Have you ever noticed that you have a clearer perspective on things after a good night’s sleep? Or that you have more clarity and insight into issues at work after you’ve returned from a two week holiday?
Well, it’s no coincidence.
Cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios studies what goes on in our brains when we experience a moment of insight. He put it nicely: ‘Almost everyone has creative insights from time to time. But it is possible to cultivate these moments, too. People tend to have more creative insights when they are in a happy, relaxed mood.’
One way to solve a problem is to focus on the issue and use analytical thinking to come up with an answer. This can of course be very productive.
But what about those times when the answer just won’t come, no matter how hard we try?
This is when we need an Aha! moment, that flash of inspiration when a novel solution pops into our heads.
It turns out that these moments rarely arise through applying our conscious minds to the problem. They are much more likely to happen when we are out for a walk, or washing our hair or weeding the garden. When we are relaxed and not consciously thinking about the issue.
So, here are my top 3 tips for solving a difficult problem:
1. Build some downtime into your day.
There is a tendency in our culture to value hard work, even to glorify overwork. I see it in clients who are on the go from 6am to 10pm. They have no downtime.
If your brain is continually focused on the task at hand you are not accessing the background neural network that allows us to daydream and gain perspective. It can even impact on your ability to form memories.
When I was in my late twenties/early thirties I had a stupid work regime. I had a full-time job in IT and a parallel full-time commitment running a local charity. During this time I went on a narrow boat holiday with some friends and family. I have no recollection of that holiday. It’s only that there is photographic evidence that I know I was there at all.
For sure I was working hard, but there is no way that I could be in the slightest bit creative or come up with novel solutions.
Aha! moments don’t come from grinding work schedules, so cut yourself some slack and build some downtime into your life.
2. Get a good night’s sleep
Life is so much better when we get a good night’s sleep. If we sleep for 7 to 8 hours we go through several periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep is really important for processing the events of the day and clearing your mind so you wake up with a clearer perspective. It’s when we have those really bizarre dreams when people and events from our past crop up in weird circumstances. They make no sense and are illogical when we think about them with our conscious minds.
But these illogical connections can serve a very useful purpose.
It seems that REM sleep helps us to make leaps of understanding that we couldn’t achieve with analytical cause-and-effect thinking. That mishmash of random thoughts can lead to incredible insights and there are plenty of examples of important scientific breakthroughs arising from dreams.
So, make sleep a priority. It is so important for our mental well-being.
3. Stop thinking about the problem
It sounds counter intuitive, but if you keep thinking about what’s wrong, how can you hope to find a solution?
It’s far better to take your mind off the problem and do something completely different. Your subconscious mind will continue to search for solutions, but you need to give it some space to be creative.
I remember years ago being in the garden with some friends and we were playing a ‘lateral thinking’ game. Each one of us read out a question from a pack of cards and the rest of us had to try and solve the riddle. You know the sort of thing: a horse is tied to a 5 foot long piece of rope, there is a pile of hay 8 feet away, how can the horse eat the hay? Jonathan Creek would solve it right away ,of course.
I’m not generally good at these things and, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of being shown up, I busied myself weeding the nearby border.
Weirdly, and for the first time in my life, I came up with correct answers to several of the conundrums.
Why? Because I wasn’t thinking about the problem that had been set. That allowed space for the Aha! moment to pop into my head.
So, if you’re struggling with a problem, distract yourself by doing something completely different.
One of the surprising things about our brains is that they are ‘plastic’. Not literally, of course. But they are mouldable.
What does that mean exactly? Well in neuroscience terms, it means that we can change the connections between our nerve cells (neurons). We can create new connections, strengthen existing connections and prune out old connections.
In wellbeing terms it means we can change the way we think. We can learn to be more positive, optimistic or confident. We can stop being anxious, fed up and fearful. And we can do this by paying attention to the way we think.
When we are born our minds are pretty much a blank canvass. Then life experiences and events shape the way we think. We may be influenced by parents, teachers, siblings and friends. It may be that we see the way they respond to situations and adopt their responses. It may be that we learn that by behaving in a certain way, we get attention.
If these experiences are nurturing and positive we stand a reasonable chance of being in a good headspace by the time we go out into the world.
But if we have had a hard time of things, we may struggle to find peace of mind. We may decide that life is not fair, or we are not worthy or there’s no point in trying something new because we won’t be any good at it. We have created a habit of looking on the gloomy side. This negative attitude becomes our reality.
But all is not lost. We can absolutely change our experience of life, simply by changing the way we think about things. I say ‘simply’. It’s a simple concept, but we need to apply some effort to learn how to do it.
The good news is though, like any new skill that we learn, the more we do something the easier it becomes. If we repeat the new behaviour often enough it becomes automatic, a subconscious habit. And that means we don’t have to apply so much conscious effort, we simply enjoy a new way of experiencing life.
So, how do we do this? Well a good start is simply to focus on what’s positive in your life.
There’s a great exercise that I do most days and it helps to keep my spirits up. Every day I find at least five good or nice things that I’ve done or have happened to me. It doesn’t have to be something major or earth-shattering. It could be something as simple as remembering to use my loyalty card at the supermarket.
When you do this kind of mental exercise regularly you soon notice a difference in your mood. And it’s fun.
So, are you up for taking your mind to the positivity gym? If you are, you’ll strengthen the connections in the area of your brain that’s geared for positivity and be able to change the way you think about things.
