The Neurobiology of Change

Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

o, I did a number on my neck. I know that those of you who know me are thinking this was definitely horse-related. Of course, it was horse-related, but only tangentially. During the last cold snap this winter, on my way out to the pasture to open the gate, I slipped on the ice which had built up around the automatic water-tank, fell back and knocked myself out. When I came to, my clothes were soaked from the snow and I couldn’t move anything but my eyes.

Gratefully, the paralysis — though terrifying and clarifying — was temporary and the damage was fixable, thanks to a talented surgical team and the miracle of modern medicine. In a few more weeks I’ll be able to resume most of my normal activities. But I’ll have to avoid things that frequently invoke gravity-induced impacts, like horseback riding, which has been an integral part of my life in Montana, my mental health and even my identity. This post isn’t about the difficulty of that decision — the decision was easy. Despite the importance of my life-long relationship with my equine companions, I value my mobility more, so I will have to close that chapter of my story. But how do you say goodbye to your 1200-pound family members and grieve the loss of the you you thought you were?

The surgery to repair my neck and relieve the pressure on my spinal cord forced an involuntary hard-brake slow-down on my busy life-road. My doctor says I’m looking at two years to life with a 6-month mandatory minimum, and strict prohibition against riding atop any commonly domesticated four hooved animals. Wait, what?

A while back, I wrote about transition rituals to help smooth the day to day bumps while working up to our necks in secondary trauma. But what about the big transitions like the death of a friend, divorce, changing careers, moving to a new city or . . . going horseless? If the former involves shifting gears, then this kind of transition is more like jumping out of a moving vehicle at highway speed.

Evidently our brains crave homeostasis and even slight changes in our environment can activate our internal threat system. Even good changes.

Sue Langley, CEO and Founder of the Langley Group, a firm dedicated to promoting emotional intelligence, positive psychology and neuroscience, explains in the Neuroscience of Change, that we can use the discomfort to our advantage and create new, better neuropathways.

Willpower, focused attention and mindful action can be used to push through resistance and rewire habitual patterns. This process of intentionally changing our brain circuits is called ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’.

I often use the analogy of driving through a national park. If I drive my 4WD down the same track every day that track will get deeper and more open and be easy to drive down while the others will become overgrown with weeds sprouting up through the middle and trees encroaching on the sides. Our neurons work in the same way. The more we drive down one particular path the easier it becomes — whether that path is effective (like practicing mindfulness) or ineffective (like yelling at someone when we are angry). -Sue Langley

Sometimes we have to change paths because something is blocking the road. As sad as I’ve been about my recent involuntary adjustment, I decided to engage my Three P’s action plan — pause, pivot and plow ahead.

Pause. During the pause, it’s ok to wallow — -for 15 minutes! — and accept the present moment as it is. My pauses require breathing, nature and some naps, and time to acknowledge that change and loss are uncomfortable.

Pivot. Then the pivot. If I am going to form new neuropathways in the dense woods of my brain, where do I want the path to go? Without feeding, training, exercising and wilderness-trekking with horses, I will have lots more free time and a little more money. The options are endless, at least once I get this ridiculous neck brace off. I’ll be able to spend more time with my loved ones exploring the ridiculously beautiful Montana.

Plow. I liken forward movement after a difficult transition to plowing, partly because I grew up around farmers but also because successful plowing requires the person plowing to drill down below the surface, utilize available resources and keep on moving. Plowing is the epitome of hard work and, if done right, can reap a big payoff at the end of the season.

Even though they’ve been gone a month, I still wake up before the sun and instinctively move toward my muck boots, kinetically programmed to head to the barn to feed the big kids. I miss hearing them cloppity-clopping up the hill to greet me. I traded-in my horse trailer for an all-terrain camper and my youngest son and I are making plans to fly fish all over the far-reaches of the wild. And who knows, there just might be some aging forest service ponies out there that need rescuing and a forever retirement home. I have a place in mind.

Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.

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National District Attorneys Association

National District Attorneys Association

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.