The term POPS or pathways of the past is one I encountered in DNRS (Dynamic Neural Retraining System) when retraining my brain for regulation and health. It is any old way of negatively thinking or behaving and thus feeling. For example,one of my old POPS is, “I can’t do it “, this way of thinking led to dozens of other thoughts centered around the idea that “I CAN’T DO IT.” This automatic negative thought came as a result of a situation that I felt challenged by or by emotions activated inwardly from chronic stress. Of course, it did not come alone. I would often be overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts and emotions associated with it, and spiral into negative behaviors, eliciting more negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors. This spiral continued until I was exhausted and eventually contributed to my chronic states such as anxiety, depression and chronic illnesses.

These negative thoughts came about as a result of negative core beliefs I had about myself and the world, schemas created long before I got sick. “I can’t do it”, was for me a POP, along with the behaviors and other thoughts that came with it. Of course this POP (which is just one example) activated by an external situation, or an emotion from a previous activation, cascaded into physiological reactions releasing hormones and chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol affecting my health. Chronic negative emotions, chronic stress, thinking patterns and behaviors can create an overactivity in the HPA axis, change the brain and lead to illness.

A mature brain has billions of neurons, which communicate with each other through a pathway. Each time the same thought, emotion or behavior is elicited it creates and strengthens the pathway between the neurons communicating. If one keeps going over the same path it becomes default and ingrained. The thought (as one example), “I can’t do this” was a very strong pathway in my brain linked of course to other thoughts, behaviors and emotions. For example, I developed a pathway of hesitating to do things that I could be mocked for from the idea, “I can’t do this.” I developed a sort of helplessness. At age 13 when I entered high school, I was having a difficult time opening my locker every single day. The thought , “I can’t do this”, was prominent, along with anxiety, shame and hurt. In thinking back, the emotions may have been there first leading to the inability to accomplish the task, leading to more thoughts and poor coping behaviors. Eventually, I just stopped trying to do it and left my locker open every day. The old pathways had won and I created a new pathway of avoiding the task .

Changing the brain consists of becoming aware of the POPS and like in CBT, practice changing it. The ABCDE model in CBT is similar to what is found in retraining programs. It is a top down approach, using the mind to heal and does take time. The more these new neural pathways are used the stronger they will be. The length of time to learn something new, including a belief varies according to a 2012 study.

Often there will be resistance to changing old patterns if they have become “automatic” habits. Change can activate its own stress response at first. Beginning new ways of being is scary for all and elicit a stress response, however, for some of us attempting to change behaviors and language associated with past trauma and strategies of survival, it can threaten the safety in discomfort we have created. For example, learning not to be “helpless” challenged the way I saw the world. I actually had the same power as everyone else and now had to accept more responsibility to do things that went out of my comfort zone. I had to change “I can’t do this” to , “I can” or “One day I can”, or “I don’t want to do this” (if that was the case). The “I can’t do this” part of me created as a result of what I was told, and fear from long ago, was challenged. At first, I had to be willing to accept that it was a part of me created by the external and it was wrong. It was not easy to accept that I “could do this” ,but with more and more reframing , more evidence to show that I was capable, forgiveness of those who convinced me I wasn’t, forgiveness of myself for allowing the belief continue, and other practices I learned that I “could”.

None of this was linear and the work for this particular belief began long ago. I also already had challenged this notion of myself in teen years and adulthood and took great pride in my accomplishments, but the thought, “I can’t do this” stayed with me in some situations. And even today, there is hesitation at times when going out of my “comfort zone” like anyone else. In those times, I remember how far I have come from and proceed with compassion. As I said before, “I can’t do this” was only one of my core beliefs, but I use it for the purposes of example in this article.

Change does take time, effort and consistency. As a human being with thousands of thoughts per day, it may not be possible to catch a negative thought each time it comes , dispute it and replace it with a new belief. Small changes in behavior associated with the thought can also help change it. These behaviors are also “POPS”. They automatically occur when a specific thought comes up. For example, if I look at my thought, “I can’t do this”, in response to an activating event, it led to certain patterns ; crying, obsessively trying to do “it” perfectly , giving up, are three patterns I would identify. The benefit to these patterns is I would stay stuck and stay in the familiar role I had always been in. But, changing one behavior can build lasting, cumulative change to the core belief .

So how can thoughts and patterns be changed to calm the nervous system down and regain health?

Speaking from a top down approach (using the mind to heal the body), awareness is key. Of course I was able to do much in my life even with this nagging thought, and one intervention I used was placing my awareness there. Redirecting to remember the successes I had was helpful to motivate and shift into the truth. I in fact, was capable and able to accomplish much and I had proof. Other practices to help include change POPS:

1. Self talk with this evidence to the part holding the old belief

2. Compassion to this part (some great compassion exercises here

3. Laughter to interrupt the POP and then redirecting, laughter can be very beneficial to changing POPS.

4. Visualizations to interrupt POPS. Your brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Imaging can strengthen the neural pathways of what you are imagining. Visualizing changing a pattern can help you get there.

5. Meditation

These practices go well with other body centered retraining practices to help regulate the nervous system such as vagus nerve exercises, somatic experiencing and tension and trauma release exercises.