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Thoughts and neuroplasticity
Is it bad to be a ‘glass half-empty’ person instead of a ‘glass half-full’ person? Well, it may be worth seeking a more balanced mindset, as those with more positive thoughts tend to have better mental and physical health. As you will discover in this blog, whether you think negatively or positively influences which synapses and neurons your brain will create to support either your positive or negative mindset.
Can how you think change your brain? Absolutely. Throughout life you are learning, discovering, practicing and having a whole vast range of experiences. For each new experience, your brain learns. This is a good thing. Imagine how time-consuming it would be to have to re-learn how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every morning. If you add in re-learning getting dressed, cooking and eating breakfast and a quick tidy up at home, you might never get to work on time. In the same way, as an adult you no longer do some of the things you used to do (although perhaps crawling might still come in handy after a particularly enthusiastic night out with the boys/girls).
Throughout your development, from birth through to death, you are changing and shaping your brain. ‘Neuroplasticity’ refers to the brain’s ability to learn and adjust throughout life. It does this by making new neural connections. This enables the brain to adjust to a multitude of new circumstances, such as developing a new skill (e.g., learning to drive a car, or ride a horse). It also includes an ability to adapt after damage, illness or injury.
Furthermore, where someone experiences an impairment in one hemisphere, such as a brain injury following an accident, the brain is able compensate and increase activity in undamaged regions, whether in the same hemisphere or the undamaged one.
How effectively you are able to learn, adapt and change can be influenced by both genetics (‘nature’) as well as environmental effects (nurture’), such as your exposure to learning and change during childhood.
The science of neuroplasticity and hypnotherapy
So, a little bit of science before we consider how our thoughts can impact on our brain. The brain has two hemispheres (‘left’ and ‘right’) and both sends and receives information. Every time you learn something, your brain responds with nerve impulses within neural networks. Neural circuits have neurons, which are nerve cells that process/store information, that communicate with each other via synapses (electrical or chemical).
Neurotransmitters can be thought of as the communication vehicle which carry the nerve impulse from one neuron to the next neuron via the synapse. These neurotransmitters can either be ‘inhibitory’ which are designed to stop ongoing nerve impulse transmission (i.e., ‘stop’), or ‘excitatory’ which aids transmission of the nerve impulse (i.e., ‘go’). Neural pathways are formed whenever you learn something new. These pathways connect new information to existing knowledge. Each thought you have releases chemicals, based on the type of thought it was, whether negative or positive.
From a hypnotherapy perspective, how relevant is this? Well, the fact that the brain can change is of immense importance. Regardless of what age someone is, and how long they have been doing something, the brain can change. That client who has smoked 40 cigarettes a day for 20 years, can become a non-smoker. The client who has been scared of eating in public can learn to do so comfortably. Fundamentally, clients can change! However, how someone thinks can have a significant impact on how their brain functions. This can make it easier or more difficult to change.
Neuroplasticity and negative thinking
Negative thinking, such as when stressed, anxious or angry, can actually stop the brain performing as effectively as you might like, with impact on areas such as the cerebellum, left temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex. What does this mean in terms of function? If you are thinking negatively, it can reduce your ability to think and process thoughts, reason and find solutions. It can impair your creative ability and have an impact on your memory, mood and even your impulse control.
Have you ever noticed that it is easier to make healthier food choices when you are feeling positive and yet when you are feeling grumpy, sad, or angry, that cheap and nasty cake might suddenly seem more appealing? Interestingly, brain imaging studies found that negative thoughts can affect the cerebellum, so having an impact on areas such as the individual’s speed of thought, their relationship with others and their balance and co-ordination. Habitual negative thinking over a period of time, can even impact on how you form memories.
Ultimately, as a hypnotherapist you may work on many different aspects of the client’s mindset to move them towards a more positive perspective. For example:
- Using ego strengthening to support their self-esteem and belief that they can change.
- Applying behavioural techniques to decondition negative thinking habits and generate more positive automatic responses.
