Faculty Reads: Neuroplasticity — Rewiring the Brain to Lower Anxiety

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A Fordham professor is using pioneering neuroscience research on the brain’s ability to change to help pastoral counselors address clients’ anxiety.

In his latest book, The Power of Neuroplasticity for Pastoral and Spiritual Care (Lexington Books, 2014), Dr. Kirk Bingaman, an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling, explores the impact that an adaptive mechanism known as “the negativity bias” has on our wellbeing. An evolutionary cousin of the “fight or flight” phenomenon, this bias describes the brain’s propensity to experience negative events more intensely in order to alert us to potential danger.

A built-in negativity bias was vital when humans lived as hunter-gatherers ever-at-the-ready to flee from a hungry lion. In today’s world, however, this bias tends to cause excessive negativity and anxiety.

“Today [this]anxiety spills over into our relationships with others and with ourselves,” said Bingaman, who teaches in Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. “It causes us to assume the worst, to overact to situations in ways such as, ‘Why did you look at me this way? Why did you use that tone?’”

Fortunately, Bingaman says, we are not condemned to primal negativity, thanks to the human brain’s capacity to change across the lifespan. With every new experience — learning new information, creating a memory, or adapting to a new situation — the brain undergoes structural changes, generating new neural pathways and reshaping existing ones. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, forms the crux of Bingaman’s book.

He argues that the most effective way to harness the power of neuroplasticity is through mindfulness meditation and contemplative spiritual practice. Through these therapeutic techniques and spiritual practices, clients learn to become aware of their thoughts and feelings. Rather than reacting to or trying to eliminate them, clients simply observe them as they come and go.

“Thoughts and feelings have a 90-second shelf-life biochemically. So when we experience an anxious thought or feeling, it will dissipate from the blood in 90 seconds — unless we feed the thought or judge ourselves for feeling that way,” he said. “The key to mindfulness-based therapy is to let thoughts and feelings come and go without fighting them. This then reduces the limbic activity in our brains and calms the amygdala.”

Himself a pastoral counselor, Bingaman says that the science of neuroplasticity will “necessitate a paradigm shift” in the way pastoral and spiritual caregivers approach their work with clients and congregants.

“Whether it’s therapy or theology, we need to really look at the frames of reference we are using to help the person in our care to calm their anxious brain. Some of our approaches are going to fire up the limbic region, and others will do the reverse.

“We have to make more use of it in religious and spiritual circles,” he continued. “Finding a regular contemplative practice is not something just for the mystics off in the desert. It’s for you and me and everyone else.”

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