Why Your Neurons Are Holding You Back (And How To Change It)

I want to write about neurons. Why? Because they are so damned interesting to me. I look at my life. I have 43 years (as of this article) of behaving a certain way. My body and brain developed a mechanism and a pathway for me to survive and make it through life at a fairly functional level. Most of what I’ve done has been done at an unconscious level. The feelings and thoughts I have today are not new; they’ve been there since I was a kid, but I never understood why I felt and thought the way I did when many of my friends and peers seemed to respond differently to the same circumstances. I always felt out of control.

Now, I am understanding what happened and a lot of it has to do with the programming I received during development. Programming that created and established a well-oiled machine of fuckery—it’s my blog so I can say certain words even though they may be inappropriate ;). What happened is my brain and body worked together to create neural pathways for my survival.

You know, I think about my mom and her mental illness. She developed multiple personalities to handle her life. In reality, that’s pretty amazing. The brain and body have the ability to create personalities with distinct thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses. Gawda, Bernacka, and Gawda (2016) found that the neural mechanism of personality disorders are so intertwined that it is difficult to distinguish one personality disorder from another. Gawda et al. found that many people with these disorders are resistant to change because the issues they experience involve their neural mechanisms and the way those were structured. In essence, during development, the brain wired neurons for survival and mixed those with neural mechanism for daily functioning, personality, and everything else we need to live. It’s almost like the personality is a cancer—in a sense. It grew along with, and mixed in with everything else we needed to survive, and hopefully, thrive. Yet, the brain knew which pathways to use to help the individual survive. Unfortunately, for many of us, those pathways persisted and started to hinder our lives.

It really is amazing how a simple neuron—which to me is a simple machine, but so complex in what it can accomplish. It’s like Legos; by themselves they don’t do much, but put them together and you can build amazing things—can have such an impact on our lives.

A neuron is an alien looking cell that combines with other neurons to form pathways and networks to accomplish functions in the body. In the mammalian brain alone, there are between 100 million and 100 billion individual neurons working together—depending on the species—to send and receive messages for the purpose of helping the creature survive and thrive in its environment (http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2012/the-neuron/). Holy shit that’s a lot of neurons! 

If you were to see a neuron, you might be disgusted by it. It’s pretty ugly—except its beautiful in its simplicity and function. A single neuron consists of dendrites (part of the neuron that receives messages), synapses (part of the neuron that sends messages), the cell body (part of the neuron the determines its function), and the axon (a communication pathway that extends from the cell body). The axon develops a myelin sheath (a sheath that thickens with use to increase the speed of a signal). When a neuron fires, it’s like a gun; it’s all or nothing. It either fires everything it has in one direction or it doesn’t. When we use a pathway over and over, the myelin sheath gets stronger and the behavior becomes more automated so that it can perform at an unconscious level; and you and I have billions of these things firing mostly at an unconscious level every day. That means that much of our behavior is so ingrained that it happens faster than we can consciously process. No wonder we’re all f***’d up (did you like my censoring? I know, a little late, but there it is 😊)!

Anyway, with billions of these neurons running their programs, we are likely to do what we learned when we were young, not even realizing a certain program was running. This is what I love about the diagnosis or possibility of C-PTSD because it helps me realize that much what I do was programmed before I even had a say. Granted, changing it will be hard because I am battling 43 years of running the same program, down the same network, on really strong axons covered with thick myelin sheaths, that override any reasonable thought I might have.

It’s not a death sentence though. Yes, it can be hard to change, but through conscious effort and with the help of therapy and supportive peers, I can create new pathways. This is called neuro-plasticity; the ability of the body and brain to develop new pathways for neural mechanisms. We all have this ability! That’s awesome and the first step is recognizing that we have the power to change our neural pathways until the day we die. We own that! Bekrater-Bodmann et al. (2016; para 5) said that the perception of ownership for one's body, i.e., the sensation that the whole body or its parts belong to oneself, is an essential feature of self-experience.

It’s not easy to change, but you can do it! I can do it! It takes practice. It takes discipline. It takes persistence, but I can promise you that with time, you can change your behaviors. Yes, you are battling old programming. There will be days that it feels like you are a tiny tugboat pushing a huge cargo ship, but you can do it! I would invite you to look into neurons and neuro-plasticity and trust that you have the ability to change. It might take time, but what you were given during development no longer serves you and its now up to you to change the direction of your neural mechanisms.

So, what are your thoughts on this? What have you discovered? Tell me in the comments.

Bekrater-Bodmann, R., Chung, B. Y., Foell, J., Gescher, D. M., Bohus, M., & Flor, H. (2016). Body plasticity in borderline personality disorder: A link to dissociation. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 69, 36-44. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.05.002

Gawda, B., Bernacka, R., & Gawda, A. (2016). The neural mechanisms underlying personality disorders. NeuroQuantology, 14(2) doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14704/nq.2016.14.2.948

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