How the brain wires itself
When we experience anything stressful, such as driving on the motorway, our brains respond by sending messages to our body to get ready to flee, hide or fight. So when you recall the event, your body does not know the difference between the real and recall, so it feels the same physical responses.
This system developed so you avoid making the same mistake twice. Great for when a predator such as a lion is coming towards you, less so when the idiot driver forces you to make an emergency stop and your body floods with adrenaline.
The emotions we feel are the chemical feedback of our past experiences. As our senses – what we see, smell, hear and feel record the experience, cluster of neurons create networks. When they freeze into a pattern the brain makes a chemical, which we perceive as an emotion and this is released throughout the body.
Our brains do this so you remember the event clearly. So next time you experience the same or similar situation, you reinforce the neuro-network and increase the emotional response.
When we notice this change in our internal chemistry, our brain – the Amygdala – pays close attention to whatever or whoever is causing the change. The hippocampus then creates a snapshot, plants a red flag and that ends up as a memory.
Memories include reference points
We take in time, place, objects and people to create reference points. The moment becomes stored in the brain and body and that is stuck in the past. So when you have a traumatic incident such as being involved in a car crash, you are likely to feel fear, shock, anxiety, worry, overwhelm, anguish, anger, frustration, disbelief, resentment, and stupidity.
You can rationalise what’s going on if that’s in your personality, or you’ve been trained to deal with these situations, but for the majority of us, we would be feeling the effects by our hearts beating quickly, breathing erratically, shaking, feeling nausea and perhaps being sick.
From this point on it starts to become embedded. Research suggests if you sleep on the trauma it will reinforce. If you deprive yourself of sleep it helps loosen the bonds. Even if you don’t have an accident, every drive reinforces the last, so it accumulates the negative emotions if that is what you’re experiencing.
How memories are reinforced
This can become more reinforced by what happens next. In an accident, you may have to relive what happened to the police. Next, the ambulance service, the doctor at the hospital, your friends, family, insurance company, counsellor and GP. Every time reliving the experience, allowing the neural networks to fire and strengthen.
Keep doing this and eventually, your fight and fight system stays switched on. But again this doesn’t just apply to trauma but every negative thought you have. Every hopeless, hateful, jealous, worried, revengeful, fearful, angry and anxious thought.
Over time this can lead to your immunity being compromised as you are on hyper-alert. Your driving fear may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The stress though can become addictive. If you think about racing drivers, they put themselves in the same situation, but they enjoy the adrenaline rush. In time you can become addicted to it, so by reliving the experience you become emotionally addicted to it. I often think that those who have been in counselling for years don’t realise this.
The neural networks become so entwined that it becomes an automatic response. Let’s take learning to drive a car as an example. The first time you sit in the driving seat you don’t know what to do. You need someone to tell you what each part does, and then slowly take you through the process. At all times, your brain is learning. You are developing a neural network which is for driving a car. It doesn’t seem natural to start with, but over time the sequence of actions, create patterns of neural networks working together. You consciously choose to perform the task of driving, but once the brain has learnt to use it’s created a program, you subconsciously know how to drive.
The same goes for anything in life, learning the piano, making an omelette, using the recording device on your tv. Experiences not only enhance the brain circuitry but also create emotions. The more you repeat a thought, choice, behaviour, experience or emotion, the more those neurons fire and wire together, and create a long-term relationship.
Past becomes the future
This is how your past becomes your future. When you think a thought, it’s a chemical reaction, it makes you feel an emotion, then you release more chemicals to make you feel the way you’ve been thinking. I always equate this to quicksand. The more you try and find a solution by just thinking about the problem, the more you embed the problem.
The familiar emotions influence the choices you are going to make in the present and future, and so the problems keep popping up reminding you. Every day you’re faced with the same routine, and so the same triggers are there to remind you. Life doesn’t change. You may get a new job. This may help for a while as you escape a cranky old boss for example, but the routine doesn’t really change much. Once the novelty wears off the old habits, thoughts and feeling wrestle their way back.
Old habits can be a great comfort
Some people take great comfort in everything being exactly the same every day. Our brains are running on a program and there’s no room for unpredictable unknowns to sneak in. These people may dread a changed future, others may feel stressed at the idea of nothing has changed and their problems haven’t gone away.
So how can we change this? We need to place your attention away from the problem towards your preferred future. Sounds easy? No! Well, it depends on how stressed you are to start with, and how open you are to the possibility. If you invest your attention and energy into the unknown, by using mental rehearsal, you change the brain as well as the body by thought alone.
When you are resting and focusing attention in your inner world, you’re then able to create in your imagination an experience, which your brain thinks is part of your outer world, which means you can make your brain and body look as if a real experience has already happened without having the actual experience. What you focus your attention on and mentally rehearse over and over again not only becomes who you are from a biological perspective but also determines your future. (1)
Mental practice is used all the time in sports, including sports hypnosis. It has even been shown to increase strength within a muscle. So these sportsmen and women use positive visualisation to help their bodies to predict how it wants to behave in the future. (2)
Using imagination to change our responses
Those who use their use emotion in the imagery help make it more real. So by choosing your responses, first of all, you can reprogram yourself to do things in a different way. Some struggle with this concept. I always ask my clients what would their world be like if the problem was absent, but they can only answer in the negative – wouldn’t feel stressed, wouldn’t feel hopeless, wouldn’t be worrying etc. So I have to guide them into the bright new world of the positive. Feeling calm, hopeful and curious. I have never worked out what the opposite of worry was, peaceful, contentment maybe.
But we need time to practice these mental exercises, you won’t have long-term effects with a snap of the fingers, you need to untangle the neural network first created and rewire it. Anyone who has worked in an IT environment before the invention of Wifi knows it takes time to pull apart and rewire a computer network, well the brain is no different from that perspective.
It’s also much easier to perform if you are being guided by another person. Writing down what you want is one thing, but getting into that relaxed focused state takes practice, at least 15 minutes a day minimum, every day. Being able to describe in detail what that future will be can take time to design. When it comes to driving a car, think about how grateful you are that you own a car in the first place, how delighted you are at becoming independent. Think how happy you will be, now you’re not relying on other people. (3)
Now it’s your turn to redesign your future. Go to Driving confidence for more details
1) (Pascal Leone et al – “Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during acquisition of new fine motor skills” journal of neurophysiology vol 74 no 3 pp1037 – 1045)
2) P Cohen “Mental Gymnastics increase bicep strength” New Scientist, vol 172, no 2318 p 17 2001
3) Dr Joe Dispenza – Becoming Supernatural