- Working from a cognitive perspective to address limiting, irrational, inflexible, rigid or distorted beliefs.
- Engaging the client in analytical work to gain insight into their mindset. Its purpose (and positive intent) and how new ways of responding could be accepted.
- Using Regression to explore and address past events that are unresolved and still impacting on the day-to-day functioning of the client.
Is it necessary to do this type of work as well as address whatever the presenting issue is? For many clients, the answer would be yes, if you wish to achieve lasting change. By helping a client think more positively, it can help to rebalance their Locus of Control, develop greater emotional intelligence and help them to better engage in their own self-care.
Neuroplasticity and positive thinking
With positive thinking and associated good, optimistic or happy emotions, a feeling of well-being is created as cortisol levels decrease and the brain produces serotonin. This can be considered to be a very significant neurotransmitter, as not only does it influence emotions and mood, it also affects body functioning, such as appetite and digestion, as well as working with melatonin to regulate your body clock and your sleep-wake cycle. You may notice that you feel more able to be attentive, focus, analyse information and make informed decisions when you are feeling positive. Your increased mental productivity isn’t just related to cognitive processes though, your ability to be creative is enhanced as well.
Ultimately, having a positive mindset brings the mind away from flight-fight, taking the focus away from threat and towards higher order thinking. The prefrontal cortex can then become more active, helping with decision-making and emotional control.
Changing your mind and creating new neural-pathways
Rapid change of mindset is possible! It starts with actually paying attention to any negative thoughts, rather than attempting to ignore them. Then, whenever you are aware of a negative thought, immediately replace that negative thought with a positive thought instead. However, rather than immediately moving your thoughts away after doing so, keep focused on that positive thought for longer, perhaps a minute or more.
If your thoughts attempt to go back towards the negative, then refocus on the positive again immediately. By holding on to the positive thought instead of the negative one there are several theories that come into effect. Firstly, from a hypnosis perspective, there is the Law of Dominant Effect, whereby a stronger emotion outweighs a weaker one. From a neuroscience and quantum physics perspective comes the term ‘attention density’, referring to how much attention we pay. The concept being that if you focus long enough, often enough, and strongly enough, you can change your neural pathways.
Beyond focusing on isolated negative thoughts, you can also work on negative thinking patterns. A case study example is that of Jessica. She sought help from a hypnotherapist because her boyfriend had told her that she was turning into a ‘moaner’ and that it was making him feel bad just by listening to her constant complaining. It would seem that when they first met, she was far more positive, but later she had a bad bout of flu.
She was rarely ever ill and all she seemed to be able to notice was how bad she felt. After the flu, she got into a habit of noticing the negatives, then talking about them and then ended up noticing almost everything from a negative perspective.
Her hypnotherapist helped her understand about how the brain can change, and took an integrative approach, including working on changing her habits and thought processes, as well as dealing with a number of cognitive distortions. Interestingly, within the analytical work, there was insight that some of her negative perspective related to her dislike of being disappointed, so she had got out of the habit of looking for the positives.
Within the therapy process, Jessica was also given a challenge (‘homework’ / ‘developmental task’). She was to focus, for one entire week, on keeping her language positive. However, if she moaned even once, the week counter would re-set. It took her just over five weeks to achieve her consecutive seven days. At her next therapy session, she talked about how much impact it had had on her social and work life. Not only had her relationship with her boyfriend improved immensely, but so had her interactions at work.
Whether positive or negative, your mood and mindset can be contagious! It is thought that some neurons fire when they observe an action performed by others. This has been observed not just in humans but also in primates and birds. When Jessica was in her moaning mindset, it would bring down the mood of those around her. When she changed her approach to being more positive, she noticed people responding to her more positively. Interestingly, this started a positive loop where it became easier for her to remain positive.
Helping clients achieve a more positive mindset can have far-reaching benefits. Not only can it help the client achieve positive results for their presenting issues and goals, it can help boost their resilience, and ultimately, improve their overall quality of life.
We hope you enjoyed this blog on altering neuroplasticity with thoughts. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks