Growing up in Florida, I fondly remember the long summer days of my childhood. Spending time outside with friends, riding my bicycle, and swimming in the pool are memories that I will never forget. Sometime around the age of 5, my family decided to replace the gutters that lined the front side of our house. For some reason, there was a delay in putting on the new gutters and they were not installed for about a month (a long time in a child’s eyes!). Much to my excitement (and my parent’s frustration) the daily afternoon rain rushed off the side of our house and created a small trench. The water travelled downhill as it cut into the earth moving dirt and mulch to the side. A pathway developed until finally the water spilled out onto the concrete sidewalk. During the first few days of “the trench situation”, I remember walking passed it and plotting what fun things I could do with this newly developing natural wonder. With each passing storm, I noticed that the rainwater began moving faster down the trench; it became deeper and longer. I decided that I would try to sail a small toy boat from one end of the trench to the other. Waiting in anticipation for the afternoon storm, I gathered the boat and my favorite action figure. The clock struck 3pm and in true Florida fashion the rain began. It was time to sail! The water started flowing from the roof and my boat took off much faster than I had anticipated. I remember my excitement as the boat had its first successful voyage. As the summer days and storms continued, I would race outside to sail down the trench until the day the new gutters were installed.
In a similar way, our brains are connected by electro-chemical pathways that move information like the boat speeding down the trench. These pathways are made up of approximately 100 billion cells called “neurons”, that form the networks that regulate our brain function (Zillmer, 2001, p. 5). Just as the water deepened and lengthened the trench in my childhood story, our neural connections become stronger with use and repetition as they carry information to different regions of the brain. As we learn and have different life experiences, new connections are formed and expand this informational “loch system”. Recognition of the structural components and pathways of the brain (neurons) are important to consider as they are foundational in the ways that we take in information about the outside world and perceive our inner mental life (our internal dialogue and beliefs). Patterns of thinking can be viewed as becoming “entrenched” as neurons that fire in repetitive ways become reflexive and cause one to rely on old habits.
When people begin psychotherapy, they often gain insight into the messages that they carry with them about past situations and experiences. In some cases, these messages communicate strength and resilience, while in other cases, these messages may be more critical and self-defeating in nature. Often, if someone grew up in a difficult family environment or has experienced deep emotional wounding in their life, they are more prone to carrying hurtful messages with them into the present. Like the rainwater eroding the soil, these messages from the past create new trenches in the mind that impact one’s mood and daily functioning. These beliefs can develop into negative language loops that influence a person’s relationships with others and limit their ability to clearly evaluate themselves and their decisions. If for instance a person consistently tells themselves that they are bad or are not good enough, then those lines of thinking become their beliefs. They begin to face problems and situations in life from what may be an unrealistic position. In reality those beliefs probably do not apply to every, or even most situations that they encounter.
Fortunately, there is good news! When a person is able to identify these messages, explore and process related emotions, and evaluate the accuracy of those beliefs in the present, they are better able to begin changing their brain pathways to form new healthier routes to sail in their mind. Working with a therapist is a great way to begin exploring your internal dialogue and the ways that messages from the past may influence your current life experience.
What are some of the negative phrases, thoughts, or beliefs that have been sailing around for too long in your mind?
Where did these thoughts and patterns come from?
What would it look like to forge new sailing routes that would make for smoother seas mentally?
By Andrew Watson, LMHC
Zillmer, E. A., & Spiers, M.V. (2001). Principles of Neuropsychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth