Have you ever compared notes with a colleague after a business meeting and found that you each thought something different was agreed? Or reflected on a holiday to find that you recall it as being really enjoyable, but the person you were with only remembers the times when things didn’t go to plan?
How can this be? Well, it can’t be the event itself. When all is said and done, pretty much the same things happened to each of you. It actually boils down to the way we think about things. And the way we think about things is ultimately a result of how our neurons (nerve cells) are connected in our brains.
When we are born we have around 100 billion neurons in our brain. At this stage it’s pretty much a blank canvass and we have relatively few connections between the neurons. As we experience life, so our brain cells connect in such a way that we can recognise a situation next time around and respond appropriately. In other words, we learn.
So, it’s easy to see that if we have different experiences, we learn to respond to events in a different way. Fast forward a few years and our past experiences shape who we are. If in the playground at school we found that our input was overlooked in favour of a more confident friend, we may subconsciously ‘learn’ that it’s a waste of time speaking up in meetings or expressing an opinion.
Of course, to us, it feels normal. How I respond to a situation feels normal to me, and the way you respond feels normal to you, and it comes as quite a shock when we realise that others don’t see the world as we see it.
None of this is a problem if our experiences have shaped us to lead a fulfilled and contented life, with inbuilt resilience to tackle the occasional challenge. If, however, we have developed into an anxious, fearful individual then that’s not so much fun.
The good news is that our brains are ‘plastic’, they are malleable, and with the appropriate training we can learn to respond differently to life events. We actually forge new connections between the neurons in our brains, so we can react in a more helpful way.
Of course, anything worth doing takes effort and consistency, but the rewards can literally be life-changing.
First up – what is the Left Prefrontal Cortex?
I often find myself referring to the Left Prefrontal Cortex during hypnotherapy sessions. But what exactly is it, and why is it so important?
The brain’s cortex is the thin outer layer of the brain, covering most of the other brain structures. It’s known as our grey matter – this is because the nerve cells are not covered with white insulating material like most other areas of the brain.
It’s the most recent part of our brain to have evolved and is the most advanced part.
The cortex for each hemisphere of the brain (the left and right hemispheres) is divided into 4 sections known as lobes. The lobe we are interested in is the frontal lobe which is located at the front part of the cortex, in each hemisphere. The frontal lobes are responsible for our higher level thoughts and emotions.
The front of the frontal lobe is known as the prefrontal cortex.
So, the prefrontal cortex is at the very front of the outer layer of the brain.
What does the Left Prefrontal Cortex Do?
In the past, scientist thought that our emotions were governed by the action of an older part of the brain, the limbic system, the bit we had before the cortex evolved. Particular emphasis was placed on the fight-flight-freeze action of the amygdala.
However, more recent studies using functional MRI (fMRI) and PET scanning have shown links between the limbic system and the frontal lobes.
Neuroscientist, Dr Richard Davidson, has shown that the left prefrontal cortex is more active when people are happy. Conversely, the right prefrontal cortex is more active when people experience negative emotions.
In some of the experiments, participants were shown images designed to evoke different emotional responses. As might be expected when participants were shown negative images, fMRI scans showed that the amygdala was activated. PET scans also indicated changes to the activity of the right prefrontal cortex.
In another study participants were grouped into those with a high level of activity in the left prefrontal cortex and those with a high level of activity in their right prefrontal cortex. Each group was shown a list of positive and negative adjectives and they were asked to select which words best described their mood most of the time.
Left-prefrontal participants selected words such as ‘strong, enthusiastic, excited’. Their right prefrontal counterparts selected ‘nervous, scared, distressed’.
It’s important to realise that people with a left prefrontal bias, still have a fully functioning amygdala. It’s not that the amygdala doesn’t register a potential threat, it seems that the left prefrontal cortex dampens the response to the negative stimulus, quickly shutting off the negative response before it can develop inappropriately.
Developing the left prefrontal cortex
So what’s to be done? If you have the misfortune to have a highly developed right prefrontal cortex, you might be thinking that you are doomed to a life of misery caused by habitual negative thinking, at the mercy of your fearful amygdala.
The good news is that neuroscience has demonstrated that our brains are ‘plastic’, malleable, they can be moulded and trained to think differently. All we need to do, is do more of what stimulates the left prefrontal cortex and actively avoid doing things that strengthen the right prefrontal cortex.
Research into positive psychology techniques demonstrates that we can change the balance in favour of the left prefrontal cortex through repeatedly and consistently:
· thinking healthy thoughts
· avoiding unhealthy thoughts
· engaging in healthy behaviours, eg
o meditation / trance
o having plenty of social interaction
o enjoying pleasurable activities
o getting enough physical exercise
Repeatedly performing these actions strengthens the left prefrontal cortex, and makes us feel good.
Want to know more? Treat yourself to a copy of Dr Richard Davidson’s marvellous book: The Emotional Life of Your Brain
Recognising that something needs to change
I am always interested to hear what has prompted clients to seek help. Whilst some clients book appointments to help them overcome a recent, specific event such as redundancy, a car accident or divorce, others report they have been struggling with anxiety or low mood for some time.
Neuro-leadership experts David Rock and Jeffery Schwartz have identified that ‘humans have brains designed to register change as threat, and thus they often cling to old habits and mindsets. We have, therefore, a built-in preference to go on with the ‘comfortable', known, and to stick with less energy/effort demanding habits’. In other words, we would prefer to stay in an uncomfortable situation, rather than do anything to improve it.
