I have spent the New Year months by doing a lot of reading about our minds and the way that we think taking in all of the revolutionary discoveries about the neuroplasticity of the brain. What is that you may ask? Well, until about 25 years ago brain scientists thought that once we get past puberty that the adult brain does not change and that it’s all downhill from that point, with less brain cells, the threat of a stroke, injury or age meaning a downward curve in our capacity to function in everyday life. However discoveries in the last 25 years have found that our brain is an ever changing organ in our bodies and that it is possible to change the structure of the brain from day to day and sometimes from moment to moment depending on our thought process- to create new neural connections Neuroplasticity.
Neuroscientists have also discovered that whatever we practice most regularly, determines the strength of our neural pathways, just like if we practice on a guitar or a piano, or even a computer keyboard we improve our skills with practice. The our brain learns how to successfully negotiate these instruments so that we can strum better, co-ordinate feet and hands, to create a keyboard melody or reach the letters of the alphabet as they appear on a computer dashboard so that we can more easily write what we want to write which is what I am doing right now. I now use all digits of my hands but when I started it was a slow and painful process slowly choosing the letters using two index fingers only. Practice gives us experience driven skills. Similarly in the brain the more often we think certain thoughts those neural pathways get stronger and easy to use, so we think those thoughts again, over and over, we believe those thoughts to be true. When depressed this has a phenomenal effect on our sense of wellbeing and we begin to believe our self-doubts and find ways of coping with those thoughts by shutting down or finding ways to cope with those thoughts through escapist tactics like drinking or smoking or eating the wrong things for our bodies.
I am giving a seminar on Beating the Blues this month and will be doing an exercise on this very factor about the ease with which we build negative thought processes in our minds an exercise I have taken from the Neuroscientist Willoughby Britton who is currently Director of Brown’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, I feel sure that she won’t mind that I share her exercise here!
Close your eyes, take a two deep breaths, in through the nose, and out through the mouth and then normally and then then see how quickly you can think of something that you don’t like about yourself. It’s ok to open your eyes again, you don’t have to create a list! If you truly could not think of anything in those few seconds then you are in the lucky minority! Our brains are hotwired with such thoughts and also that this impacts other areas of the brain that we are not exercising. Willoughby points out that the neural networks responsible for self-criticism are also very closely related to the criticism of others. If you have a spare 10 minutes then by all means take a look at Willoughby’s TEDx Presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioCY_HKBFOc.
These negative assumptions about ourselves and others are like clouds which gather in our lives sometimes, and this can make it difficult to function, communicate effectively with others or to see what is really happening in the moment and that those thoughts are just thoughts. They can clear by regularly using and building other neural networks to give ourselves a break, to recognise what we are good and better able to see what our purpose in life is, to have better sight of the goals that we would like to set ourselves. With love and compassion for ourselves and others.
When clients seek therapy it is because, de facto, they are in an uncomfortable place of not liking their experience or the painful thoughts that they are having whilst trying to maintain all the outward appearances of nothing being wrong. This takes effort and energy and can be exhausting. Counselling gives you the opportunity to share with a therapist those thoughts and enables you to work with them so that you are better able to function and find purpose in your life. To help you to see the clouds clear so that you are better able to see your goals.