticity in particular, are revealing more information all the time. There was a time where the general consensus on the brain was that once you hit a certain age, it was mostly unchangeable. This has been shown to be false in numerous ways. The brain is actually remarkably adaptable. Yet it is also programmable. We can see this in the many ways in which conscious thought and choice becomes subconscious programming. A powerful example is the ability to walk. If you have ever watched a child learn to walk, besides being adorable, it is also obvious that it is not innate. A child has to learn how to walk, how to put one foot in front of the other, how to balance, and how to navigate obstacles. This requires a lot of effort and a toddler must try, over and over again, to learn the skills necessary to be able to walk. Eventually though, those conscious actions become subconscious - if you are a walking adult it is highly likely that, barring injury, you don’t have to think about walking. It is a subconscious act.
In 1949, neuropsychologist Daniel Hebb said ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This succinct explanation applies perfectly to this example of learning how to walk. Each time a toddler attempts to walk, the neurons that allow the body to do so fire - and as a child keeps trying, those neurons keep firing, and they wire together. The act of walking transforms from something mindful and conscious to a subconscious action - we don’t think about it, we just do it.
It becomes clear then, that many of our actions as adults are subconscious actions that were once conscious. Things like walking or reading (which, like walking, actually consists of many minute actions), but also social behaviors that we developed in order to navigate our worlds.
Let’s consider a crying child with a parent who is unable to self regulate and becomes visibly upset by the child’s crying. The child registers the parent’s non verbal cues and recognizes that the parent is upset. Neurons have fired and the message is clear to the child’s brain - I cry, mom gets upset. The child, like all humans, experiences sadness and frustration over and over again. And in subsequent interactions with the parent, the child will see the nonverbal cues and may also receive some direct verbal cues like “stop crying!” or “shhhh, it’s ok” or even “quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” In each interaction, neurons are firing. And so they “wire” together. The conscious awareness that someone else is upset by our emotions becomes, over time, a subconscious desire to suppress emotion and not express any emotions that may upset our caregivers. This child then carries this subconscious, learned neural response with them into adulthood. All along, they continue to learn how to avoid unpleasant reactions by suppressing emotion. This may translate into people pleasing, as well as become a trauma they inadvertently pass on to their own children - reliving the role of the adult who could not self regulate in response to a child’s emotions. And, when their child expresses emotions, warning signals go off in the body and the parent becomes triggered. Our charged responses to children, particularly our own, are always an indicator of where we need healing - where we have formed hard wired neural pathways that subconsciously govern our actions.
We are born, like all creatures, with a strong instinct to survive. Any perceived threat to our safety is crucial to address. In our childhoods, any indication that our caregivers will disconnect from us is a perceived threat - after all, human children need their caregivers more than any other mammal on earth. We are born virtually helpless, with no chance of survival without assistance. Children are wired for connection. It is crucial to survival. And so we learn how to do whatever we need to do to preserve the connection (such as suppress our emotions and needs so our caregivers don’t get overwhelmed and disconnect from us) and maintain our safety (such as become hyper aware of any clue that means we might be harmed).
I have realized in my healing* that things that I thought were fixed attributes were actually deeply ingrained, strongly “wired” neural pathways. One example is the near constant state of anxiety I lived in throughout most of my life. I learned early on in my life that my physical and emotional safety were at risk daily. Very early, I began walking on eggshells in an attempt to avoid abuse from a non parental caregiver. I was hypervigilant, constantly on edge, nervous system continuously agitated, and became very good at reading people’s emotions and finding warning signs that they’d become angry. Throughout my life, any perceived threat (physical, emotional, social, financial - anything) resulted in a cascade of neural responses that we label as anxiety.
That anxiety and constant inclination to attempt to control my environment had far reaching impact. When I became a parent, I swore I would never physically abuse my children. And I didn’t. Yet I still inadvertently created a home environment where my children learned to walk on eggshells and become hypervigilant. This is what we do. We recreate until we heal. And both - the re-creation and the healing - impacts generations.
I was highly skeptical that I could change, but I truly wanted to, for the sake of my children at first. Over time, I have become a much calmer, more peaceful person. My home is a much more emotionally safe place. And the process continues daily. It is not done. It is a continual practice.
How is it possible? Let’s consider again the action of walking. It is subconscious and so deeply ingrained for an able bodied individual. There are countless stories of individuals who have experienced trauma to the brain/body and found new ways to walk. Whether it is using prostheses or using other parts of the body, people find a way. Imagine, for a moment, that for some unnamed but cogent reason, you are no longer allowed to walk using your whole legs. You must walk on your knees. Unlike with an injury, you have options. You’d most likely forget, over and over. You would intend to walk on your knees but that deeply ingrained, very tempting neural pathway would be right there, and you’d start walking on your feet. Of course you would! It’s easier than creating a new way to do things, and it feels normal. Yet, we know that it is possible - you COULD walk on your knees for the rest of your life. As difficult as it would be, as often as you would slip up and start walking on your feet again, you COULD do it. And eventually, if you were determined and consistent, it could become your new norm. That is the power and resilience of the human brain and spirit.
I use such an extreme example to drive home the importance of having grace for ourselves. If we witnessed a situation like the one I just described, would it be shocking or surprising to see that individual be tempted to walk on their feet again? No, of course not. We would recognize just how difficult that would be to do - to create a brand new way of being, a new neural pathway where we would need to fire those neurons together over and over to create the hard wiring we need for the new way to be part of our BEING and not just DOING.
So when we are trying to transform our way of being from angry to peaceful, from anxious to calm, from critical to gracious, from people pleasing to standing in our own truth - is it any wonder that we “slip up?” Those neurons, like those that we’ve used to help us walk, eat, read - they’ve been firing together for years and years. That hard wiring is present and we need to create new neural pathways that, over time, will become our new way of being.
So the important question is how? How do we rewire the brain and create new neural pathways? This is an exciting field of research. There are numerous practices that have been shown to help - and it’s the repetition - the consistent “firing and wiring” that creates incredible changes over time.
Practices that have been shown to encourage neuroplasticity/ help rewire the brain:
Learning new things such as languages, musical instruments - even learning how to use your non dominant hand
Expanding your vocabulary
Memory tasks and games
Learning to juggle
Challenging brain activities like crosswords or sudoku
Learning a new subject
I have incorporated many of these practices (not all at once) as I have committed to my own healing. Let’s consider how essential oils** can enhance healing and rewiring. There is new science continually being discovered. What we know so far:
Our sense of smell is the only sense that bypasses the reticular activating system and impacts the limbic system (the seat of memory and emotion) directly, via the olfactory nerve.
Associating aroma with other habits creates associations that strengthen other habits & rituals, amplifying their impact.
Essential oils impact mood, physiology and behavior, all of which influence the creation of new neural pathways.
The amygdala has been shown to stimulate the fight, flight or freeze responses associated with trauma. Essential oils directly stimulate the amygdala and have the potential to release those stored reactions and help us rewire the brain by allowing us to create different responses instead of the usual trauma responses.
It has traditionally been difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to create drugs that impact the brain because the blood brain barrier is impermeable to most synthetic substances. However, many essential oils, including frankincense, sandalwood, and patchouli, contain classes of compounds called sesquiterpenes that have the ability to cross the blood brain barrier and impact the brain.
Mindfulness has been shown over and over to help rewire the brain. Essential oils help us to be present - to be mindful - in our own bodies, enhancing the practice and amplifying the benefits.
Many essential oils, such as lavender, magnolia, and others, have been shown to calm the central nervous system significantly. This is particularly helpful when creating new habits and therefore neural pathways, as it allows for more intention and mindfulness.
While I am always intrigued and fascinated by the rapidly growing body of science on essential oils, I am more enthused by practical knowledge and experience. My personal healing journey has been greatly enhanced by creating habits & rituals incorporating essential oil use.
Some things to consider as you embark on your own personal journey to heal your wounds and rewire your brain:
Your thoughts are powerful. Since neurons that fire together wire together - once you think a thought, it becomes easier to think that thought. However, I have found that rather than trying to suppress “negative” thoughts, it has been more impactful for me to observe them and release them - repeatedly. Trying to suppress them has generally resulted in more similar thoughts.
When you inevitably step back into a previously created hardwired neural pathway, consider reframing the moment. Instead of the usual criticizing and shaming, create a new pathway here too. Reframe the “slip up” as a testament to the human brain, and how incredibly powerful our neural pathways are - which means that with continued “firing and wiring” the new pathways we are creating will become ever more ingrained with time and repetition. How amazing!
Try to release self judgment and encourage curiosity and awe. Your brain is an incredible organ.
All healing is a practice, not a destination.
Choose oils that you feel drawn to or choose oils based on their specific emotional properties. This is an excellent resource.
Start small and be consistent and gentle with yourself. Create tiny rituals and build on them. There might be a neural pathway lurking in your brain that says that small actions aren’t enough - but I promise, they are! Start there and see where it takes you!
Comment here or message me with your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!
*As with everything I share, I am not an expert. I am simply a woman on her own healing journey sharing my ever deepening and expanding Truth.
**My suggestions and recommendations are based on doTERRA essential oils. Here's why.