Interpersonal Landscape of Adolescents: Journey of Building up Emotional Competencies

Interpersonal Landscape of Adolescents: Journey of Building up Emotional Competencies

Teenagers seeking counselling often present with a range of concerns that stem from, or are exacerbated by, interpersonal distress. Interpersonal problems can manifest in various contexts, from family relationships and friendships to romantic partnerships and other social interactions.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a tumultuous period marked by significant physical, cognitive, and emotional changes. As they traverse this intricate terrain, adolescents encounter various challenges and opportunities that can profoundly impact their well-being as well as future trajectories in career and life.

Positive interpersonal experiences and effective emotion regulation strategies can foster resilience, self-confidence, and a sense of belonging, ultimately contributing to better academic performance, mental health, and overall life satisfaction.

Conversely, maladaptive interpersonal behaviors and emotional dysregulation can lead to social isolation, low self-esteem, and increased risk of mental health issues. Additionally, these challenges can have long-lasting impacts on their future relationships, career prospects, and overall quality of life.

The Emotional Rollercoaster

Adolescence is a time of heightened emotional intensity, where young individuals experience a wide range of feelings with greater intensity than in any other stage of life. This emotional upheaval is driven by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors, including hormonal changes, cognitive maturation, and the increasing influence of peers.

During this period, adolescents often struggle to regulate their emotions effectively, resulting in a heightened risk of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Consequently, developing emotional competencies, including the ability to identify, express, and manage emotions, becomes a critical task for adolescents.

The Influence of Peers

Peer relationships hold immense sway over adolescents’ emotional and social development. As individuals navigate the complexities of relationships and social hierarchies, they engage in a constant process of peer comparison, evaluating their own attributes, behaviors, and emotional experiences against those of their peers.

Positive peer relationships can provide a supportive environment for self-disclosure, emotional validation, and problem-solving. On the other hand, excessive peer pressure or bullying, can contribute to the development of maladaptive coping strategies and exacerbate existing emotional vulnerabilities.

The Interpersonal Battlefield

In this phase, peer relationships take center stage, with friendships and social acceptance becoming paramount. However, navigating these intricate social dynamics can be daunting, as adolescents grapple with issues such as peer pressure, bullying, and the constant need for validation.

Furthermore, the transition from relying primarily on parental support to seeking advice from peers can be challenging. Adolescents often find themselves torn between the desire for independence and the need for guidance, leading to potential conflicts and misunderstandings within the family dynamic.

Fostering Emotional Competencies

Developing emotional competencies lays the foundation for healthy relationships, effective stress management, and overall psychological well-being. Equipping adolescents with the necessary skills to recognize, express, and regulate their emotions can empower them to navigate the complexities of their social world more effectively. Here are some useful strategies for fostering emotional competencies:

  1. Emotion Education: Providing adolescents with a comprehensive understanding of emotions, their functions, and the importance of emotional regulation.
  2. Mindfulness Practices: Encouraging mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing exercises and meditation, to promote emotional awareness and self-regulation.
  3. Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions: Implementing cognitive-behavioral therapies to challenge unhelpful thought patterns and develop adaptive coping strategies.
  4. Social-Emotional Learning Programs: Introducing programs that focus on developing social and emotional skills, such as empathy, communication, and conflict resolution.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can help their children navigate the challenges through the following strategies:

  1. Open Communication: Encouraging open and non-judgmental communication about emotions, experiences, and challenges.
  2. Emotional Validation: Validating adolescents’ emotional experiences and providing a safe space for expression.
  3. Role Modeling: Demonstrating healthy emotional regulation and interpersonal behaviors through their own actions and interactions.
  4. Collaboration with Schools: Collaborating with schools to ensure a consistent approach to supporting adolescents’ emotional and social development.

What Can Schools Do?

Schools play a crucial role in mitigating the negative impacts of emotional and social challenges. Good relationships with teachers and classmates can foster a sense of belonging, promote academic engagement, and provide a supportive network for emotional growth.

However, negative experiences within the school setting, such as academic stress, social exclusion, or conflicts with authority figures, can exacerbate existing emotional challenges and contribute to the development of maladaptive interpersonal behaviors such as excessive reassurance-seeking, feedback-seeking, withdrawals, and other destructive behaviors. Which would lead to persistent conflicts, isolation, and diminished sense of self-worth.

Schools can support student’s social and emotional development through the following ways:

  1. Mental Health Screening: Implementing screening programs to identify adolescents at risk for mental health issues and provide appropriate support.
  2. Counseling Services: Offering accessible and confidential counseling services to address emotional and interpersonal challenges.
  3. Teacher Training: Providing professional development opportunities for teachers to enhance their understanding of adolescent emotional development and effective classroom management strategies.
  4. Peer Support Programs: Encouraging the development of peer support programs, where adolescents can seek guidance and support from trained peers.

Conclusion

Navigating the intricate social world of adolescence is a complex and multifaceted journey, fraught with emotional upheavals and interpersonal challenges. By fostering emotional competencies, introducing adaptive interpersonal skills, and providing comprehensive support systems, we can empower adolescents to navigate this critical developmental stage more smoothly.

Through collaborative efforts involving families, schools, and communities, we can create an environment that nurtures adolescents’ emotional regulation, fosters healthy interpersonal relationships, and ultimately contributes to their overall well-being and success in life.

Megan Chang & AM Team

Please refer to the AM articles page for Elise and the AM Team articles.

Please complete the AMindset intake form to start therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Battle Over the Teenagers Digital Usage Behaviors

Battle Over the Teenagers Digital Usage Behaviors

Today’s teenagers are digitally native, born into a world where online connectivity is the norm. This digital generation heavily relies on social media and online gaming platforms as primary sources of entertainment, socialization, and self-expression. This article delves into the impact that social media usage and online gaming behavior have on the emotional and social well-being of teenagers, the potential risks and benefits, and the role of parents in providing guidance.

Social Media Usage

Social media has become an integral part of teenagers’ lives. Platforms such as Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter serve as virtual spaces for teenagers to connect, communicate, express themselves, and share their experiences. But, with the increasing prevalence of these platforms, there is growing concern about the risk of exposure to inappropriate messages, cyberbullying, excessive usage, or even addiction.

Social Media as a Way of Being
The nature of teenagers’ social media usage goes beyond merely being a pastime. Instead, it has evolved into a way of being, an integral part of their identity. Social media platforms serve as a stage where teenagers portray their ideal selves. At the same time, it also serves their needs of feedback seeking and social comparison. Which also highly associate with their senses of self-efficacy and emotions.

Online Gaming Behaviors
Online gaming has become another popular digital pastime among teenagers. Much like social media, online gaming platforms provide a virtual space where teenagers can engage, interact, and compete with others.

Online Gaming as a Source of Entertainment and Socialization
Online gaming is not just about entertainment; it also serves as a platform for socialization. Many online games are multiplayer, requiring cooperation and coordination among players, thus promoting teamwork and communication.

Impact on Family Relationship

The digital generation gap between parents and teenagers can lead to conflicts over device usage. Many parents struggle to understand and navigate their teenagers’ digital lives, leading to potential relationship problems and emotional strains.

The Struggle for Balance

Social media and online gaming, like any other activities, come with their own set of risks and benefits.

Balancing the benefits of digital technology with the potential risks is a common struggle for many parents as well as their adolescents. On one hand, social media and online gaming can provide a platform for teenagers to connect with others, express themselves, and learn new things. Likewise, online gaming can also improve cognitive skills such as problem-solving, spatial awareness, and teamwork.

Nonetheless, excessive social media usage and online gaming can lead to various risks such as addiction, decreased academic performance, sleep deprivation, and reduced physical activities.

Social media addiction is characterized by excessive preoccupation with social media, and continued usage despite negative consequences. Similarly, gaming addiction is presented by a preoccupation with gaming, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge, withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away, and continued excessive gaming despite negative consequences. Online gaming addiction may also lead to negative impacts on academic performance, sleep patterns, and interpersonal relationships.

The online content of social media, short videos, and gaming is programmed to inflict the urge of continuous watching or using. Even adults may not be able to resist the desire for extra screen time. Thus, our teens need to learn how to utilize these platforms while manage their desire for excessive usage at the same time.

Impact on Emotional and Social Well-being of Teenagers

Adolescents are more susceptible to the addiction of social media and gaming due to their impulsive tendencies, needs to establish their identity among their group, and stronger urge for social influences. Like other addictions, excessive screen time can lead to various emotional problems such as increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness. Social media, in particular, may lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem due to constant comparison with others.

Furthermore, neuropsychological research has revealed that the prefrontal lobe is the most affected region of brain in adolescents with digital addiction. Which underscored the negative impact digital addition can have on adolescents’ cognitive control, problem solving, and emotion regulation.

While social media and online gaming can provide opportunities for socialization, excessive screen time can also lead to decreased face-to-face social interactions and potential social isolation. As Sherry Turkle, the psychoanalyst in MIT mentions in her book “Along Together” that “The ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.”

Guidance for Parents of Teenagers on Device Usage

As digital technology continues to permeate every aspect of our lives, it is crucial for parents to provide guidance and set boundaries for their teenagers’ device usage. Parents can help prevent excessive usage, potential addiction, and other risks through the following strategies:

Setting Boundaries
Parents are encouraged to set clear and reasonable boundaries for device usage. This includes setting limits on screen time, ensuring that technology use does not interfere with important activities such as homework and family time, and setting rules about appropriate online behavior.

Encouraging Healthy Device Usage
Parents should encourage their teenagers to use digital technology in a healthy and balanced way. This includes encouraging regular breaks from screen time, promoting physical activity, and encouraging face-to-face social interactions.

Learning More About Their Digital Life
To foster an open conversation about their device usage, parents can learn more about what their teens are engaging in. You can navigate new areas of learning, fun discoveries, or even concerns together. Letting your teenagers know that they can come to you about any kind of their online experiences is the key.

Setting a Good example
Don’t forget the best way of educating your teenagers is by being their role models. Tell them what you are doing when you need to stick to your devices for a while around them. As they may lack effective skills of controlling their usage, you can share how you manage the distractions from your device by setting screen time limit or turning off notifications.

Conclusion

The digital age brings with it new challenges, particularly for today’s teenagers who are growing up immersed in a world of social media and online gaming. Which is why we have to nurture responsible digital users at this early stage.

While these platforms bring numerous benefits, they also come with potential risks, including addiction. It’s crucial for parents, educators, and mental health professionals to understand these risks and take proactive steps to promote healthy device usage among teenagers. With a balanced approach, we can harness the potential of digital technology while minimizing its pitfalls.

Megan Chang & AM Team

Please refer to the AM articles page for Elise and the AM Team articles.

Please complete the AMindset intake form to start therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Navigating the Teenage Years: Unraveling the Developmental Tasks, Challenges, and Opportunities

Navigating the Teenage Years: Unraveling the Developmental Tasks, Challenges, and Opportunities

Adolescence is a period of intensive change and growth. As teenagers navigate their way through this transformative stage, it is crucial for parents to have more understanding of the developmental tasks, challenges, and opportunities that come with it.

Neuroscience has shed light on adolescent development thus given us better insight into their experiences. One key aspect is the later development of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and reasoning. During adolescence, the brain undergoes a process called pruning, where unnecessary neural connections are eliminated, making room for more efficient wiring. The process starts from the back of the brain, and the pre-frontal cortex is remodeled the last. This pruning process contributes to the advancement of cognitive skills and the ability of critical thinking. The later maturation of this area makes adolescents rely more on their amygdala in problem solving or decision making than adults do. Which explains why adolescents tend to be more emotional and present more aggressive and instinctive behaviors.

Another significant factor is the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. The teenage brain is particularly sensitive to dopamine, leading to heightened sensations of pleasure and a greater inclination towards risk-taking behaviors. This increased sensitivity to dopamine explains why teenagers are more likely to engage in impulsive actions, seek out novel experiences, and more reactive to reward and feedback.

Developmental Tasks During the Teenage Years

Adolescence is the stage that teenagers strive to achieve a sense of identity, autonomy, and independence. One of the crucial developmental tasks during this period is the formation of a strong and coherent sense of self. Teenagers may explore different identities, experiment with various roles, and seek validation from others.

Another important developmental task is the establishment of healthy relationships. Teenagers are learning how to navigate the complexities of friendships, romantic relationships, and familial ties. They may face challenges such as peer pressure, conflicts, and the need for acceptance.

Lastly, adolescence is a time when teenagers are preparing for the future and gaining a sense of purpose. They are exploring their interests, talents, aspirations, and directions throughout this phase.

Challenges Faced by Teenagers

In this stage of growth and exploration, teenagers face a myriad of challenges such as academic pressure, peer influence, body image issues, relationship issues and the quest for independence. As parents, it is crucial to understand these challenges and provide the necessary guidance and support. Below I listed the most common challenges and how we can help:

Academic pressure: The pressure to excel academically can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. It is important to strike a balance between academic expectations and their well-being. Encourage them to set realistic goals, recognize personal strengths, seek help when needed, and prioritize self-care.

Peer influence: Teenagers are highly influenced by their peers, often seeking validation and acceptance. This can lead to risky behaviors, such as substance abuse or engaging in dangerous activities. Open lines of communication, setting clear boundaries, and promoting positive peer relationships can help teenagers navigate this challenge.

Body image: Teenagers undergo physical changes and compare themselves to societal ideals. It is crucial to promote a healthy body image and self-esteem by emphasizing the importance of inner qualities, encouraging a balanced approach to nutrition and exercise, and fostering a supportive environment for their holistic health.

Opportunities for Growth and Learning During Adolescence

However, adolescence is also a time of great opportunities for immense growth and learning. For example, it is a time for adolescents to break through their comfort zone and adventure with their risk taking tendencies. And their egocentrism as well as sensitivity to rewarding feedback can also serve as the drive for their pursuance to achievement or more impactful roles in their community. It is important for parents to recognize and nurture these opportunities for the holistic development of teenagers with understanding and empathy.

One of the opportunities during adolescence is the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Teenagers are expanding their cognitive abilities, questioning the world around them, and forming their own opinions. Encouraging independent thinking, exposing them to diverse perspectives, and engaging in meaningful discussions can foster their intellectual growth.

Another opportunity lies in the realm of emotional intelligence. During adolescence, teenagers are learning to navigate their emotions, understand the emotions of others, and develop empathy. By promoting emotional awareness, introducing healthy coping mechanisms, and modeling emotion regulation strategies, parents can help teenagers develop strong emotional intelligence, which will serve them well in their personal and professional lives.

Strategies for Parents and Caregivers in Supporting Teenagers

As a parent and caregiver, our role in supporting teenagers through these challenges and opportunities of adolescence is crucial. Here are some ways to support:

  1. Foster open communication: Create a safe space for teenagers to express themselves, share their thoughts and feelings, and ask questions. Listen actively and non-judgmentally, providing guidance and support when needed. And take opportunities to model them essential relationship skills such as effective communication, empathy, and conflict resolution.
  2. Set clear boundaries: Establish rules and expectations that are fair and reasonable. Clearly communicate these boundaries and the consequences of violating them. Consistency is key.
  3. Encourage independence and responsibility: Allow teenagers to make decisions, take on responsibilities, and learn from their mistakes. Balancing autonomy with guidance will help them develop a sense of accountability and self-reliance.
  4. Provide opportunities for exploration and growth: Encourage teenagers to pursue their interests, try new activities, and explore their passions. Provide resources and support to help them achieve their goals while developing a sense of self-worth, purpose, and direction.
  5. Seek support from other adults: From family and friends to other parents, the connection with people sharing the same experiences can provide reassurance and new perspectives for your journey. You can also reach out to professional mental health workers who can walk you through the challenges and offer effective techniques. With your own support system in place, you will feel less alone and empowered.

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides a wealth of resources and support for parents, caregivers, and teenagers themselves too. Here are some additional strategies to support adolescents’ mental well-being from APA:

  1. Encourage self-expression: Provide outlets for teenagers to express themselves creatively, whether through art, writing, music, or other forms of self-expression. This can serve as a healthy emotional outlet and a means of self-discovery.
  2. Teach coping mechanisms: Help teenagers develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, anxiety, and other challenges. This can include techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, journaling, or engaging in physical activity.
  3. Promote a balanced lifestyle: Encourage teenagers to maintain a balanced lifestyle by prioritizing self-care, engaging in enjoyable activities, and fostering healthy relationships. Balancing academic, social, and personal commitments is crucial for their well-being.

Navigating the teenage years can be both exciting and challenging. Embrace this transformative stage as a time of growth, self-discovery, and positive transition before adulthood with your adolescents. By understanding their journey, parents can be the pillars of strength for their teenagers.

References

Brain development in pre-teens and teenagers
https://raisingchildren.net.au/pre-teens/development/understanding-your-pre-teen/brain-development-teens

Parenting: The teen years
https://www.apa.org/topics/parenting/teens

Megan Chang & AM Team

Please refer to the AM articles page for Elise and the AM Team articles.

Please complete the AMindset intake form to start therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Unlocking the Unspoken: Exploring the Complex Relationship and Communication Strategies Between Teenagers and Their Parents

Unlocking the Unspoken: Exploring the Complex Relationship and Communication Strategies Between Teenagers and Their Parents

Looking back into your teenage years, have you ever been pondering the intricate dynamics that exist between you and your parents? It is a relationship that transcends the boundaries of love and affection, often veering into uncharted territory filled with misunderstandings, conflicts, and unspoken emotions. In this article, I aim to delve into the depths of this complex relationship, shedding light on the challenges faced by both sides as well as offering some guidelines that are proven to improve communication between parents and their teens. Thus, we can strive to nurture healthy and open connections with our teenagers.

Developmental Tasks and Challenges for Teenagers and Parents

Adolescence is a period characterized by rapid physical and emotional changes, as well as the exploration of one’s identity and individuality. It is common for teenagers to seek independence and autonomy, often leading to clashes in decision-making or boundaries related issues with their parents. It is important for parents to recognize that power struggles can hinder the development of a healthy relationship. Rather than engaging in a battle of wills, we can shift the focus towards collaboration and compromise. By involving teenagers in decision-making processes and allowing them to have a voice, we can foster mutual respect and understanding.

During this phase, teenagers strive to establish a sense of self that is separate from their parents. They explore their interests, beliefs, and values, often questioning societal norms and authority figures. As parents, it can be challenging to witness our teenagers questioning our values and attempting to forge their own path. However, it is crucial to recognize that this process is a natural part of their growth and development. By empathizing and offering support, guidance, and a safe space for exploration, we can facilitate their journey towards self-discovery.

Understanding and Managing Emotional Responses in Parent-Teen Relationships

Emotions run high in parent-teen relationships, and reactivity is a common occurrence. Both parents and teenagers can find themselves caught up in a cycle of emotional reactions, leading to heightened tension and strained communication. It is essential for parents to be aware of their own emotional responses and reactions when interacting with their teenagers. By cultivating self-awareness and practicing emotional regulation techniques, we can create a more harmonious atmosphere within the family. Taking a step back, breathing, and reflecting before responding can help in de-escalating conflicts and promoting healthier communication.

Handling Destructive Behaviors of Teenagers

Destructive behaviors can pose significant challenges in parent-teen relationships. As adolescents tend to engage in risky behaviors or test the boundaries while they don’t quite know how to make good decisions, it is crucial to address these behaviors with empathy and understanding, rather than resorting to reprimand or other punitive measures. By utilizing effective communication strategies, we can approach these situations as opportunities for growth and learning. Engaging in open and honest conversations about the impact and consequences of these behaviors, exploring underlying emotions, and collaborating on solutions can pave the way for positive change. It is important to remember that destructive behaviors often stem from unmet needs or underlying emotional turmoil, and addressing these root causes is crucial for long-term growth and development.

Communication Between Teenagers and Parents

Communication is perhaps one of the most significant challenges in parent-teen relationships. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and lack of effective communication tools can create a divide between parents and teenagers. By creating a safe and non-judgmental space, where teenagers feel heard and understood, we can bridge the communication gap and strengthen the relationships.

Strategies for Effective Communication Between Teenagers and Parents

To improve communication between teenagers and parents, several strategies can be employed:

  1. Active listening: Active listening plays a pivotal role in building rapport and understanding. By giving our full attention and validating our teenagers’ feelings and experiences, we can create a foundation of trust and openness.
  2. Practicing empathy and perspective-taking: Which allows us to see situations from our teenagers’ point of view, fostering empathy and connection. Remember adolescents always talk to people who understand them.
  3. Dedicated time: Setting aside regular dedicated time for family discussions and establishing clear communication boundaries can help in maintaining healthy lines of communication.
  4. Be firm, fair, and consistent: Being firm and fair sent your teenagers clear messages in communication. And teens would like their parents to be consistent and predictable which can bring them reassurance under any circumstances.

Seeking Professional Help: Therapeutic Approaches for Improving Parent-Teen Relationships

In some cases, seeking professional help may be necessary to navigate the complexities of parent-teen relationships. Therapeutic approaches such as family therapy can provide a safe and neutral space for open communication and conflict resolution. A skilled therapist can help parents and teenagers explore underlying issues, improve communication skills, and develop strategies for building healthier relationships. Seeking professional help is not a sign of failure but rather a proactive step towards nurturing stronger bonds within the family.

Conclusion

The relationship between teenagers and their parents is a complex and ever-evolving journey. During adolescence, Parents’ roles gradually transit from authority figures to mentors or coaches. By recognizing the developmental tasks and challenges faced by both parties, we can approach these problems with empathy, patience, and open-mindedness. As a proactive, equal, open, and reflective parent, we can unlock the unspoken and nurture strong connections that will withstand the test of time.

Megan Chang & AM Team

Please refer to the AM articles page for Elise and the AM Team articles.

Please complete the AMindset intake form to start therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

ASD and Neurofeedback

ASD and Neurofeedback

Unleashing Potential: Empowering Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders through Neurofeedback Training

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals from early childhood, impacting their social interactions, communication abilities, and behavior. While there is no definitive cure for autism, innovative therapeutic approaches have emerged to help alleviate symptoms and enhance the quality of life for children with ASD. Among these approaches, neurofeedback training has shown promise in regulating brain activity and has the potential to unlock hidden potential in children with autism (e.g., Van Hoogdalem et al., 2020).

Neurofeedback training is a non-invasive technique that utilizes real-time feedback to help individuals self-regulate their brain activity. By measuring brainwave patterns, individuals are provided with visual or auditory cues that reflect their brain’s activity levels. Through repeated sessions, they learn to modify their brainwave patterns, leading to improved self-regulation and overall functioning.

