Driving to a yoga class today, I saw the bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
When we believe each thought that enters our head, especially the negative ones, we tend to stay trapped in old, destructive mindsets and behaviors. Coincidentally, this concept relates to my recent conversation with award-winning writer, Marya Hornbacher.
Her book underway argues that the mind can heal, and that our failure to see that is keeping us stuck. Tentatively titled, Beyond the Locked Door: Mental Illness and the Science of the Mind, the book is, according to Marya, “a blend of journalism and portraits, written in a personal voice, that explores the reality of mental health recovery.”
True to Marya’s authentic style, to capture the hearts of those whose stories she shares within the book, over the next two years, she will spend some actual time with them. She will both live and work with various individuals in an effort to find out what recovery means to them as well as to determine how each person’s brain chemistry has shifted along their journey to health.
Exploring how the brain can heal from emotional and physiological wounds, Marya will dive into neuroplasticity. If you aren’t familiar with this term, “neuro” refers to the nerve cells in our brain while “plastic” essentially means pliable. In other words, we can influence our minds—in both negative and positive ways.
Unlike what scientists used to believe, we do have the power to “wire” our own brains. With each thought that we entertain or activity that we engage in, neurons forge links with one another. For example, as a behavior like bingeing and purging is repeated, the neural connections to engage in this activity become stronger. The more that this behavior is repeated, the stronger these neural links become.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” I learned in college biochemistry class. Ironically, I didn’t realize that this same concept could have helped explain why I was having so much trouble with bingeing at the time. I would make promises to never binge again only to break that commitment by the end of the day or sometimes even the hour. The more I binged, the harder it was to stop bingeing. And the more I restricted after bingeing, the more that pattern was engrained in my life as well.
I wish Marya had been following and studying my recovery back then. If I had understood the power of neuroplasticity, my journey may have been less rocky.
In the early years, I often found myself waiting for external circumstances to change rather than being willing to take the pro-recovery action no matter what. Ultimately, after lots of falling down, I did learn that “nothing changes if nothing changes,” and I began to “do the next right thing.” And, yes, positive affirmations and slogans like this can help to rewire thoughts.
In fact, with the new afterword to her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, Marya writes, “I said I’d do what it takes, and if that meant living by clichés for a while, fine. Whatever works. I used affirmations…Till I was tired of them beyond belief.”
Also in the updated edition of Wasted, Marya notes:
And I hate to say it, but the process of reversing a pride in sickness and taking instead a confidence in strength involved incredibly simple work: it required an active re-writing of my thoughts, the most basic of cognitive behavioral skills.”
You, too, can re-write your thoughts. You can rewire your brain to change your life. Marya’s work emphasizes that recovery is in your hands.
To get better, she stresses the importance of self-directed goal seeking. In her upcoming book, she will talk about what specific tasks people need to do in order to achieve healing from various ailments. She will explore both medical and psychological treatments as well as physiological changes that support recovery.
Marya will discuss “strategies for unsticking.” These include meditation and yoga as well as biofeedback, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). She will consider how each strategy actually works to re-route neural pathways.
Following my yoga class today, I must say that my mind did feel happier. I felt calmer and more grounded. Beyond the Locked Door will help explain why.
Marya’s excitement about our fascinating brains is quite contagious. I personally cannot wait to read her book. But, apparently, I will have to wait, as Houghton Mifflin’s scheduled release date isn’t set yet.
In the meantime, I am going to try my best to adhere to bumper sticker wisdom and not believe everything I think! What will you choose to believe?
This post is one in a Life Without Ed Birthday Blog Series celebrating both recovery and the Tenth Anniversary Edition of the book!