Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Have you ever wondered why habits are so hard to break, especially the bad ones?

The habits that human beings follow might have a positive impact on behaviours, but they can have a negative effect on social relations. Human habits are complex, and the significance of habits has been demonstrated in various behaviours across all domains; for example, our work or exercise routine, our morning walks, our route to work, our eating habits, our favourite restaurants and how we interact in our environment. Changing habits to retrain the brain can be challenging since our behaviours are not only hardwired in our physical activity. The repetition of these behaviours has a significant effect on our brains.

The Brain

As neuroscience is discovering, the brain’s ability is greater than the best computer invented by man. The brain is a complex piece of machinery, and the approximately eighty-six billion neurons in the brain are eager little individuals that create their little habits based on our repeated thoughts, feelings, and actions. The brain operates using chemicals, and different behaviours result in the production of the various chemicals that are released into the brain. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is well known, but dopamine is also a neurotransmitter involved in reinforcement and plays a part in developing and reinforcing our habits. How we feel is a result of the chemicals in our brain. Antidepressants work through balancing neurotransmitters, the chemicals that affect mood and emotions. An individual with depression has a lower level of the serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a multifaceted and complex neurotransmitter that is known to affect mood and cognition. Our actions and environment can impact our mood because of these brain chemicals and the neurons and their synaptic connections. The synapses connect the eighty-six billion neurons in the brain throughout the nervous system to other neurons in the body.

Repeat Behaviours

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more synaptic connections we associate with that behaviour, and this affects specific parts of the brain. The repeated behaviour results in stronger synaptic connections, which gives the neurons enough ‘juice’ to create an action potential. The release of an action potential plays a crucial role in carrying messages from the brain to other parts of the body. The voltage of the action potential allows the neuron to fire from the neurons’ pre-synapse membrane to the post-synapse, with neurotransmitters being released in the space between. The neural networks become more substantial when we repeat a behaviour or thought. The behaviour or thinking develops into a habit, providing a strong stimulus to cause the cells to work together, becoming bigger and better. This explains why with repetition, new information eventually becomes memorised and long-lasting, resulting in the brain having more synaptic connections in the relevant area.

The Synapse

Four Major Brain Lobes

And just to refresh your memory, the four major lobes of the brain are:

The Frontal Lobe – includes the neocortex and controls voluntary movement, expressive language, and higher-level executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills that include planning, organising, self-monitoring and managing responses to achieve a goal.

The Parietal Lobe – is essential for sensory perception, including taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell. It is an area that interprets input from other regions of the body.

The Occipital Lobe is for visual processing, including visuospatial processing, distance, and depth perception, determining colours, object and face recognition and memory formation.

The Temporal Lobe processes auditory information, memory encoding (learning from previous experiences) and the processing of affect/emotions, language, and some visual perceptions.

Brain Lobes retrain brain

Brain Associations – Shape our Thinking

The input of sensory impressions affects many areas of the brain, and their associations affect the neural network of our experiences. And it is not as if one experience is isolated; when we think, we often associate multiple inputs, which can affect our mood. For example, a mother may enjoy the scenery and fantastic weather walking in a park. She feels good, but then she hears a mother shouting at a child, and this causes her to remember the time she was depressed after a baby was born and how she used to yell at the older sibling. The child in the park starts crying and holding onto his mother’s skirt, apologising and looking distressed. The mother remembers a blue dress she wore one day and how her son made it dirty by holding onto it whilst sobbing and saying sorry for upsetting her. She can see her 2-year-old son’s large blue eyes staring at her with tears streaming down his cheeks. She gets angry with herself for being such a horrible mother, and she regrets her son’s upbringing and knows it is why she is estranged from him now. She feels miserable and, looking at the present scene of the mother and child, she believes she is the worst mother in the world and deserves to be lonely and alone; this is her life now.

How did this mother go from having a lovely walk in the park to feeling sad, unloved, alone and wanting to cry?

Neural Networks

We can thank our habits, episodic memory, and brain associations for this change in mood. The brain responds to input by activating a neural net to the sensory organs and triggers thoughts associated with that memory. The mind is activated and reconnects to that memory. Any event or people related to that neural net of the experience will trigger the part of the brain where those old circuits are lurking, waiting to be woken up by our episodic memory. As we remember, our consciousness will activate the cluster of neurons associated with the memory. The brain’s neurons will fire in a particular sequence and chemical combinations, and we are consciously reminded of a memory hiding in the unconscious, and our mood is affected.

How the Past affects the Present

How we respond to daily stimuli is affected by past interactions. We navigate our environment using a combination of semantic (language or logic) knowledge. The more often we use the same information, the more solid that data is hardwired into the brain. As we repeat the same thoughts daily, the same neural networks will become more potent, automatic, unconscious, familiar and habitual. We start to automatically think of ourselves in a certain habitual way. The neural networks result in an unconscious response caused by the environment and the memories it awakens. We start to operate unconsciously on an autopilot created by the chronic neural networks we have developed. Once a thought activates a particular neural circuit, it causes an automatic sequence of thought forms, and we are no longer living in the present but instead are feeling and thinking from past events. And the more we live from past habitual thinking, the more those associative neural networks will be strengthened. The power of these neural networks is why it is so hard to change behaviours or negative thoughts. We have spent a lifetime developing and maintaining these neural networks, and they are hardwired into our thought processes. When we decide to attempt change, we are strongly resisted by billions of neurons and their associated neural pathways.

How can the mother stop thinking she is the worst mother in the world?

She must change her thinking by retraining her brain to create positive networks and associations, which takes time and a lot of effort. She must also be willing to develop a different personality which may require her to change her behaviour, values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of her environment. Some of the genetic predispositions from her parents and upbringing may need to be challenged as she chooses to form a new identity and image of herself. She may focus instead on the positive memories, even using photographs that show happier times with her son. She may repeat and use a daily strategy to focus on these positive memories, so they take precedence over the negative ones. She may decide to contact her son and ask if she may see him as she wants to apologise or discuss the past. There are many possibilities. But, it is up to her to make that change while accepting that the habits and the associated brain networks created over a lifetime will take some time to transform.

To Sum Up

Associations and repeat behaviours form neural networks that create habits of thought and behaviour. But we could retrain the brain if we introduced new and more positive neural networks and their associated memories into the brain. Our synapse may be formed by genetics and what we have learned over a lifetime, but that is not the end of development. Neuroscience has shown the brain can change; the brain and the mind are not static; they are forever changing. An individual can decide on which type of circuits they want to be in action. Suppose we repeat positive behaviours and are vigilant and control negative thoughts and even transfigure them into positive thoughts and associations. The new neural networks thus created will be associated with positivity and empowerment. The more we develop these types of networks, the more these positive patterns will become our habitual way of thinking and living.

Liz McCaughey


If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Find out more about Liz here

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World Disasters and Psychological Stress

World Disasters and Psychological Stress

We live in such a world of turmoil and calamity that even the news-media is struggling to keep up with the latest disaster story. It must be an interesting selection process to decide which disasters to first feature on the news. Of course, the media focus is on what will keep us, the viewers, watching their news channel. Fortunately, in this present age, there are enough disasters taking place that we have a smorgasbord of different choices and at least one of them will hold our attention. 

World Disasters and Psychological Stress

Our focus will be partially determined by our empathy with the disasters, our feelings of relief that we were not involved, the fear that it could happen to us and the horrendous potential that we could lose something in the process.

If we reflect on the world, as it is today, with the indiscriminate persecution of innocent men, woman and children, it is horrible and distressing. The slaughtering of civilians in many countries and the persecution of woman in others.  There is the devastation to the forests of the world, which means that the animals are losing their habitat and fresh-air supply. The pollution that the human manages to generate through automation, and the desire for bigger, better and more comfortable, is destroying the planet.  Right now, the world may not be in the middle of a Great War, but the planet is at war with skirmishes literally breaking out all over the globe.

Planet Earth

The Earth itself is erupting, flooding and scorching when the tension and pollution become too much for even that great consciousness. We then have to consider the loss of jobs as a result of a recession or automation. The ‘disaster’ list is endless.

It is no wonder we are having a hard time getting our head around each new calamity and the potential feeling of loss that it may bring within our psyche. We are not robots, so we are affected in some way because of our connection to humanity, a home or a job. We can now start to understand why we are so stressed that we can hardly cope with life.

We might even have asked ourselves:

What is this all about?

Why does there have to be so much suffering in the world?

If we are lucky enough to get an answer from ‘The Ones on High’, then we may find solace in that omnipotent revelation and we can function for another day.  However, if we do not get an answer but still want to understand from a basic human level, then the knowledge of balance and harmony within nature may be of some comfort.  It may simply come down to the fact that the effect of world disasters on our psyche is determined by how we live our life which is determined by the way we think..

Animals – Living with Harmony and Balance in Nature

Look at how nature functions – it is a tough world in the jungle and I will give you an example. The Lion featured in the picture above is the Alpha Male of 2 prides of Lions within this safari park where my husband took this picture.  The Lion is the boss of this safari park and you can see from his demeanour that he is very balanced and content with his life.  The fact that there was a truck with 3 people in his way and there was a gun in that truck which would be used to kill him should he attack, didn’t faze him at all.

At the time of this photo he had been away from his southern pride lionesses for a few months as he had been with his northern pride family.  He was now tracking the southern pride to reacquaint himself with his harem of lionesses. Oh, and as an aside, he had killed the original alpha male of the northern pride a few years previously which placed him in the enviable position of being the boss of both prides.  However, he is 10 years old which is the usual life expectancy of a Lion and very soon a young male will challenge his leadership and this Lion King will be killed. Nothing is permanent.

The King is Dead – Long Live the King

Like most members of the animal kingdom, this Lion and all animals live in harmony and balance with nature and accept what is presented to them in their life. This lion doesn’t seem to care that he only has a few years or less to hold onto his exalted position.  He is just getting on with the present task which is to find the southern pride and he seems to be enjoying the stroll. A few years previously he may have killed off any young male who threatened his tenure-ship as the Boss. But that was then, this is now, and the future he will deal with when it happens.

What a great way to live….

In the Small Picture of the Human

It is only in this modern age with the feverish desire for comfort, safety and permanence that the human has developed a phobia about any potential loss. It is the fear of losing ‘some-thing’ that causes us to be unhappy, anxious and stressed.  It is no accident that the world-wide stress levels are at epidemic proportions at a time when humans have so many possessions and appear (some of them at least) to have all their desires fulfilled.

However, nothing is permanent and indeed, if you objectively look at what you think you possess, you really possess ‘no-thing’.  Even without a disastrous occurrence, your children will leave home (or maybe them NOT leaving is the disastrous event). The dog, cat or goldfish that you love will leave you.  Everything is transitory and, if you can appreciate this simple fact, then you will alleviate a lot of your fears, calamitous living and stress.  Psychological stress is caused because we think we have to have everything. We believe it is our entitlement (certainly in the Western hemisphere) to have all of our desires met, which is the first part of the ‘stress precipitant’.  We then become more stressed that we may lose our amazing possessions.

Try to look objectively at your job, your home, your partner and appreciate that all will move on and nothing can be held in place. The more you try to hold on to them the more unhappy you will become as your neurotic thoughts try to create the impossibility of permanence.  We are all going to die and someone else will eventually move into your home or take over your pride.

So, instead of worrying about the disasters of the world or what you personally might lose in your world, just enjoy what you have right now. Appreciate that you are allowed to enjoy what you have in the present, do not be depressed about what you perceive you may have lost in the past and allow that the future can be dealt with later. Clean out the old negative, possessive way of thinking and replace those thoughts with positive, brighter ones.  Become the Lion…….

In the Big Picture of the World

As for the disastrously mouth-watering news media world – if each power-hungry dictator or government would stop trying to set up their permanent dynasty then much of the suffering could be stopped or at least alleviated.  This philosophy applies to the seizure of land, the building of a child-army, the murdering of members of an opposition party, to the with-holding of knowledge about an aircraft that may have crashed. Just as the media do not report the stories based on the suffering involved, the individuals perpetuating the disaster stories are not doing it for the highest good of the ones that are suffering. They are doing it for their own permanent power and position.

So, my answer to you for dealing with World Disasters and Calamity at a basic human level

Change the way you think. Focus on your own life and don’t get too caught up in the misery that is out there. Of course, if you can do something to help then great news – go for it. But, remember that the healing starts from within your own heart and mind, so you have to be balanced within your own life.  Then through that peace and harmony you can alleviate some of the suffering with your prayers, blessings or physical presence – if you are able to help at that level.

But only through detached compassion will you be able to give true assistance. And detached compassion requires you to be at balance within yourself and to learn to think clearly. Let go of trying to hold onto anything and remember nothing is permanent – including this present world or personal disasters.

Surviving Anxiety-Psychotherapy & GAD

Surviving Anxiety-Psychotherapy & GAD

Surviving Anxiety – Psychotherapy & GAD Awareness

One of the ways of surviving anxiety is to know a little about it. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a very invasive mental illness and it can be present without a person knowing they are suffering from it. So before you write off a friend or partner for being edgy or irritable – look beyond the surface and see what is the underlying current behind their behaviour. And, this especially applies to parents and children. GAD is here to stay so you had better learn a little about it, so you can help someone who is on experiencing this trauma – indeed help them or you Survive the Anxiety of GAD.

Surviving Anxiety-Psychotherapy & GAD – Symptoms of GAD is shown through excessive anxiety and worry about every-day life events. There is no obvious reason for this anxiety but people who suffer from GAD tend to expect disasters to happen and they worry about things from money, family, work and school. This concern is out of proportion for the situation that presents itself. Eventually the disorder becomes so acute that it interferes with daily functioning. Surviving Anxiety – GAD Awareness GAD affects a person in different ways but the symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • The need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Trembling
  • Being easily startled

There are also the symptoms of phobias and panic with excessive ongoing worry and tension. It is not surprising to know that people who suffer from GAD often drink too much, are more likely to take drugs and they can be obsessive and clinically depressed, which is a severe form of depression.

The Cause of GAD It is not fully known what causes GAD but the standard issues present:

  • A persons environment stresses
  • Genetics
  • Brain functions

Recent research has suggested that GAD can run in a family, which indicates that genetics are a major factor.  If a person is diagnosed with GAD by their local doctor they will be referred to a psychiatrist or a mental health professional who has specific training with this sort of mental disorder. There is meditation for GAD and this is useful for people who are so debilitated by the illness that they cannot attend work or school.

But as ever there are side-effects and the drugs can only be used in the short term as they are addictive and may cause drowsiness and loss of attention. The drugs are part of the benzodiazepine class and in a way they act like tranquillisers because they remove the more intense anxious feelings. However, there are other methods of treatment that are not as invasive as drugs.

What is Behavioral therapy?

Behavioural therapy may be used. In this type of treatment the person is taught how to recognise the symptoms and, using cognitive behaviour, change the thought patterns that contribute to the disorder. This helps the person look at the anxiety in a more realistic way. Other techniques are used which include relaxation and breathing techniques and this helps keep the person relax and feeling less tense. When someone is suffering from anxiety, but is reluctant to go to a therapist, they can instead be encouraged to do more relaxing hobbies like yoga or meditation.

Outlook GAD can be significantly improved with the above treatment and most people do gain a lot of relief. They can get back to a normal life but have to be vigilant to recognise the symptoms as there is a good chance they will reappear. Early preventative measures are a good way to stop a major episode.

The prevention of GAD

  • Change your diet to include more healthy food.
  • Start and maintain a gentle exercise routine
  • Find a therapist you trust and who can work wot you on a regular basis.
  • Do stress relief practices like yoga or meditation.
Science, Black Holes & Psychotherapy

Science, Black Holes & Psychotherapy

Science, Black Holes & Psychotherapy

Professor Stephen Hawking says that if you are in a black hole don’t give up as there is a way out.  This is where Science, Black Holes & Psychotherapy are definitely on the same path.  As with all treatment during psychotherapy having hope and not giving up is a key element to the success of the therapy. An emotional black hole has often been described as a place where life becomes unbearable and it feels there is no way out of this emotionally negative place. When you are in a psychological black hole it makes you want to hit the self-destruct button, it helps you to engage in self-sabotaging behaviour and makes you exist in a negatively charged emotional state.  It is a very miserable place which supposedly has gobbled you up and from which there is no escape.

The term Black Hole comes from the scientific term associated with the same name.  According to the old theories the Black Hole is bordered by an Event Horizon which is defined as being a theoretical boundary which surrounds all Black Holes. The event horizon could be described as the prison wall over which nothing can escape.  However modern scientific theories, including one in 2014 from the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has put forward a new theory. Professor Hawking has theorised that escape is possible and the event horizon and the black hole is surrounds are not a place that imprisons forever. Hawkings is a physicist based at the University of Cambridge, UK and is an expert on the black hole theory. In his 2014 online paper he says that the theory of an Event Horizon, the invisible boundary that shrouds each black hole, which subsequently prevents anything from ever escaping, is not correct. Instead Hawkings theorises that the quantum effects which are around the black hole would cause the space-time to fluctuate too much for an actual boundary to exist. Hawkins says that instead of an Event Horizon there is an Apparent Horizon which can eventually dissolve allowing matter and energy to escape.

How to Escape from Black Hole

Although the above may seem like scientific jargon, it is very relevant in dealing with the emotional negative black hole that many of you may find yourself in.  If you believe there is no escape then you will not even try to get out.  But if, like Stephen Hawking’s theory suggests, that the old theories are wrong and there is a way out then there is hope within the realms of science and space. This theory could be expanded to include your black hole emotional dilemna. If you expand the scientific theory and transpose it onto an emotional theory, it indicates there is hope for you if you do find yourself in an emotional black hole of negativity surrounded by a supposedly impossible to escape event horizon.  

Instead if you imagine this new Hawking paradigm of an Apparent Horizon from which things can escape from a black hole, then you can imagine yourself escaping from your emotionally negative black hole and if you an imagine it, you can make it happen. This theory gives you hope and helps you to believe you can get out of your emotional black hole.  If you believe you can then you have a chance of escaping. It may take a little time but at least you know you are not doomed to stay within the black hole for the rest of your life. You have hope and having hope stops you wanting to give up clearing away your emotional baggage.

And as the eminent Stephen Hawking is quoted as saying in 2014:

“If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.” – Professor Stephen Hawking

Quick Tips to Escaping The Black Hole of Emotional Negativity

  1. Recognise an Symptoms of Self-Sabotage
  2. Take charge of your thoughts and use a mantra of positive affirmation to stop negative thinking
  3. Let the emotional drama of life go and focus on the facts of a situation
  4. Take action to break the old negative behaviour patterns.
  5. Do not ever give up hope.
Dreams – Narcolepsy and Meditation

Dreams – Narcolepsy and Meditation

Narcolepsy and Meditation

Narcolepsy and Meditation, how can they be related? Narcolepsy is a condition that affects the immune system and this results in a person’s sleep patterns being seriously disturbed. Can you image how confusing and frightening it would be if you could not tell the difference between dreaming and being awake? This is the problem that faces some people who suffers from the condition known as Narcolepsy. It means that affected people do not have a regular sleep cycle and they can fall asleep anywhere at any time.

The effect of this is clearly explained here:

A reality of dreams

One effect of this is that the boundary between dreaming and everyday life can become a little bit blurred and a new study by sleep psychologist Erin Wamsley aimed to see how often this occurs and what happens when it does.

Some of the reports of are quite spectacular:

One man, after dreaming that a young girl had drowned in a nearby lake, asked his wife to turn on the local news in full expectation that the event would be covered. Another patient experienced sexual dreams of being unfaithful to her husband. She believed this had actually happened and felt guilty about it until she chanced to meet the ‘lover’ from her dreams and realized they had not seen each other in years, and had not been romantically involved.

Several patients dreamed that their parents, children, or pets had died, believing that this was true (one patient even made a phone call about funeral arrangements) until shocked with evidence to the contrary, when the presumed deceased suddenly reappeared. Although not all examples were this dramatic, such extreme scenarios were not uncommon.

by Vaughanbell

The frequency that people who have narcolepsy confuse dreams with reality is high with 83% of patients finding they get confused. A third of the people reporting it reoccurred once per month and two-thirds reporting reoccurrence happening once per week.  For people who do not have the disorder a reported occurrence of only 5% was recorded.

Understanding Narcolepsy and Meditation

If you think about how sometimes you come out of a meditation and have a hard time feeling grounded and coming back to the ‘real world’.  Imagine if you had difficulty doing that, but actually thought the visions you may have experienced in your meditation were real.  That would be very disorientating and sometimes not very pleasant. So have compassion for the suffers of Narcolepsy, it may not be at the forefront of medical reports, or in the news, but it is still a debilitating illness.

Curated by Liz McCaughey


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