The Impact of Neurofeedback Training on Autism:

Improving Social Interaction and Communication Skills:

Neurofeedback training targets the neural networks associated with social cognition and communication abilities. By promoting neural flexibility and connectivity, it can enhance social interaction skills, such as eye contact, emotional recognition, and empathy. Studies have shown that children with autism who undergo neurofeedback training demonstrate improved social engagement and communication skills (e.g., Orndorff-Plunkett et al., 2017).

Managing Behavioral Challenges and Promoting Self-Regulation:

Many children with autism experience behavioral challenges, including impulsivity, hyperactivity, and emotional dysregulation. Neurofeedback training offers a promising avenue for addressing these challenges by targeting the brain regions responsible for self-regulation. By teaching children to modulate their brainwave patterns, neurofeedback training can help reduce impulsivity, improve attention span, and enhance emotional regulation (Mercado, Escobedo, & Tentori, 2021).

Complementary Approach to Existing Therapies:

Neurofeedback training is not intended to replace existing therapeutic interventions for autism but rather complement them. It can be integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan that includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral interventions. By addressing brain dysregulation, neurofeedback training can amplify the effectiveness of other therapies and maximize outcomes for children with autism.

Neurofeedback training offers a novel and promising approach to empower children with autism. By harnessing the brain’s remarkable plasticity, it has the potential to unlock hidden potential, enhance social interaction and communication skills, and promote self-regulation. While neurofeedback training is not a standalone solution, it can significantly contribute to comprehensive treatment plans for children with autism. By investing in research, collaboration, and innovation, we can continue to unleash the potential within every child with autism, creating a brighter future for them and their families.

References

Mercado, J., Escobedo, L., & Tentori, M. (2021). A BCI video game using neurofeedback improves the attention of children with autism. Journal on Multimodal User Interfaces, 15, 273-281.

Orndorff-Plunkett, F., Singh, F., Aragón, O. R., & Pineda, J. A. (2017). Assessing the effectiveness of neurofeedback training in the context of clinical and social neuroscience. Brain sciences, 7(8), 95.

Van Hoogdalem, L. E., Feijs, H. M., Bramer, W. M., Ismail, S. Y., & van Dongen, J. D. (2020). The effectiveness of neurofeedback therapy as an alternative treatment for autism spectrum disorders in children. Journal of Psychophysiology, 35(2), 102-115.

Nicolson Siu & AM Team

MsC., MoC. Member of: ACA, BACP

Please refer to the AM articles page for Elise and the AM Team articles.

Please complete the AMindset intake form to start therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Life Transitions: Relocations

Life Transitions: Relocations

Exploring the challenges of moving from one country to another.

Following on from last month’s focus on life transitions, this month we turn our attention to a particular transition undertaken by many Hong Kong and expat families in increasing numbers over the past 5 years. Various issues have contributed to an unprecedented number of families relocating out of Asia – with a significant number going from Hong Kong to the UK.  Many of these families have deep ties and connections with where they’ve been living and the transition, for many, involved challenging and unsettling emotions. These intense emotions have been described as a grieving process, as we close one chapter of our life and transition into the next chapter.

Having relocated to the UK with my family after almost 20 years in Hong Kong, I have experienced my share of homesickness for the country I had called home for so long and grieved for a chapter in my life that was now closing. It is an experience I have seen replicated in many others, both friends and clients. We can find ourselves grieving for our former lifestyles, for a persona of ourselves, career and all the myriad reasons we fell in love with  Asia in the first place.  For some of us, our lives in  Asia allowed us to ‘reinvent’ ourselves: either in our careers, friendships, hobbies etc. With domestic help, endless international travel and lower tax, life can be pretty glamorous in Asia. Places like Hong Kong offer a diversity of food, restaurants, convenience and experiences which are hard to match elsewhere in the world.  

Relocating back to our country of origin, or moving to a new country can stir up all manner of feelings; reintegrating into old social circles can be more difficult than expected, friends and family may not seem as welcoming as you hoped or you might be moving to an entirely new area and need to create a social framework from scratch. In the short term, we lose our sense of ‘belonging’ which can make us feel sad, alone and isolated. 

For some, the grief they feel in leaving their old lives compounds issues that may have been ‘bubbling’ under the surface. Isolation and loneliness can trigger anxieties and depression. Marriages and relationships can be tested with the new reality of life in a different country. The cost-of-living crisis, the fallout from Covid and the war in Ukraine can make the reality of life feel pretty hard.  

So what can help? 

Firstly, acknowledging that you might be going through a grieving process will help bring an awareness of your feelings. As with anyone grieving, give yourself the space and understanding to deal with your emotions. Grief is a deeply personal and complex emotion. It doesn’t have a set timeframe and can come and go, sometimes triggered by an unexpected event or memory.  You may even find yourself experiencing the different stages of grief such as denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and finally acceptance.  Awareness and understanding are key, being kind to yourself and taking some action can help. The good news is that, with time, grief and homesickness can and will fade. That journey may be smooth or rocky but there are certain attitudes and behaviours that may help:

Let’s take a look at some of the key issues which may have the biggest impact when relocating and how you might employ some basic psychology (problem solving, reframing and addressing unhelpful negative thoughts) to make the situation a little smoother: 

  • Change of lifestyle:  Does the impact of losing the domestic help enjoyed by so many families in  Asia mean that you find yourself struggling with housework, childcare and work/life balance?  This is probably the most consistent life adjustment I have heard from friends and clients.  Whether you are a stay-at-home parent, trailing spouse or working parent, the transition to life without all the help most of us enjoyed in Asia is a tough one. It can represent a curtailment of ‘freedom’ for families with younger children and a change in the dynamics in most couples. Add on a longer work commute and dull weather and the stage is set for resentment and fireworks (no, not the fun type!)

Try practical problem solving:  sit down with your spouse and children and explain how the adjustment is affecting you.  Allocate a fair split of housework with everyone in the house, including the children (a friend of mine made sure she negotiated these terms with her family before their move!). Relax your expectations of cleanliness/ tidiness around the house.  Can your resources stretch to a cleaner a few hours a week? Set times for the whole family to help clean on the weekends; cut corners with food preparation and ironing (i.e. don’t).  Allocate set times and limits for housework so that you can get a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and try and check in with someone who can understand.  You will not be alone!

  • Losing your sense of belonging.   This is a key issue.  Losing the familiarity of your surroundings and the sense of ‘belonging’ can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.  You may begin to feel disconnected, adrift from your old life and not yet settled into your new reality.   This can lead to sadness and low mood.   You might become fixated on the past, looking backwards and unable to move on with your new life.  Take action and engage:  it is vital that you make the effort in your new circumstances to make friends and establish a new social network. Get to know your neighbours, volunteer at your children’s school, sign up for an exercise class at the local community centre. Many community centres provide a wide range of accessible fitness and leisure courses.  Join a walking club, take up a new hobby. 

Use technology to your advantage – remain in regular contact with your old  Asia friends – wherever they might find themselves, set up regular Zoom calls and stay connected and interested in each other’s lives. Hunt out your local Hong Kong or  expat groups – either in person or on Facebook. I guarantee there is someone nearby who would love to catch up for a coffee!  

  • Friendships and relationships – revisiting old friendships can be an interesting exercise.  Hopefully, it’s a positive experience, but many people report that it can be tough to ‘reintegrate’ into their old lives and social circles. This isn’t so surprising – just as your life experiences have no doubt changed you, your old friends and family will have settled into a new way of life.  Logistics of socialising with young children can simply make  regular contact too hard. It’s important to accept that ‘slotting’ back into your old life might not happen and that’s ok – don’t take it personally.  Try not to fall into a negative thought pattern of “I don’t belong here” or “no one will like me”.   Challenge these unhelpful negative assumptions and give people a chance.  Ultimately, you will find your new tribe in this transition and that can be part of the adventure.
  • Culture shock: settling into a new culture or re-integrating can be challenging. Conversations can be nuanced and misinterpreted. Be aware of what is culturally important to you and your immediate family. Your values and traditions are important and you will find it comforting to take time to recreate the rituals and traditions you enjoyed in your previous life. We still adore celebrating Chinese New Year and putting up all the decorations up in our house!

Practice elements of Positive Psychology:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes humans happy and creates a sense of wellbeing.
Try some of these proven mood boosters:  

  • Be in the moment – avoid spiralling and thinking excessively about what you have left behind (or perhaps limit your focus on your old life to one hour a day).  Mindfulness and mediation can help ground you in the ‘here and now’.  There are many free resources online to get you started. 
  • Practice gratitude – list all the things about your life that you are grateful for.  Get into the habit of writing down three new things a day. 
  • Connect with your community – volunteering and joining clubs is a great way to give back while growing your social network.
  • Exercise and get out into nature:  I know that sunlight is limited in Europe but try to expose yourself to natural sunshine at every opportunity. Gather the kids and explore the many trails, coastal paths and National Trust properties that are within reach of you. 
  • Stay connected with your friends and family: Even though you might feel down, staying connected will always help the tough moments pass. 
  • Limit mindless scrolling on social media: Flicking through endless photos of junks, hikes and plates of steaming dim sum will not make you feel better.  Limit these to a set time daily or weekly.  
  • Positive thinking:  Look at this transition as a new chapter of your life and make it an adventure! Reframe your thinking into a more positive mindset. Instead of thinking about what was different back home – focus on all the great things at your disposal now.  
  • Humour!  If all else fails – remember to laugh.

Helping your children with the integration: 

Part of the anxiety in moving for parents is the impact on their children.   Asia might have been all they knew – other than trips back during the holidays,  Asia represents their friends, school, identity, and social structure. A relocation can be every bit as tough on them as it is on us.  Integrating into the local school environment can be an exhilarating experience (more sports facilities; new friends; new adventures) but it can also be a scary and isolating experience for others. Children (and teenagers, in particular), may feel that they have had little say in the move and feel a sense of powerlessness.  Try and include them in the decision making and involve them when making choices. Help them cultivate new friends, interests and gently steer them towards joining clubs that will interest them and help broaden their social network. We found that engaging with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards soon took care of any spare time on the weekends for our teens. Technology has made it easier than ever to keep in touch after a move – encourage weekly or monthly Zoom calls with their friends ‘back home’ or get together with other ‘returnees’ who can empathise with their situation. Ultimately, children can be extremely resilient but look out for signs of homesickness and an unwillingness to integrate into their new surroundings. Keep the lines of communication open!

Finally, and above all, be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve for your past life. Time is a healer, and the pangs of homesickness will eventually fade and you will look back on your previous life with affection and pride. Take control of the narrative for your latest adventure!

If you find that you or a member of your family is finding it hard with this transition, talking to a professional may help. Always take depression and anxiety seriously and seek help.  

Laurence Munoz

MoC

Laurence is our counsellor in the UK team. Find out more about Laurence here.

Please complete the AMindset intake form if you want to start your therapy with Elise or another AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients. 

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Executive Functions and Child Development

Executive Functions and Child Development

Why is it so Important for Academic Achievement & Good Health

Executive functions are a set of high-level cognitive processes that allow us to plan, initiate, monitor, and adjust our behaviour in order to achieve our goals. These functions are often referred to as frontal lobe functions because many of the brain regions involved in executive functions are located in the frontal lobes of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the frontal lobes, is particularly important for executive functions (Figure 1). It is involved in many aspects of executive functions, including planning, decision-making, working memory, and inhibitory control. Other brain regions, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the basal ganglia, are also involved in executive functions and are located in or near the frontal lobes (Figure 2). These processes include working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and planning ability. While important for people of all ages, executive functions are particularly critical for children’s development.

 

Figure 1. Frontal lobe and its components.

 

Figure 2. Basal Ganglia and Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

Why are Executive Functions Important for Children’s Development?

Executive functions play a critical role in children’s development, particularly in their ability to learn, solve problems, and regulate their emotions and behaviour. Here are some of the key reasons why executive functions are so important for children’s development:

  1. Learning and Academic Achievement: Research has shown executive functions are closely linked to academic achievement, particularly in domains such as reading, writing, and math. Children with strong executive functions are better able to focus their attention, process information efficiently, and use cognitive strategies to solve problems. As a result, they are more likely to perform well in school and achieve academic success.
  2. Social and Emotional Development: Executive functions also play a crucial role in children’s social and emotional development. For example, children with strong inhibitory control are better able to regulate their emotions and behaviour, which can help them form positive relationships with others. Similarly, children with strong cognitive flexibility are better able to show empathy, e.g., understand others from their perspectives and adapt to new situations, which it can help them navigate social interactions more effectively.
  3. Health and Well-Being: Executive functions are also linked to children’s physical health and well-being. For example, children with strong attentional control are better able to focus on health-promoting behaviours, such as exercise and healthy eating. Similarly, children with strong inhibitory control are better able to resist unhealthy temptations, such as smoking and drug use.

Given the importance of executive functions for children’s development, it is not surprising that many researchers and educators are interested in finding ways to train and enhance these processes.

How Can Training Benefit Children’s Executive Functions?

Here are some of the ways in which training can benefit children’s executive functions:

  1. Cognitive Training: Cognitive training involves engaging in structured exercises that are designed to enhance specific executive functions, such as working memory or inhibitory control. These exercises may involve tasks such as remembering sequences of numbers or resisting distractions. Research has shown that cognitive training can lead to improvements in executive functions, particularly in children with weaker initial abilities.
  2. Mindfulness Training: Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve executive functions in both children and adults. For example, studies have found that children participating in mindfulness training led to improvements in working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility in children.
  3. Play-Based Interventions: Play-based interventions involve engaging children in games and activities that are designed to promote executive functions. These interventions may involve games such as Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light, which require children to inhibit their behaviour and follow instructions. Research has shown that play-based interventions can lead to improvements in executive functions, particularly in younger children.

In conclusion, executive functions are critical for children’s development in a wide range of domains, including academic achievement, social and emotional development, and health and well-being. Given their importance, it is not surprising that many researchers and educators are interested in finding ways to train and enhance these processes. Whether through cognitive training, mindfulness, or play-based interventions, there are many opportunities to promote the development of these critical cognitive processes. By investing in these training opportunities, we can help to ensure that all children have the cognitive skills they need to succeed in life.

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

Find out more about Nicolson here.

Removing the Mask

Removing the Mask

I arrived at my gym for an appointment with my trainer.  “Are you going to Lan Kwai Fong tonight?” he asked enthusiastically.  As a busy (and middle-aged) professional who’d been up since 5 am and still had several work obligations after this gym session, I figured the probability of hanging out in LKF on a school night was pretty low.  “Why on Earth would I do that?” I asked.  He responded, “Everyone’s going there at midnight to burn all their masks!  Can’t wait to see the bonfire!”.  While the thought of such a sight was pretty attractive after 945 days of mask-wearing, I immediately thought of the toxic fumes that would soon travel through central Hong Kong – fumes we could avoid breathing through a mask.  The irony was not lost on me.

I do not know if the LKF mask-burning event occurred, but the sentiment resonated.  It also prompted me to wonder how the people of Hong Kong would feel as they prepared for this change.  No doubt everyone considered what it meant for them and their loved ones.  And as I’ve been listening to friends and colleagues over the last 48 hours, I’ve come to the view that regardless of whether removing the mask mandate is “good” or ‘bad”,  it allows for personal choice, which empowers us all.

Let’s consider kids, for example.  As of Wednesday, millions of five-to-eight-year-olds will (strangely, after showing a negative RAT test to attend school in the first place) be seeing their teachers’ full faces, perhaps for the first time.  Children three years old or under do not know the world without masks.  It will be interesting to see how they interact with their friends now that they can see their whole faces.  It’s difficult enough as an adult to recognize people when they see them without a mask for the first time.  How we look at people and recognize their faces is different with masks on than with masks off.  Also, these little children have learned to read people’s emotions just by looking at their eyes.  What will it be like for them to see a full facial expression?  How will they interpret what they see? Ongoing research at places like the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London links facial expression to healthy social interactions. Within a social context decoding facial expressions is an essential foundation for stable emotional relationships. It is a skill that helps to reduce anxiety.

And just as kids are not used to seeing their teachers’ full faces, the same is valid for teachers with their students.  One teacher shared a story of playing “guess the child” with her peers:  When the kids took their masks off to eat, the teachers tried to figure out who they were.  It wasn’t easy to recognize them, as the teachers had a mental image of the children’s faces, which was inaccurate.  They almost had to re-learn who Nancy, Tom, Millie, or James were, as they were unrecognizable without the masks.  Imagine the child who bounds up to her teacher with a big “HELLO!” and the teacher isn’t sure who she is.  This experience could result in children losing identity or sense of place, as the teachers they’ve become comfortable with don’t seem to know who they are anymore. How disempowering would that appear to the child that a person who is essential in their lives fails to recognize them?

And what about vulnerable people or those in hospital environments?  Most medical clinics allow their staff to choose whether or not to wear masks at work.  Patients with respiratory illness symptoms are still requested to wear masks. 

The mask mandate may have been removed, but does this mean we should no longer consider the needs of others?  A diverse city of 7.6 million people like ours does not thrive without the goodwill and tolerance of its people.  It’s worth remembering that Hong Kong people commonly wore masks when sick – well before any mandate and well before the rest of the world – out of consideration for others.  Perhaps there’s no need to burn all our masks, and we might instead choose to keep a few around for the greater good. As mentioned earlier, it is a choice, and being able to make choices is positive for our mental health.

Today, I also heard another example of two brothers – the younger one thrilled to see his friends’ faces, and the older one worried about his facial acne.   Female colleagues are talking about needing to spend money on makeup now that their whole faces are “on display” again.  Jokes about teeth whitening products selling like hotcakes and dentists being completely booked out.  For the last three years, the beauty ‘playing field’ was somewhat even, and the eyes were all that mattered.  Now our whole faces are back in the limelight. Face masks eased the anxiety of people with body dysmorphia or those anxious about their appearance. This anxiety will have to be dealt with by many people.

And another friend told me she was thrilled to see the mandate go for the simple reason that she’d be able toread lips again – a helpful skill when seeking assistance at various customer service counters around the city.  It was hard enough before trying to understand what the customer service agent was saying behind the plate glass window with tiny holes and poor quality intercom – add mask-wearing into the equation. This friend has said, “sorry, can you please repeat that?” about 17,000 times over the last three years. These are six words that she’s delighted to remove from her vocabulary.

There are so many stories about the effect of mask-wearing, but that is enough for now. Hong Kong is finally free from HAVING to wear a mask, now is the time for people to appreciate they have choices, and it is up to them what they choose to do.

Perhaps the take-home point is that we in HK must celebrate our adaptability and resilience – we kept masks on for 945 days, the most extended period of mask-wearing in the world.   Now they are no longer mandatory, and we can decide for ourselves.  I can choose to wear it or not, just as I can decide to go to Lan Kwai Fong on a Tuesday at midnight or go home to bed.  Free will and choice are empowering, and as you read this, make a choice for yourself and be empowered in the process of having that choice.

By the Team at AMindset

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

Other Articles by AMindset Counsellors:

The Mental Health Impact of Hong Kong’s Mask-Free Policy on Children, Anoush Davies

Re-entering the Outside World, Kelly Hutchison

Christmas Alone, Elise Phillipson 

Talking About Eating Disorders, Megan Chang 

No Bad Parts

No Bad Parts

I really enjoy watching the Disney movie “Inside Out,” and I often recommend the film to my clients. The protagonist of the movie is a little girl named Riley and her emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. These emotional characters help Riley face her daily trials and tribulations. For instance when Anger takes over the console of the mind, Riley starts throwing temper tantrums. Our emotions are similar to having these characters inside us, when different Parts become dominant, different thoughts and beliefs, carried by their perspective Parts, may have control over our behaviours. The modality called the Internal Family Systems (IFS) refers to our inner characters as Parts, which are like family members within us, who interact or argue with each other as our family members sometimes will do in real life.

In the book “No Bad Parts”, Dr. Richard Schwartz, the creator of IFS, talks about how Parts can be divided into the three main categories below:

Exiles: Exiles take on the painful emotions of past traumatic events. They often act like a wounded child, being exiled deep inside our psyche, feeling unloved, worthless, shame, and emptiness. In order to ensure that the Exiles are hidden from our consciousness, the Parts that are called Managers and Firefighters are forced to be generated.

Managers: Managers are protectors who try to control everything in our lives, ensuring that we don’t come in contact with our vulnerable or traumatic experiences, and avoiding emotions that we don’t want to experience again. The Critic is a common type of Manager that only sees mistakes and uses criticism as a means to help, thereby motivating us to attain higher job achievements, greater wealth, and positive affirmations. There are also other types of Managers such as Workaholics, Perfectionists, and the Highly Educated one to name a few, but no matter how hard these managers try, they can never heal their Exiled inner child.

Firefighters: Firefighters are a different kind of protector. If the Manager is there to prevent any incentives that can trigger the Exile, the Firefighters mission is to put out the fires at any cost when the Exile’s pain is triggered. The Firefighters will numb or escape painful feelings with more aggressive actions than what the Managers use, such as addictive behaviours with alcohol or drug use, eating disorders, sex, self-harm or even suicide, in extreme cases.

Now let’s pause for a moment and examine our different Parts. I may have a Part that wants to lose weight, while at the same time, I have another Part that tells me I must dine at a buffet. It is also possible when a Part wants to take a good rest, but another Part suddenly tells us not to relax in order to achieve success in our pursuits. I have a client who has several internal Parts and are working very hard every day. For example, when the Hard Working Part is writing a business proposal, Anxiety might interfere by saying, “Are you sure you can meet the deadline? Will the client like this proposal?” Meanwhile the Critic Part also might say, “Why are you so stupid? You can’t do anything well.” When facing the discomfort caused by Anxiety, Play might suggest watching TV, swiping the phone or playing video games. Then Smoking may invite you to enjoy a cigarette, and Binge Eating may start ordering lots of takeout. These Parts appear just to divert attention and escape to face anxiety.

Many psychology modalities try to correct these so-called negative behaviours or thoughts in different ways, but IFS believes that we do not need to push away these emotions or behaviours that might be dragging our lives down, nor is it necessary to beg these Parts to change. Just like the Movie “Inside out”, Joy tries to push Sadness away from Riley’s life, but in the end, she accepts Sadness for who she is, understanding that she serves an important purpose in Riley’s life. Joy is only one element of true happiness, Sadness and other painful emotions make life more meaningful. 

IFS believes that every Part is there with good intentions, and even with extreme, sometimes seemingly unhelpful or destructive actions like Managers and Firefighters, they are doing their best to protect us. Through listening, understanding, and discovering the purpose of each inner Part, we can improve their mutual relationships. When we find our true self (Self) who is caring, curious, empathic, and compassionate, as the leader of the internal family, the healing journey begins. 

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

Articles by Cecilia:

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

MC, MSc

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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