One of the Solution Focused techniques we use during therapy is to ask clients what would be different if a miracle happened, and they woke up to find life was just a little bit better.
I’ve lost track of the number of times clients have said something like ‘My children would be better behaved around bedtime’.
Now, here’s the thing. No amount of therapy that you have is going to change someone else. That’s just the way it is. They are not in the therapy room, so there is no motivation for them to change.
So, I will respond to these replies with something along the lines of ‘Well, let’s imagine they are not going to change, but you are coping better with their behaviour. What’s different about that?’
Now, instead of the client linking their happiness to someone else needing to change, we help them take responsibility for how they respond to the other person’s actions.
And then, something magical starts to happen. You see, I lied when I said the other person won’t change.
Typically, what happens is that when the client remains calmer with the kids at bedtime, the youngsters don’t react. The situation is less likely to escalate and there’s a chance everyone gets to bed in a much better mood.
This is obviously over-simplified, but the point is, if you keep playing the same game with the people around you, you will always receive the same response. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
So, if you were coping better with your children, neighbour, partner, boss or parent, what would you notice that was different?
It’s worth thinking about.
(And it doesn’t involve putting you off eating chocolate).
There are plenty of misconceptions about hypnotherapy. Some people fear they are handing control to the therapist. Others worry that they’ll end up squawking like a chicken.
And people often misunderstand how modern hypnotherapy works with weight management. They mistakenly believe that the therapist can magic away their weight without them making any effort.
Sadly, that’s not how it works. Success with weight management, or any change you want to make, depends on your commitment to the process.
But the good news is, if you really want to change your habits around food, hypnotherapy can be hugely helpful.
Here are 3 surprising ways hypnotherapy can help you:
Hypnotherapy is highly effective at reducing anxiety and stress
It turns out that there is a direct link between long-term stress and obesity. For some people, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to them becoming obese.
Stress and anxiety are the most common reason people seek help from hypnotherapy. By helping clients change their response to stressful situations and develop a calmer approach to life, cortisol levels fall, making it easier for the client to lose weight.
In fact I’ve had some clients who sought help for general anxiety and ended up losing a few pounds after a few sessions, even though they hadn’t flagged weight up as an issue. They hadn’t consciously made any changes to their diet, but because they were less stressed they had lowered their cortisol levels and they lost weight.
Hypnotherapy can improve the quality of your sleep
What’s that got to do with your weight? Well, it turns out that there are various hormones that have a direct influence on how hungry you are, how much you need to eat before you feel full, and whether you are drawn to unhealthy snacks.
The levels of these hormones vary depending on how much sleep you have. If you have too little sleep, the hormones conspire to make you want to eat more.
If you’re getting less than 7 to 8 hours sleep, you are going to have to work harder to overcome the urge to eat more than is good for you.
By improving the quality of your sleep, hypnotherapy can help you have a more helpful balance of these hormones.
And of course, lack of sleep is a major factor in developing anxiety and stress. So, by improving your sleep, you stress hormone levels are lowered.
Hypnotherapy can help you change unhelpful habits
We all develop rituals and routines that don’t necessarily serve us well.
- It may be that you have developed a habit of buying a chocolate bar or bag of crisps when you fill up with petrol.
- You may have a glass of wine with every evening meal, even though you are barely aware of drinking it.
- You may fill your cereal or soup bowl to with half an inch of the brim, even though modern bowls are often two or three times the size that they were 20 or 30 years ago.
- It may be that you have developed a habit of buying a chocolate bar or bag of crisps when you fill up with petrol.
Hypnotherapy can help you identify small changes that you can make to adjust your eating habits. We do this by helping you to imagine what you would prefer to be doing. It may be that you want to reduce your portions, or avoid snacks, or prepare your work lunch the night before.
We help you make these changes one small step at a time. Habits are created through repetition, so by practising a new routine over and over, it becomes your new habit.
And of course, because your stress levels are lower and/or your sleep has improved, you are in a better head space to make the changes stick.
One of the best things any therapist can hear from their client is ‘I’ve got the old me back’.
It means the client has cleared away recent, unhelpful thinking habits. Because ultimately, who we are and how we experience life is down to the thoughts we allow to occupy our heads.
There’s a strange feature of our behaviour that means that we can get stuck with redundant responses. It may be that, at some time in the past, we needed to be on the alert due to a bullying boss or an undermining partner. We would have adapted our behaviour to meet the challenge.
If the situation continues, the new behaviour becomes the norm. We then respond automatically in the same way, long after the initial stressor has gone.
Another strange quirk is that we can take a recent negative period in our lives and imagine that it has always been this way. An example would be taking a phone call from an irate customer just before leaving work for the day. The call leaves you feeling upset or anxious. When you get home you tell your partner you’ve had an awful day. You judge the whole day based on the last 10 minutes.
It’s the same in life and we can forget that we used to be happy, carefree, optimistic souls.
So, our job as Solution Focused therapists is to help our clients draw a line under how they are, or how things have been. Instead we encourage them to think about how they want things to be.
That can be a bit difficult at first. After all, they’ve been in the habit of dwelling on how difficult things are. So we use Solution Focused techniques to help them picture what life would be like if it was better. Their preferred future.
And then the magic starts to happen.
They may say things like ‘I’d be laughing more’, ‘I’d be doing things I enjoy’ or ‘I’d be immersed the moment’.
And that’s just great, because pretty soon they’ll be able to say ‘I’ve got the old me back’.