Because of the tremendous leap in brain research and technologies that facilitate brain research, we are finding out more and more about how our brains operate. One of the findings is that learning actually increases the synapses in the brain. The synapses are the spaces between brain cells that are close to each other. Synapses are the spaces across which brain cells communicate by chemical or electrical means to create a circuit of information. When we say that more synapses are created, or that the existing synapses become more effective, what we mean is that our brain cells have more and better ways of communicating with each other. And so more information can be sent down more different kinds of channels, which then leads to new and different ways of processing that information–knowing things and creating ways of thinking about things. We can continue learning throughout our lives, stimulating our existing synapses, creating new ones, and maintaining the flexibility of our brain’s capacities.
Because psychotherapy is like learning and because psychotherapy offers us new ways of understanding ourselves in our worlds, it is another avenue of growth and development for our brains and therefore our minds. We challenge our own assumptions, struggle with our familiar patterns of relating, and see the world in new ways. The discomfort is due to the departure from the familiar, and it is just this fact of leaving our comfort zone that forces our brains and our minds to create new pathways of processing and understanding our experience.
In other words, just because it is uncomfortable, does not mean it is bad for you. There is a world of difference between constructive discomfort, like moderate exercise, and destructive discomfort, like overdoing a workout. It is that sweet spot in the middle that leads to the most helpful change, and we come to it by a sort of improv. Sometimes we do a little too much exploring and growing , and then we need a rest, and sometimes we do too little, and then we begin to feel stagnant. Overall, though, it’s nice to know our efforts are having real effects.