Q: I have been loyally doing brain retraining every single day for over a year and have not seen the progress I would like and am feeling burned out. I know that I should not measure progress in terms of symptoms but it can be hard not to at times. What would you recommend?
A: Typically when people are not making progress it is because the maladaptive pathways in the limbic system are still being reinforced in some way. Stress can be a factor, along with not consistently catching and redirecting automatic negative thoughts or not really accessing or staying in elevated emotional states. We have to remember that even if we are diligently practicing the one hour of practice rounds a day, if there are things going on in the other 23 hours that are reinforcing the pathways that we are trying to undo, then we are not going to see much progress.
I suggest that you look at how much stress is going on in your life currently, and if there is a lot, see if there are ways you can minimize them and simplify your life for a while, or learn more tools to help manage it. I recommend cultivating your curious observer through meditation or mindfulness practices, which will help you discern what states your are in during the day, and then make elevated thoughts and emotions your go-to throughout the day as much as possible. The more time you can spend in a positive, elevated state, the more you are reinforcing the alternative pathways and blocking stimulation of the old pathways. You can also use your emotional state as a baseline indicator of where your limbic system is functioning. If we are in more of the positive/elevated states, or are very calm and peaceful, it is an indication we are firing the alternative pathways and neurochemistry. If we are feeling negative in any way - frustrated, sad, angry, hopeless, resistant, fearful, desperate, dreading, resigned, disengaged, disconnected, etc. that is an indicator that in that moment the maladaptive pathways are being reinforced and we need to intervene. If you are constantly noticing exhaustion, pain, or other symptoms, it is also important to intervene and redirect your attention to other things every time you catch yourself focusing on it. What you focus on is what you grow.
Sometimes it is also helpful to ask the people closest to you (that you trust) to give you feedback on what they notice in your thoughts and emotional states. You can even share the list of POPs/automatic negative thoughts/cognitive distortions with them and ask which ones they notice you do. We all have blind spots that we do not see within ourselves and feedback from others can help bring those to conscious awareness. Once we are aware, we can begin to intervene.
If, after trying these tools for a while you are still struggling, then consider rewatching the program you are implementing. Do so with a curious and open mind, to deepen your understanding and ensure you are implementing all of the pieces of the program to the best of your ability. You may also consider working with a coach to help troubleshoot and support you in your recovery.
Q: I wanted to ask for some advice about using different triggers. I have frequently not seen much change when I use physical triggers before rounds. So, I've ended up choosing one to do for about a month, then moving on even after I haven't seen much change so my brain doesn't focus on the specific trigger. I (theoretically at least) understand that this process is about increasing neuroplasticity before doing a round and not the specific trigger. Still, this has happened so may times I feel like I am doing something wrong. What would you recommend?
A: A trigger is optimal when it is a slight challenge just outside of your comfort zone. If it is too challenging, it over-triggers the limbic system, making it more difficult to stop stimulating the old pathways and switch over to the new ones. If it is not challenging enough, you will not progress because it is not stretching your limbic system beyond where it is already functioning. We want to try and find that sweet spot and remember that sometimes less is more, especially if you are in the habit of doing big challenges.
I also encourage you to be aware of the your self-talk and the expectations you have about the physical challenges. If we dislike doing the challenge or we expect that it is going to be difficult or not going to work, this will reinforce the maladaptive pathways and make it harder to progress. It will also release the neurochemistry in our brains making it more likely that a negative outcome will occur (based on our expectations). Keep in mind that the trigger should come immediately before the round of practice, and that the more effective we are at creating an elevated emotional state during the round, the more effectively we are sending the message to our brains that this trigger is no longer a threat or stressor to us. Instead it can now be associated with wellbeing.
Finally, try to bring your full attention to what you are saying and doing in the practice rounds. Sometimes, especially after practicing for a while, we can start to go through the motions on autopilot rather than actually being present. If we are in autopilot and not giving our focus and attention to what we are doing/saying/creating, we will not get the benefits. Consider making slight changes to the wording or how you do your rounds of practice to help engage your attention. Pick elevated emotional states that are easiest for you to access and work with those for a while. Examples may include feeling love for those closest to you and really reflecting on what it is you love and appreciate about them; enjoying the beauty and wonder of nature or art; having gratitude for all the things we have it our lives that are going well (despite the parts that aren't); or finding humour in funny baby animal videos. Anything that elevates your emotional state in some way will be beneficial in your recovery, both inside and outside of practice rounds. The more we can access these elevated states as soon as we are triggered, the more effective we can be at changing the neural pathways in the brain.
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