Written By: Debra Johnson, MS, OTR/L

Neuroplasticity is a hot topic these days when it comes to learning, therapeutic strategies, and development. At its core, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and create responses that are the most efficient for survival. Human brains are in a constant state of seeking out stability while simultaneously being capable of tremendous change. It is truly a remarkable organ that allows humans to adapt at both a conscious and unconscious level. Harnessing this amazing capacity for adaptation is one of the greatest abilities humans possess. As professionals we can use these principles to help both ourselves and our clients.

Times of stress create what is called “negative neuroplasticity,” resulting in physical, chemical, and cellular level changes in the brain that contribute to maladaptive behavioral, physical and emotional responses that are not supportive of health and well being. This impact is well documented in trauma research and interventions. However, we also know of many ways to support “positive neuroplasticity” that can nurture adaptive responses, support mental and physical health, and even contribute to the repair of “negative neuroplasticity” impacts. Here are 3 things you can focus on now that support health, wellness, and recovery through even the most difficult times, with people of all ages, abilities, and even for yourself.

  1. FOUNDATIONS: The foundations for brain health include nutrition, sleep, exercise, social interaction, and stress reduction. Focusing on these 5 components as a basis for wellness are always crucial. While this time of social distancing and shelter-at-home orders makes it difficult, remember that these are all things we can control. Choosing to keep healthy foods in the house, maintaining a regular sleep/wake routine, getting exercise on a daily basis, maintaining social contact via email, phone, or video chats, and starting or maintaining a practice of mindfulness are all more critical now than Focusing on these foundations is one way we can support our clients during a time where life has been turned upside down. When it seems like the world is out of our control, we can each focus on the aspects of our daily routines that are in our control.

2. RELATIONSHIPS: Research is abundant to support the crucial role that relationships and social engagement play in development and brain health. You can support positive relationships by focusing on skills of observation, communication, and Follow these steps to improve connections with others:

a. Observe behaviors without judgement so you can collect information and better understand why a person is acting as they do. Recognize that the behavior of another is not a reflection on you as you are only in control of your own behaviors. Watch, ask questions, and learn about the person in order to shape your own responses to their behaviors. 

b. Communicate openly and with an intent to listen to the other person. Ask open ended questions such as “what did you think about Joey when he took your toy?” rather than being accusatory, shaming, or intimidating. Allow others time to respond to questions, give space for expressing feelings without judgement, and focus on understanding instead of persuading others.

c. Empathize with others. Expand your own capacity for empathy by exploring your own feelings, examining your own behaviors and recognizing your role in they dynamics of any relationship. Empathy means being able to understand what if feels like for another person and to support that person in who they are and where they are in the moment. It is the essence of true human connection. 

3. PLAY: When stress runs high it can be very difficult to see humor or find motivation for playfulness, yet this is a time when it is truly most important for all of us. Research speaks to the importance of playful experiences as benefiting humans by supporting development, enhancing learning, facilitating relationships, and restoring health. Our bodies and brains can only withstand so much trauma and stress before experiencing lasting detrimental effects. Take time for play in your life and encourage clients to do the same. Incorporate play into therapy sessions, for young and old alike. Identify old interests or explore new ones to incorporate more variety and playfulness throughout the day. 

Consider these types of play as ways to expand play experiences, mixing the types play for increased variety and interest. It is easy, for example, to create playful experiences that fall into two or more categories, such as Social, Outdoor, and Physical.

A. Social Play: May take the form of telling jokes and stories, “peek-a-boo” and “chase me” with toddlers, board games, video games, sports activities, and watching movies together. Any activity that involves leisure with others, in any capacity, constitutes social play. 

B. Physical Play: May take the form of parent and child “rough-housing” or children playing tag, sports activities, playground games, sensory pathways or movement activities. Any activity with movement and motor demands constitutes physical play. 

C. Pretend Play: May take the form of role playing, using toy figures, video games or board games, story telling, puppetry, or dramatic arts. Any play that includes a suspension of reality can be pretend play. 

D. Outdoor Play: May take the form of play in the yard, sports activities, nature walks, picnics, or just sitting outside. It is easy to incorporate other types of play in the outdoors, enhancing sensory experiences and the positive effects of nature on development, stress reduction, and brain function. 

E. Media Play: May take the form of creative arts with painting, drawing, crafts, computer generated arts, textile arts, outdoor play with mud, sticks, and leaves, or play with food. Any activity that involves manipulating media of some kind is included as media play. 

As therapy professionals, we are in a unique position to understand and harness the power of neuroplasticity for enhancing wellness and nurturing development during challenging times, regardless of the challenges we face. Stay rooted in the basic principles for yourself and focus on these principles as you guide your clients through the days ahead. Stay well!

To learn more about Deb’s course, “Neuroplasticity and Development,” visit https://summit-education.com/c/CNEUDJ.1.