In light of this, I never underestimate the level of insight required for clients to recognise that something needs to change.
Realising that things can change
Clients will often say something like ‘I’ve always been anxious and I’m probably too old to change’ Not so.
We can influence the structure of our brains, and hence our thought patterns, by consciously directing our thoughts in a more helpful direction. We do this by focusing on solutions and developing positive behaviours. But as Rock and Schwarz point out, this requires energy and effort.
It’s important for clients to understand that they do have to apply some effort to elicit change – hypnotherapy is something we work on together, it’s not something I ‘do’ to them.
Understanding how to change
Understanding how the brain functions is fundamental to moving forward. During every session with clients I place a great deal of emphasis on the explanation of the functioning of the brain. It can be a huge revelation for clients when they understand why they are feeling the way they do, and of course, what they can do to change unhelpful, habitual patterns of thought.
After that, sessions involve guiding clients towards their preferred future. We do this using solution focused techniques designed to overcome the brain’s default desire to maintain the status quo.
With the emphasis on solutions and positivity, change happens naturally, one step at a time.
When I was a computer programmer in London in the 1980s there was a saying we used to quote to demonstrate the importance of good quality, accurate data. The saying was: Garbage In - Garbage Out, or GIGO for short.
What it meant in IT terms was that if you put nonsense data into a computer program, then the result would be just as nonsensical. Whereas if you take care to ensure that your data is ‘clean’, the results will be more meaningful and reliable.
And of course, it’s the same with our brains. If we spend our time in situations which stimulate our thoughts in a negative direction, it can be hard to develop or maintain a positive attitude towards life.
I am often surprised at some of the unwitting self-sabotage clients invoke without questioning the impact of their habitual actions. They may:
· Socialise with people who undermine or belittle them
· Read harrowing news stories detailing misery and suffering
· Watch soaps with relentlessly depressing story lines
· Participate in ‘complaining’ or negatively-focused online chat forums
· Spend their leisure time doing things out of duty rather than enjoyment
None of this needs to be a problem if we are in a good head-space and can maintain a proper perspective. And it may be that we have little or no control over our situation, so we are obliged to ‘get on with it’.
But usually there is a choice of how we spend our time, who we spend our time with, and how we respond to events around us.
Part of my job is to guide clients to recognise that they do have a choice about what goes in. They certainly have a choice about what their inner computer program does with that input, a skill which we help them to develop using Solution Focused techniques. And this, of course, ultimately affects what comes out.
It’s not unusual for clients to report that their friends and family have noticed how much calmer or relaxed or upbeat they are after just a few sessions.
So, what’s to be done to help generate some positive stimulus for the brain? Well, in addition to avoiding the worst of the negative inputs, we can actively seek out more positive sources of news, more upbeat chat forums, more supportive friends, uplifting TV programmes and enjoyable leisure activities.
And to help you on your way, here is a link to a fabulous website that emails you a good news story each and every day. Enjoy!
Reflecting on an eventful year
So, things took an unexpected turn in February when I took up the challenge to submit a portfolio of work to gain the Advanced Hypnotherapy Diploma, which is the equivalent level of a foundation degree. The hard work paid off and I was amongst the first hypnotherapists in the country to be awarded the new qualification.
Opportunities to run two more Clifton Practice Hypnotherapy schools presented themselves, and from 2018 I will be running CPHT Guildford and CPHT Southampton with my colleague and friend, Sharon Dyke, and CPHT Manchester with our buddy, Nicola Griffiths. We go back a long way as the three of us were instrumental in setting up the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapy in 2010. We run each course one weekend a month for 10 months and part of the fun is the nattering, planning, reflecting and giggling we do on the long journeys.
Clearing the decks
Rummaging through the box file of CPD course notes to provide reference material for diploma essays sparked a long overdue period of filing, clearing out, shredding and organising my work space. As I often explain to my clients, unfinished business sits there saying ‘do me, do me’, and clearing the decks was immensely satisfying.
As anyone who has carried out a similar purge will know, it enhances mental clarity as well as providing a more pleasant working environment.
Then it was the turn of the garage with many a trip to the recycling centre.
Next up – the loft!
In amongst all of this activity I have, of course, continued to practise Solution Focused Hypnotherapy (SFH). This year has been as busy as ever at each of the therapy rooms in Axminster, Ottery St Mary and Sidmouth, and I have enjoyed meeting and helping people throughout East Devon and beyond. Word of mouth recommendations have introduced clients from further afield, as well as closer to home, each with their own unique set of circumstances.
Underlying anxiety is at the core of most of the issues that clients present. Fortunately, with its focus on drawing solutions from the client’s own resources, SFH is highly effective at moving people forward quickly. Even though it is the client who identifies their own solution, it isn’t always obvious when they first arrive for a session.
Using SF questioning techniques we work together, moving the client towards their ‘preferred future’. Although a seemingly simple process, it can sometimes be quite challenging for clients to focus on what needs to happen for things to get better.
As one lovely client put it, ‘That’s a really, really good question, and I have the feeling it’s important for me to find an answer’. It was, and she did!
I love the Solution Focused approach and I am really looking forward to helping many more people find their answers during 2018.
Happy New Year!