Picture your brain like a map of where you live. Some areas get a lot of traffic while others get very little. Some streets might never have a moment without some sort of backlog while some others might only see a car or two now and then. There will be buildings of different sorts and some are more useful to you than others. A craft shop might be REALLY important to one person while the local hardware store is important to someone else. Everyone needs to go to the grocery store but some lucky folks have someone else who will go for them while those less fortunate (I hate shopping) have to go every few days.
Your brain is a lot like that map. Areas with more traffic, less traffic, different shops, scenery and buildings.
Most people like to go where they know how to find things. If you went to a different large grocery store every time that you shopped, you’d end up wasting HOURS just looking for things that you could grab in 5 minutes in the local store that you know well.
Whether you’ve suffered serious trauma or not, your brain has been trained to follow certain ways of thinking that you may feel are totally normal while other people may wonder what the heck you are up to. Where you live, the people who raised you, the culture you belong to, your education, your life experience and each situation you have faced from the day you were born until now has helped to program your brain to work in the way it does today.
Do you remember the last time that you ate popcorn? What were you doing? Were you at a movie or at home on your couch? Usually it is easy to recall the last time that you ate it but what about the time before that? Or the time before that? It is REALLY hard to remember as you go backwards isn’t it? Even though the last time can usually be so vividly recalled.
I am going to deal with traumatic memory here but you can insert whatever issue that you are trying to deal with in its place. Trying to lose weight, trying to exercise more, attempting to quit smoking or stop losing your temper so much. It works the same for every pathway you wish to travel. Okay?
Something happened that started you going down the pathway that you are one now. No abnormal thought or bad habit just happens. A horrible indecent can set off a string of thoughts that you can’t make much sense of, a stressful time in your life can cause you to begin using some negative habit like over-eating or biting your nails. These “negative pathways” eventually just become who you are. The hyper-vigilance of PTSD, the fear of going outside, the fear of being out in public, that big bowl of ice cream or chips every single night… every habit/trait that you now was laid, practiced and perfected to get you where you are now.
So how do we change that?
It is easy and it is hard all at once.
Changing those habits or reactions require an effort. I will use an example from my life to explain how these changes can be made. This is about my social phobia/extreme anxiety. MANY people deal with this issue so I know that I am not alone. Changing this seems like a gargantuan goal but if you do it in really little steps and walk over those steps again and again, you can actually change the way your brain works.
For me people were scary. I felt that I was putting myself in danger every single time that I forced myself to go out. It didn’t matter if it was a mall filled with strangers or a fun outing with my sister-in-laws (whom I love). I just felt this panic, a sense of being out of control, a fear of them seeing something in me that was unacceptable or wrong. Fear is a huge monster as most people know and fear only gets bigger until you find a way to face it.
Creating a new pathway in my mind for social situations was not easy. I’d had decades of fear based reactions set firmly in place.
So I started small.
A weekly craft afternoon in my home with a trusted friend.
A weekly chat online with a friend who lives far away and a phone chat every Sunday morning with another friend.
Making an effort to speaks with my sister-in-laws once or twice a week.
I started trying to find opportunities for positive social interactions. These interactions all took place in my own home at first. That was my safe zone but I was required to put myself out there a bit more and be social.
This all went well so I began getting out a bit more. Going shopping after my therapy appointments or browsing through art supplies knowing that people would be around but constantly reminding myself that I was safe.
I also started to attend more family functions. I am still not where I want to be but I make a real effort to attend every occasion that I can AND I tried to relax about it. I have nothing to prove to anyone and I need to start acting that way. Feeling unworthy was my issue. Never theirs.
At first this was all a form or torture to be honest but in time I realized that most of these interactions went well. So that craft day that gave me anxiety in the beginning became a day that I truly look forward to each week. Missing it is a bad thing in my mind now.
Chatting with friends or in-laws used to take a load of energy because I constantly feared not being good enough. Gradually I realized that we all have that worry in us somewhere and in making others feel comfortable, I know I can feel that way too.
Going to outings and occasions used to test every single nerve that I had and I hate to admit this but I used to stress for DAYS ahead of every single little outing and get myself nearly sick by the day it arrived. In time with creating some positive memories, that began to fade and now I actually look forward to these things MOST of the time. 😉
In the end it is all just about finding ways to have a positive experience no matter how small and building on that positive memory until that becomes the memory that your mind remembers best. Even if you need to do that one small thing 100 times before your brain really gets the point that this is the way to go. There is no need for huge jumps. Just little steps all in the right direction and one day down the road you will suddenly realize that your new experience amazingly feels normal to you.
Creating a new neuropathway sounds like some really big and nearly impossible feat but think of it as a new walking path in that town you pictured before. The first time you walk it, the grass bends down then springs back up. When you’ve walked on it a bunch of times, the grass stays down and you can see clearly where you walked before. The more you walk on that path, the more obvious it becomes until one day it will look like that pathway was always there.
I have faith in you. Now it is time for you to have faith in you too. 🙂