Is it possible to "reshape" the brain and improve symptoms of mental illness?
Researchers say "yes". Having been "institutionalized" for major depressive disorder, as readers might already be aware, I know for a fact that at least one mental health institution does provide a dynamic model for treatment. They don't just force medications down our throats as so many incorrectly believe, ignorance equals stigma. I participated in a bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of treatment for two months,and it was used for treating mood disorders not to cure necessarily, but to hopefully improve symptoms, prevent relapse and provide hope for patients who simply want to have more control over their illness.
"Bio" is obvious, the physical/medical illness requires medication to assist those neurotransmitters or neurological chemicals to perform their assigned task. "Psycho" is the psyche, the individual's view of him/herself individually and in relation to the rest of society. I discovered my self perception included negative self talk, negative core beliefs, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. Many of these beliefs are the by- product of the illness and how society perceives me because of my illness.Those suffering from mental illness perceive themselves to be "inadequate", "dysfunctional", "useless", "unreliable" and "untrustworthy",so yes, those affected contribute to their own stigmatization which I will address later, but those ideas are taught to us by a society that, by and large, does not understand mental illness. It's a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. We were taught thoughts create feelings, so if I feel lesser than everyone else for whatever reason, then it's likely that I will eventually become depressed. Consequently, we were taught to first become aware of how we perceive ourselves, and how inaccurate are our perceptions when we examine our lives and realize that we are fully functioning individuals with an illness. This reshaping of thought patterns and consequently restructuring of the brain is called "neuroplasticity". Neuroplasticity has been studied for over twenty years now, and the findings are somewhat conclusive when examining MRI's. So simply by replacing "I'm no fun" with "I am fun when I'm not feeling well" and making it how I perceive myself, I can actually help prevent a depressive episode or at least lengthen the time between episodes, and this applies to many other psychiatric illnesses as well.
The social aspect of the model again uses the concept of neuroplasticity to help reshape the brain into being more social and changing the way in which those who are ill communicate with others. Many who suffer from mental illness isolate because of negative beliefs or lack of motivation. This aspect of the model teaches the importance of remaining in touch with society even if it means just going for a walk or window shopping. We are restructuring our brain to understand and accept we are, in fact, part of the rest of society, and we should not seclude ourselves not matter what anyone tells us. In terms of communication, another result of negative self talk and negative core beliefs, is we tend to have little if any personal boundaries and great difficulty asserting our needs. We often are defensive when it isn't necessary, because it's the negative core belief and low self esteem that is effecting how we are perceiving the communication. This fact is reinforced by studies where the "goal is to increase activity of particular areas of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate (a key decision-making area) or the prefrontal cortex (a location of planning), or to decrease the activity of other areas, like the brain's fear center, the amygdala. In other studies, the goal is to actually get parts of the brain (like the hippocampus) to regrow." ( David J. Hellerstein, M.D) By learning to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, and asserting our needs, we are increasing activity in certain areas of our brains.
Finally, the spiritual aspect does not refer necessarily to a religion as much as a positive and clear belief system. Mindfulness or meditation was practiced daily in the hospital I was in, because mindfulness or meditation helps us to quiet the chatter in our minds, to be more aware of ourselves, and our surroundings thereby allowing us to be less reactive and respond with more clarity, consequently we can better address our own needs. One patient in a study took up yoga to help with trauma and depression, and she reported improvement in her calmness and general sense of well being. Specifically, Dr. Hellerstein believes "yoga allowed her to decrease the activity of her brain's fear center, the amygdala."
So what does all this mean? It means that there is hope for those who suffer from psychiatric disorders in being able to better manage their illness. Like a newly diagnosed diabetic must learn new eating regimes and life style habits in order to manage his/her illness, so do I, and those like me. Learning how to self nurture, be self loving, being positive, and learning how to be mindful is beneficial not only to those who suffer mental illness but everyone. Life is stressful, we all need help managing stress, and work environments are where the majority of that stress lives, but by changing how we think, we can change how we feel. Now you're saying, sure I can just imagine what people at work would say if someone said "we're going to meditate everyday, and we're going to be self-nurturing, positive, and supportive of each other." That's insane....they might laugh you out of the building, right? Well, why not be positive and supportive if it's going to help? Interestingly, that's the same stigma we fight every day. I'm a pretty positive, life-loving, happy person but just last weekend a friend insensitively said to me "yeah, but you're unbalanced" and this morning on the radio, I heard "we should just ignore crazy people or round them up and kill them".... hard to be positive with attitudes like that all around you.
For further information on neuroplasticity...
Neuroplasticity and addiction recovery...