Tag Archives: sick

N is for Neuroplasticity: Changing Your Life.

Welcome to N for neuroplasticity on the Blogging A-Z April Challenge. My theme for the challenge is: A Few of My Favourite Things and while neuroplasticity might seem left-field, I really want you to follow me on this journey because the power of neuroplasticity has radically changed my life and understanding how it works, can help you as well. You can read an overview of my journey in my About page here: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/about/.

While I can appreciate that neurplasticity might sound intimidating and be a trigger to flick to another blog, it is not as complex or mentally challenging as you might think. Nor is it some wafty, unproven fad. It’s a proven, scientific process, which has been championed by Canadian psychiatrist, Dr Norman Doidge through his two books: The Brain which Changes Itself and The Brain’s way of Healing.

In other words, it’s not a fairy story.

Neuroplasticity is really quite a simple concept when you explain it properly and when you harness its strength, you like me, will experience absolutely miraculous change. Unfortunately, you will still experience those “stubborn mules” which prove stubbornly resistant. However, at least, you know you’ve done your best to try and move them!

From what I’ve learned about neuroplasticity, we shouldn’t just be teaching kids the 3Rs but also how we learn. Some basics on how the brain works such as “use it or lose it” and how “practice perfects”. That our success or failure is based less on innate talent than hard work and that it takes a lot of hours…at least 10,000 to be precise, to even have a chance of making it to the top of our field. That success just doesn’t arrive on a silver platter.

Of course, some people have been blessed with bigger, faster engines but if they leave them in the shed, they’ll soon be overtaken by apparent snail power and left behind.

If you and your kids can get a grasp on how this works, you’ll never look back. You’ll still have ups and downs but you will be more empowered and skilled-up to tackle them more effectively. There’s little doubt you’ll be working harder but I guarantee you that whatever you apply yourself to, will see results. It’s as simple as:

1+1 = 2

It’s not rocket science.

Perhaps, the simplicity of it all is what stops people from having a go. We’d much rather put our faith in a much more complicated, mystical route than sticking to potentially tedious, repetitious practice and hard work…going over and over and over our mistakes until we have overcome them and “got it”.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

As a musician, I’ve experienced this first hand. Instead of playing my favourite sections of a piece over and over again, my teacher gets me reworking the rough bits and playing them over and over again. She doesn’t say: “Play it again, Sam”. Being somewhat of a slavedriver, albeit a very nice one, she says: “I want you to play that section 10-20 times a day to get it right”. This sort of detailed practice is quite foreign to me as I just want to get up there and play, especially to an audience but you can’t do that straight away. It might be a year’s worth of practice on that one piece of music to bring it to the level of perfection where it can be performed. That’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. However, once I have reached that long-awaited moment of victory, it’s like nothing else. A real eureka moment and I’m running down the street naked like Archemedes carrying my violin. Well, not quite but you get my drift!

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. He writes “that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!” Indeed, our brain is constantly remoulding and fine-tuning itself.

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

Neuroplasticity and Acceptance.

At the start of 2012 after a serious health scare, I set a personal challenge. I applied neuroplasticity to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr

You see, since forever, people have been telling me to accept things and quoted that prayer. Yet,  the trouble was that I simply didn’t know what I could change and what I had to accept and that’s what I decided to put to the test. I didn’t really set out with any clear cut goals but I was needing to lose some weight, which is a tough call when you’re taking prednisone AKA the “fat drug”.

It was during this time that I heard about brain plasticity and also the 10,000 hour rule and so what I was starting to appreciate was that I wasn’t set in stone. That all these words I used to describe myself, both the good and the bad, weren’t indeed words tattoed on my forehead which couldn’t be changed. They were more like stepping stones or train stops on a journey. I didn’t have to stay there. I could apply a bit of elbow grease and I could move on. Indeed, I was now in the driver’s seat and with the accelerator pushed to the floor, I was flying.

That was until I drove straight into pneumonia followed by a flare up of my auto-immune disease, which really was attacking my lungs this time and threatening my very existence.

Yes, neuroplasticity couldn’t fix everything.

However, my lungs have also responded to the same kind of repetitive practice and hard work which I’d applied to practicing my violin, except in this case I focused on building up my healthy lung cells instead of focusing on the damage and limitations. My lung volumes have since increased from a recorded low of 43% to 62% and are currently stable. In a sense it was a miracle and also the result of medical intervention but it also takes ongoing hard work.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to start walking before that all important tide comes in and puts me out of business.

Living in a tidal zone really reinforces the need to carpe diem seize the day because “the tide waits for no (hu)man.”

Xx Rowena

PS When school goes back next week, I’ll be having to reacquaint myself with my violin. It has been rather neglected of late and I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made!!

Sources

http://www.normandoidge.com/

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

My Son and the Rose

This morning, I had an incredible Eureka moment.

No! I didn’t go running naked through the streets like Archimedes but I was running naked on the inside. The drought had broken and I wanted to run outside and feel all those life giving raindrops wet against my skin. Stick out my dry, parched tongue and quench an insatiable thirst.

