Neuroplasticity to the Rescue

09.03.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Overcoming social anxiety by Eileen Purdy MSW, M.Ed.


Change in your discouraging and negative anxious thoughts and feelings is totally possible and probable thanks to recent scientific discoveries of just how awesome our brains are! It’s time to rekindle your optimism and retrain old anxious thought patterns.

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, neuroscientists started finding evidence that contradicted their previously held belief that the brain stopped growing in one’s late teenage years. Scientists found that the brain actually continued to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout one’s lifetime. The scientific name they gave the discovery is neuroplasticity, which means just what the name implies—the brain (neuro) has the quality of being shaped or altered (plasticity).

Neuroplasticity also allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in the environment. If that’s not amazing enough, scientists have discovered that people are able to personally direct the formation of new neural connections with directed effort and repetition. This means you can change things like your abilities, talents, and intelligence and also things like your anxious thoughts and feelings!

Neuroplasticity to the rescue!

So, you ask, how do you use neuroplasticity to counteract your brain’s tendencies and biases toward anxious and negative characteristics?

The solution is quite straightforward. In order to change your brain’s current tendencies and biases, you must create new neural pathways to take the place of the old ones.

Dr. Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist known for his work in the field of associative learning, was the first to use the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more we repeat a thought, feeling, or behavior, the stronger the neural connections become. The stronger the neural connections, the more we default to those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

So, to overcome your social anxiety, you will need to make and strengthen new, less worried and anxious neural pathways.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say after years of driving to work the exact same way you start taking a new route to work. You start taking this new route every morning for a month. Over time, driving this new route every day, a habit starts. Without even thinking about it, you now default to driving this new route. This is similar to how you’ll be retraining your brain.

Here is a strategy I’ve found to be extremely effective.

• When you have a worried, fearful, or anxious thought, tell your brain it is a “false alarm.” You don’t have to explain why you think it is irrational or try to explain it away. You simply label it a false alarm.

• After you tell yourself this is a false alarm, you turn your attention to something else. You focus on something in the here and now, because anxiety and worry are about things in the future.

• With practice and repetition, your brain gets the message and stops sending that thought.

An example for this strategy might look like this. You have a presentation at work today. You wake up feeling nauseous and your heart is beating out of your chest. You start thinking that you are going to totally forget everything you need to say during your presentation and your boss will think you are a total fraud. You are tempted to call in sick.

This is when you’d use the above strategy. You recognize your thoughts of “I’m going to totally forget everything I need to say during my presentation and my boss will think I’m a complete fraud” and you tell yourself those thoughts are false alarms. You then turn your attention onto something in the here and now, like taking your shower, eating breakfast, etc. Each time your mind starts sending you those freak-out messages, you label them false alarms and turn your attention away from them. Your anxiety will dissipate because you aren’t giving it your attention. You successfully leave for work.

Over time, with practice and repetition of labeling your false alarms and turning your attention, you will create new and improved neural pathways, and your brain will stop sending those anxious thoughts and feelings.

I heart neuroplasticity!


Tomorrow’s lesson focuses on the Spotlight Effect. You’ll learn why you feel like everyone is always noticing all your mistakes and how you can turn the spotlight off.


Recommended reading

Free Workbook: Behavior Can Be Designed


Recommended book

“Anxiety Rebalance: All the Answers You Need to Overcome Anxiety and Depression” by Carl Vernon


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