Airports, airplanes, and neuroplasticity.

    When I wrote my last post, I told a story about how much I hate flying, and how that changed when I recently flew back East to surprise my niece and nephew. I developed my aversion to flying during 2010, when I kept flying back and forth from Denver to Pittsburgh to help support my parents during the last year of their life as they were battling the end stages of the same disease.

    During that time, I was happy to be able to be with them, and give them the help and support they needed. However, each trip took a little bit more out of me as I watched them go through the process of dying. At the Denver airport, I had no idea what awaited me at the other end. At the Pittsburgh airport, I would have major anxiety over leaving them and worry if I had passed on all of the pertinent information to the next sister on deck. It’s not like we didn’t all have cell phones on high alert as well as each other on speed dial, but I still worried endlessly. To further complicate matters, I am self employed, and the possibility of losing my business was quickly becoming a reality. No wonder why I hate flying.
    However, during my recent trip to Pittsburgh, my intense aversion to flying slowly changed over the course of a few days. Somehow, my nervous system remembered a “feel good” quality triggered by flying home for a fun visit, a party and a whirlwind of activities, much like I did before my parents became ill. This wasn’t something I experienced in a cognitive way, but more as a vague sensation of anticipation and well being. That pleasant sensation stayed with me during the weekend and was gently reinforced with each positive experience.

    The plasticity of my nervous system was able to interrupt the pattern of stress, grief, loss and worry and allow for a new pattern to emerge. Actually, the “new” pattern was one of anxiety related flying and had only been reinforced over the past two years. The synaptic connections were not as strong as the previous ones that I had related to flying, and therefore were more malleable and receptive to allow for change to occur. What I experienced was an emotional neuroplasticity. The change was gradual and subtle, but it was there.
    The point is, our nervous system is always “listening” and readily available to change and learn new patterns of feeling, sensing, thinking and moving. The science of neuroplasticity is not a highly complicated subject limited only for the neuroscientists to explore; in reality it is far more simple than that and is accessable for all of us to understand. I like to call it “the simplicity of plasticity”. Trust the intelligence of your nervous system. It knows what to do, but sometimes we just have to get out of it’s way.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP