Several years ago a lovely client gave me a greetings card that nicely summed up our work together. The caption read:
'Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday, and everything is fine.'
Wow! So simple and yet so powerful, summing up how most of what we worry about never happens and, even if it does, we have survived it.
That saying still makes me smile and it got me thinking about other inspirational quotes that demonstrate how we create our own reality. These two are amongst my favourites:
'Only when we accept the fact that we are where we are because of choices we've made in the past can we live every day of the rest of our lives in the certain knowledge that we can do anything we want to do if we simply make the right choices.' Jim Stovall
'Do something today that your future self will thank you for.' (Sean Patrick Flanery)
That first quote was a game-changer for me. The penny dropped that I wasn’t stuck in the difficult situation I found myself in; I could make choices that would lead to a better outcome.
The second quote is never far from my mind. It motivates me to take action on projects that will provide a future benefit, no matter how small that action is.
So, what choice will you make today?
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.
Over the years I have helped clients improve their performance in a variety of sports, including golf, martial arts, horse riding, tennis, hockey, football, and a whole host of others.
Now sometimes, the client has not actually come for therapy in connection with their sporting skills, they may be having trouble sleeping or they are generally stressed. Simply by helping them to reduce their anxiety about life overall, they have found that their game has improved. A useful by-product of feeling more relaxed and in control (the same is often true about weight-loss, by the way).
Other times clients are seeking specific help in connection with their sport, for example:
- Regaining confidence after a run of poor performance or a period of ill health
- Overcoming nerves during important competitions
- Mastering a particular technique
- Finding the motivation to practise
- Pushing through self-imposed limitations on performance
Whatever the reason, we begin by making sure the client is in a good head-space generally. If the client is stressed through work pressures, ill health or relationship issues, then we help the client cope better with these situations so they have a clear head to address their sporting expertise.
Then we use positive visualisation to help the client imagine what the perfect golf shot would look, sound and feel like; or imagine how confident they will be when they are on their lively horse; or picture themselves as calm and confident when they are competing at the next championship game.
We make use of the fact that when we visualise something happening, the brain responds as if that thing is actually happening.
So, by helping clients repeatedly visualise success their skill and confidence improve.
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 small step at a time.