Q: Recently I've heard a lot of people in the community mention they don't believe in the term "recovery", and some saying that you shouldn't care if your ITs go away. I find this to be unmotivating and it makes me question whether the recovery stories are real. Any thoughts here?
A: I've personally witnessed some pretty amazing recoveries and can verify that at least some of the recovery stories are true. The vast majority of people who do brain retraining programs come to these programs because they have symptoms that are negatively affecting their quality of life, symptoms that they want to alleviate. It is the strong desire to get better and the possibility of a greatly improved life that provides the motivation to go through at least six months (often more) of dedicated daily brain retraining. A better quality of life and alleviation of many symptoms is something that is possible, which is what makes brain retraining programs worthwhile. It is also good to keep in mind that recovery stories emphasize what is going well and are rarely the full picture perspective. Lots of times people in those stories still have aspects of recovery they are working on. That doesn't change how thrilled they are with the progress and gains they have made. Those changes often instill a strong belief that whatever is left can be improved too, and it is that excitement and belief that often comes across in the testimonials.
Our brains and nervous systems never stop being neuroplastic and changeable. The fairy-tale notion of recovery where once you recover you live "happily ever after" is neither realistic nor accurate. Recovery is not fixed. Life still happens. Stressors come along. But once you have a solid baseline in wellbeing, it is a lot easier to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life. Because you have the brain retraining tools in your toolbox, issues don't typically take hold in the same way or to the same degree that they did in the past. Quality of life overall is still up from what it was originally. If we understand this and can come to a level of acceptance with it, then after we've achieved that initial level of recovery, whether or not we have symptoms becomes a less important and is not generally worth a lot of focus or attention. We simply do what we need to do and instead the focus is on what we value and what brings in more quality of life. Because of this dynamic nature of recovery, some people choose to use a different term to describe it, referring to it as more of a journey or path that is ongoing. Personally I see recovery as having two parts: 1) establishing an overall baseline of wellbeing and 2) having the psychological and nervous system flexibility to move into and out of stress responses when they arise.
Brain retraining programs typically emphasize taking the focus away from symptoms, focusing instead on implementing the tools for recovery and trusting that the symptoms will go away in their own time. There is value in this advice. When we focus on symptoms we are reinforcing the maladaptive pathways in our brain and activating our stress response. This keeps us stuck in the brain and nervous system patterns that are responsible for producing the symptoms we experience. In order to stop reinforcing the maladaptive pathways and stop activating our stress response, we need to stop focusing on the symptoms. When we do catch ourselves slipping into these old habits, it is important to redirect and let our brains know we are safe. By interrupting the constant signalling that we are having symptoms (aka we are in danger), the old pathways are no longer being stimulated to the same degree and thus have a chance to start breaking apart and pruning away. At the same time, through redirection and elevation of our emotional state we are reinforcing alternative, healthier pathways in the brain that contribute to our wellbeing and the alleviation of symptoms. It takes a level of understanding of the brain and a great deal of trust to be able to let go of focusing on symptoms and know that they will go away in their own time.
Some retrainers take the stance that we don't have to wait for symptoms to be gone to start creating a life that has meaning and value. By creating a life that has purpose and meaning based on our values, we can achieve a much higher quality of life despite what is happening physically. Naturally, as the focus is shifted toward what we want (instead of what we are trying to get rid of) it helps change the pathways of the brain and does often contribute to a decrease in symptoms as a by-product. Even if symptoms don't fully dissipate people are generally happier and more engaged in their lives as a result.
Regardless of how you define recovery, what term you use, whether your primary desire is to decrease symptoms or to increase purpose and value in your life, what is most important is that you've got a perspective that fits for you and helps to motivate you to do what is necessary to move forward. Regardless of perspective, at the end of the day we are all striving for the same goal: an increased quality of life.
Until next time!
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Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com