Mind Switches: Everything That Needs to Change to Favour Change
How to work on the 4 key elements at the heart of change: neuroplasticity and metabolism, system balance, brain networks and hubs, natural flows
Levels of Change
What needs to change to favour change?
Philosophy first and psychology later have been posing this very question for a long time. The answers, depending on the authors and their different outlooks, are various: examples include acquired patterns, influences, internal representations, mindsets, automatisms, and more.
Over the years, research and clinical experience have confirmed that all these are equally valid models of interpretation, although each is different (Kamenov, Twomey, Cabello, Prina, & Ayuso-Mateos, 2017). It is useful, therefore, to consider what connects these processes, what other factors affect change, and which are effective (Bandelow et al., 2017). A scientific and pragmatic approach consists of shifting the level of analysis by examining the problem from a different perspective so that our question becomes: what changes when we modify acquired systems, influences, representations, memories, and so on?
A first answer can be found at the structural level—that is, change in the synaptic connections activated by a specific stimulus. A real-life example of this could be when a person sees a spider, which activates a fear response, and a neural pathway of a–b–c–d neurons activate in sequence. After effective therapy, however, the pathway may change, and a–b–f–z neurons (say) activate instead. This change is dependent on neural plasticity that enables new neural pathways and connections to develop. This process can be nurtured with some practical strategies and tools as provided by the therapist during the psychotherapy process to improve its effectiveness.
A second answer relates to the system level—by which we mean the balance of different systems in the body. When we say “further to trauma the amygdala remains hyperactive and triggers unnecessary anxiety responses”, what has changed? From a functional–anatomical perspective, a hyperactive amygdala is an inflamed amygdala, in the same way that excessive physical exertion can cause a swollen knee that hurts at the slightest touch. Understanding these different processes allows us to act synergistically on more than one level at the same time. In psychotherapy, and indeed in any change process, it is possible to reduce the inflammation and normalise the amygdala’s response, occasioning less intense defensive responses and making room for mentalization through targeted exercises and instruction—just as an anti-inflammatory drug provides relief to a swollen knee and enables initial rehabilitation movements.
These two examples illustrate the idea of change switches, or the steps to be taken from a dysfunctional state—featuring little neural plasticity, inflammation, misuse of cellular energy, failure to use interoceptive data, and many other phenomena that feed the problem (such as inflexible opinions, inability to read contextual clues correctly, low modulation of emotional responses, etc.)—to a functional state that instead favours the recovery of a physiological condition during adaptation and change processes.
Change switches are metaphorical switches that need to be “flicked” to promote flexible and evolutionary adaptation processes. These systems do not operate according to an on/off dichotomy but follow a series of gradual steps that can be worked on in a targeted way. The switch metaphor actually highlights the need to change the state in order to activate the required change. In visual terms: to switch on a light bulb, you need to flick the switch up or down so as to drive electricity to it, but if the electricity doesn’t flow or is intermittent, it will be difficult to do anything in that room (such as reading or working) in an ongoing and satisfying way.
We’ve classified the different switches according to two criteria. The first relies on reverse engineering by identifying what changes have occurred in people who have achieved a lasting and effective change. The other method is through a process of summarisation and integration, where we look at different disciplines for the most efficient elements and processes that promote change to well-being and physiological states, such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), mindfulness, meditation, verbal and physical psychotherapy, structured training and coaching techniques, and others.
In this enterprise we have been supported by a network of global professionals linked to the Integrative Sciences Hub (https://www.realwayoflife.com/en/hub/) who contributed data from clinical practice and took part in forums and research groups both online and in person. The primary focus of our work has always been a split between clinical evidence and ease of application in professional practice.
In this article we provide an in-depth analysis of the four categories we’ve designated to the different switches, defining each category by type and degree of functional interaction. First-level switches provide the foundation for the following levels, but all levels can provide significant retro-feedback on the previous levels.
The four major groups of switches are:
- Neural plasticity, energy and epigenetics;
- The science of psychosomatics: system balance;
- Networks and hubs: emotions and behaviour management headquarters; and
- Natural flows: doing your best, fluidly.
In addition, there is a practical operating system to manage all these aspects (outlined in the article), as well as tips, techniques and strategies to introduce them into your own professional practice.
This has been an excerpt from The Neuropsychotherapist Volume 6 Issue 10. For more great science of psychotherapy please become a member.