Our son did the most amazing thing and I was the proudest mother on earth! This came after a difficult time for our family and I really needed a bit of affirmation. Being a parent is a wonderful thing but it can also be quite a challenge. Like the rose, love also has its thorns.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

For the last four weeks, I’ve been ill. I’ve had serious stomach pains and I’ve barely been eating. I have also been sleeping a lot and feeling extremely vague. I wasn’t sure whether I had a virus or if it was stress. I had another appointment with my lung specialist (which went well) and more tests and was feeling pretty stressed. Anyway, I was finding it very difficult to get the kids to school and organised some outside support to help get them ready in the mornings. I also lined up some friends to drive them to and from school. I needed to stop and recover somehow.

Despite my usual health issues, I don’t usually stop and my whole modus operandi is to keep going no matter what. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when it feels like I’m wearing concrete shoes and it’s quite difficult to for me to walk or even lift my feet. At times, it can get very, very hard but I’ve always been convicted that it’s easier to keep going than try to restarting the engine. I guess I’m scared that if I stop and actually let everything go that I’ll lose the lot…poof!

Anyway, we’ve really enjoyed having our helper here and she finished up this morning. As a bit of a parting gesture, our son gave her a beautiful, red rose from our garden. We were both deeply moved not just because he gave her the flower but his timing was quite incredible. You see, she had been having a bit of a rough day and she really needed a bit of encouragement and then Mister just turned up offering that great timeless symbol of love…a beautiful, home-grown  red rose with all its thorns. It was exactly what the doctor ordered…exactly! I could have cried and our helper was naturally deeply moved. It’s not the sort of thing you expect from a knock-about nine year old boy who plays football and runs everywhere with dirty, skinned knees but our boy is often full of surprises. No matter how hard we might try to classify him and squeeze him into some kind of box, he resists. He is full of so many contradictions and always keeps me on my toes. I never know quite what to expect next.

I was so proud of him. I could have shouted it from a mountain top: “I have the very best son in the whole entire world!!”

I was so proud of him and yet there have been so many times as a parent when I’ve wondered whether anything is getting through. Some things are private but suffice to say that my son has struggled a lot with my illness. There are times when I’m well and fully present and there are times when I can be like a ghost. I’m there but not there. When he was 3.5 years old, I was admitted to hospital and rehab for 7 weeks. That was a very long time for such a little boy.

Reading with Mister while I was on weekend leave from the rehab hospital

Reading with Mister while I was on weekend leave from the rehab hospital

For awhile there, I was either in bed or in a wheelchair and was really crook. I had two professors looking after me along with an entourage of medical students. That gives you some idea of just how serious things were. My prognosis was really quite unknown. Mister came in to see me. He looked up at me with his huge brown eyes and blond curls and asked: “Mummy better? Mummy better?” I remember that moment so very, very clearly. Bang!  It was like being shot between the eyes. Being shot in the heart. I said absolutely nothing and simply didn’t reply because we didn’t know. We didn’t have an answer. It was an incredibly hard moment!

We look like the epitome of happiness yet this photo was taking while I was at rehab hospital.

We look like the epitome of happiness yet this photo was taking while I was at rehab hospital.

My illness hit Mister pretty hard. He knew what it was like to have his whole mum and to be the centre of my universe. We used to do so many things together.  Then, along came his little sister and shortly afterwards, I became ill and everything changed. I was so exhausted and we juggled his care between my parents, day care and time at home. We did our best and it wasn’t anybody’s fault but that didn’t mean he was happy with the situation. I knew he was angry. I knew that anger was somehow locked deep inside him and it wasn’t coming out. His development froze for some time and he stopped writing, cutting and drawing. My health is a constantly shifting carpet with marked good and bad days so we can’t really come to terms with anything. But these good days are also a blessing because we can largely live an almost “normal” life. We squeeze as much as we can out of life because we know life is short and we have to …carpe diem seize the day.

I view my illness as an external force, an outsider, some kind of malevolent stalker. I don’t blame myself and I certainly don’t see the illness as part of myself, who I am or part of my “identity”. This perspective has been quite critical to how I’ve managed. I live with dermatomyositis. I am not my disease.

Unfortunately, the kids don’t make that distinction. For them, the illness and I are one and the same. When I’m well and able to do things, they are happy and I am the best. When I’m sick, they usually muck up and I’m “the worst mother in the world”. That’s a bit simplistic but you get the gist.

It can be very difficult, discouraging and downright depressing when I’m fighting my disease and a pair of cranky kids at the same time. So when my son gave our helper the rose, it was so much more than just an act of kindness. It was a sign of healing and of hope. I saw such love and kindness in his heart.  It was extraordinary and I was immensely proud. The drought had broken.

The rose is usually used to symbolise the duality of romantic love…the beauty of the flower and the pain caused by its thorns…a double-edged sword. However, the rose also represents the love for your child. There is joy and pain as a parent which all starts off in childbirth I guess.

Somehow, when our relationships with our kids are going through a period of drought, we need to hang in there. Keep the lines of communication open so that when the drought breaks, the seed is still there ready to grow.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.

As beautiful as this moment was, I am still a realist. Every rose has its thorns but it’s still a rose.

xx Rowena 

PS It was interesting looking through the old photos to find some shots of Mister while I was in hospital. I have thought of him as a fairly lone, solitary figure and very sad. However, when I looked through the photos, I found much happiness, cuddles and togetherness. I actually remember kicking the ball briefly with  him while I was in rehab and we read together. We had fun despite our circumstances…an important thing to remember.