Neuroplasticity

Hardwiring Positive Experiences & Emotions in the Brain

One of my favourite techniques to use with clients is psychologist Rick Hanson’s neuroscience-based approach to ‘hardwiring’ positive experiences and emotions. As he explains in his excellent book, Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, the human brain is designed with an in-built negativity bias. This means that our attention is directed towards negative thoughts, feelings and experiences such as failing at an exam, being rejected for a job or left by a partner.

Human brains were built over millions of years of evolution, which were mostly spent in environments of extreme threat – wild animals trying to eat us, other tribes wanting to bash us over the head with clubs, poisonous snakes and spiders underfoot, simple injuries and diseases meaning certain death because we lacked effective medicine… So our threat system became the dominant system in the brain – and consequently 21st-century humans pay a great deal of attention to anything that could be threatening, hurtful or upsetting.

To an extent, this is how schemas work – affecting our information-processing systems, memory, attention, and so on to make us focus excessively on negative or upsetting things. I see this all the time in my practice – and I’m sure you do too. Someone comes in talking at great length and in fine-grained detail about some incident where they felt someone rejected them; or a time when they messed up at work and felt terrible about it. As well as giving plenty of space for that (which is, after all, what therapy is mostly about!) I always get people to make the most of positive experiences too.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say James tells me about getting a Distinction for an assignment on his Master’s. He then quickly whizzes on to the next thing, an upsetting story about his brother. I get him to pause, slow down, and tell me more about getting the news about his Distinction – I often use imagery to get him to relive the experience, closing his eyes and describing where he is, what he’s thinking when he reads the email and, most importantly, how he feels.

James tells me he feels happy and proud, so I ask him where he feels that in his body. James says in his chest and throat, so I get him to focus on those bodily sensations for one minute (anything from 10 seconds up works, but longer is better). After he does this, I get him to open his eyes and explain that we just hardwired those positive feelings to the memory – so now every time he thinks about it, he will feel happy and proud again.

Repetition is key

I just love this technique – and so do my clients. It feels great and is a really simple thing to give them for homework – just repeat, as often as possible, any time they have a positive experience. The more they do it, I explain, the more they are rewiring their brain to take more notice of and enjoy good experiences; and to be less sensitive to the bad ones. Over time, this creates feelings of calm, confidence, satisfaction, pride, self-compassion, and so on.

If you would like to know more about how schema therapy helps people rewire their brains, come along to one of my Schema Therapy Skills workshops. I hope to see you there!

And if you would like to find out more about my workshops, call me on 07766 704210 or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

The magic of neuroplasticity – why childhood wounds can be healed

I spend a great deal of time teaching my clients about aspects of psychology that relate to them and their problems. In the early stages of therapy especially, there is a lot of psychoeducation – explaining about things like temperament, schemas and modes, the schema therapy model and how it will be able to help them, how their family dynamics impacted them as a child, what ‘core needs’ were not met in childhood, and so on.

Of course, during this pyschoeducation process we should always make things as clear and simple as possible. I remember attending a workshops with renowned cognitive therapist Helen Kennerley, who said, ‘As a cognitive therapist, things should be very complicated in your mind, but very simple for the client.’ Meaning, as therapists we have to hold a great deal of complexity in our minds – one or more therapy models, all the key details of our client’s history and our work together, what is occurring in the room at that moment, what we will do or say next – but what we tell the client should be, as far as possible, simple and jargon-free.

One of the key concepts I always explain to my schema therapy clients is ‘neuroplasticity’ (I know, I have broken my no-jargon rule already! But it’s an important term). That’s because I spend a great deal of time exploring their family history, all the upsetting or traumatic stuff that happened to them to create their painful schemas and maladaptive modes, how these psychological constructs work and affect them day to day... Honestly, after a while it all feels a bit hopeless and depressing, which is why I love neuroplasticity.

The ever-changing brain

I explain that psychologists used to think that our brains grew rapidly in the third trimester of pregnancy and first year of life (which is when the brain does grow at an astronomical rate), then throughout childhood and into adolescence; then, basically, you were done – that was your brain formed for life. But then they realised that was completely wrong! Neuroplasticity means that we have a plastic, or clay-like brain, which is being moulded and changed every single day of our lives.

I often tell them that, if they learned to tango aged 87, their brain would have to grow new ‘tango neurons’ to store that information. They would literally be growing new brain tissue and shaping their brain, even in their eighties. So none of the impact of traumatic stuff that has happened to them, including the schemas that then formed, is fixed or set in any way. It’s not easy to change, of course, but it it is eminently doable.

The power of hope

Now we have hope – and hope is like gold dust in therapy. Clients start to believe they can change; that all this weird schema therapy stuff might just help them, even if other therapies haven’t; that maybe they don’t have to be cyclically depressed for the next 50 years, or overwhelmingly anxious every time they leave the house. And we both end the session feeling that little bit happier and more hopeful!

If you would like to learn more about neuroplasticity and the changing brain, come along to one of my Schema Therapy Skills workshops, including the upcoming ones below. I hope to see you there!

Warm wishes,

Dan

WORKING WITH IMAGERY: POWERFUL, TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNIQUES TO ENHANCE YOUR CLINICAL PRACTICE

In schema therapy, there is a strong emphasis on using experiential techniques such as imagery rescripting and chair work, which are seen as more effective and transformative than just talking about problems from the client’s past and present. This one-day workshop will teach you how imagery techniques can help rescript even the most traumatic experiences from your client’s childhood, such as incidences of abuse or neglect.

Cost: £180 including refreshments, all training materials and certificate of attendance confirming 6 CPD hours

Next date: 31st May 2019

More details and how to book

WORKING WITH MODES: EMBRACING COMPLEXITY & ACHIEVING INTEGRATION

This one-day course will explain the concept of ‘modes’, which are different aspects of our personality that are activated in different situations and by particular triggers. In addition to a brief overview of the theory of schema therapy and schemas/modes, you will learn how to assess and formulate your clients’ modes, as well as specific techniques such as imagery and chair work for working with key modes.

Cost: £180 including refreshments, all training materials and certificate of attendance confirming 6 CPD hours

Next date: 21st June 2019

More details and how to book