With bringing in 2024 there’s a lot of New Year’s resolutions going around. I’m excited to say that what I’m about to tell you will help your dreams come true!
You see, from what we know about neuroscience, neuroplasticity (brain growth) comes from the intersection of our experiences combined with how we internalise them to create meaning. So, if you’re feeling stuck for growth, it’s likely because there’s an issue with either of the two. I’ll break it down for you.
Is there a problem with creating positive experience? This includes things like:
Injury that prevents you from doing what you need
Disconnection with family or friends
Having a bad experience previously
Feeling helpless or unable to take action
Positive experiences are what you should be focusing on with exercise and movement. Think about how you’d feel if you score a goal playing soccer or hit a 3 pointer in basketball. All you ever want to do is do it again! Often training isn’t pointless but is to create those joyful moments. It’s the same reason rockstars come out of retirement to do one more ‘final tour’. You can’t score that goal, shoot that 3 pointer or rock out on stage without a lot of deliberate practice. On the other hand, when there’s an unfavourable experience like pain, shame or embarrassment, the brain typically sees it as a threat which can create avoidance mechanisms.
With a lack of positive experiences, it’s common to then become overly reflective and self critical. We can build up stories in our head about what’s wrong with us - often these are exaggerated and inaccurate. Reflection is great but it should be done cautiously as when we over-internalise it can actually disconnect you from the world (you can get stuck in your head).
How are you internalising the experience?
On the other hand, if you’re smothered by positive experiences but unable to process and create meaning, it may as well not have happened. If you recall, emotional memory is created from experiences your brain perceives as most meaningful - anything void of purpose or presence can float on by. Poor internalisation is common with high stress states (this is very common in persistent pain). Check this blog to know more or if you’d like some tools to help.
How to create positive change
If you’re looking to create positive change, it will happen when you can combine those positive experiences (in your body, with friends, family, meaningful work and culture) with something that is meaningful to you (this depends on your values). This is a very personal process and is different for everyone - no one can really tell you what’s meaningful as we’re all unique (If you want to explore your values read the ebook.)
Breaking barriers - tools to speed up change
It’s really common to start to feel stuck whenever having challenges with your body. This can be the case if physio isn’t going as planned or you haven’t recovered in your expected timeframe. But here’s a little trick to break through:
First of all, when you’re experiencing pain or discomfort (negative experience), connect it with one of your best values (positive internalisation). This can help to create a positive construct of yourself and then will become a habitual response whenever you’re experiencing pain. This can actually re-wire those pain producing parts of the brain and dampen the painful experience. Pretty cool huh?
I’ll try and give an example;
You’ve stopped running from a knee injury last year. You’ve done all the strength work to offload the knee and run with good biomechanics. You know you’re good to go. 2km into the run you’re knee starts to ache - you have two options: You can focus on the knee and worry about tissue damage. Or, you can remember that pain is more often a sensitised alarm rather than tissue damage. You can focus on your strength and persistence and how much it means to you to be back running. I’ll let you take a guess which approach will work better.
On the flip side, if you’re having a moment of crisis or helplessness (negative internalisation), connect it with a positive experience related to your goals. This might be your Physio exercises or simply going for a walk. Remember how much more you can do now than you could last month. You’ll find the experience will create a positive construct and will re-wire your brain away from the stress parts of brain into the rational cortex. This can reduce cortisol (stress) levels and increase the levels of your feel good hormones (dopamine). If you can create that positive experience, it can feel like kicking that goal - your brain will crave it and it’s much easier to make it a habit.
Like with building any new habit, you need to be conscious of what you’re doing as you start the process but as you repeat, it becomes automatic. Eventually, you will form a positive feedback until your pain/problem/internalisation is no longer apparent.
Its not always easy creating lasting change, it takes commitment and dedication. It’s often easier to look for the most drastic answers than it is to do the small, easy things that are much more effective. Stick to your plan and enjoy the little things in life. I wish you a good start to 2024. To learn more about integrative approaches in physiotherapy click here.