Little did I know that an invitation to learn about re-wiring your brain and giving your flagging willpower a boost would resonate with so many people. Almost 60 of us attended our Conscious Cafe Skipton gathering in November to listen to local Psychotherapist John Taylor talk us through how our brains actually work. That’s the largest gathering we have ever had and shows the increasing desire people have, not only to connect and share in community, which is the core idea of Conscious Cafe, but also to learn more about what makes us tick (or stops us from ticking the way we want to!)
When I asked folks to share what had called them to this particular conversation, these were the issues named that people commonly live with and would like to resolve:
Our event was held on the first day of International Stress Awareness Week – a perfect opportunity to examine what it is that causes us stress .. and what to do about it. In addition to the anxiety list, people also expressed a desire simply to express themselves to others; gain further clarity on what they could do to support their own wellbeing; learn some more self-help tools and satisfy their curiosity on the understanding their brain.
Here are ten insights from our Conscious Cafe evening exploration:
John shared something we have all experience with: we say YES to something, like agreeing to speak at a public event, then immediately afterwards we are filled with dread because we are now overwhelmed with fear ... and yet we know, deep-down, that we do actually want to do that thing!
That was a conundrum that troubled John Taylor and his curiosity and desire to overcome said fear, led him to train in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. He was particularly drawn to BWRT, BrainWorking Recursive Therapy, a new form of psychotherapy that uses the latest findings in neuroscience and is proving very helpful for changing behaviours and habits. successfully resolving many cases of PTSD, panic and anxiety as well as anxiety and phobias. We can be amazed at what makes us fearful but what is even more amazing is that we can actually overcome this.
What underpins so many of the issues that we have as humans is the trio called Needs, Belief and Conflict. And the conflict usually arises when a need comes up against a belief. Our needs start with a sensation. The absence of something or the desire to get rid of something is experienced as a feeling. When we don’t have what we need (e.g. drinking water when thirsty) the body will get stressed. Equally, we can feel stressed if we have an unwanted experience (like anxiety) so we are triggered to get rid of the unwanted feeling, and relieve it. But sometimes, something stops us from taking care of our needs.
Problems start when our needs are not fulfilled. There can be many reasons for this. Environmental factors play a part and these can mean we are not able to access the resources we need or perhaps we have a lack of knowledge for what might be available. One key aspect is that we don’t always recognise what our needs are, particularly our emotional ones may not be so obvious. We have never been taught to think of ourselves as having a range of needs and how to truly recognise when they show up. Finally our own brain software, made up of our beliefs, can get in the way of us getting that we want.
These come from an accumulation of our learned behaviour. Listen in to the voice in your head – that is a clue to what you believe. “I don’t believe I am worth it." That thought is going to create a major conflict with one of your needs. Losing touch with our needs can go back to childhood when we heard family instructions like “You should be seen and not heard” or “Eat everything on your plate." Maybe you simply do things where there is no rational and obvious reason but they are traditions passed down through your ancestry when you learn how to do things … the way your family always does things. Superstitions can be passed down through generations and simply become part of our core beliefs, beliefs that others may not share. Other than our parents, beliefs can be instilled in us from school education, our peer group and the powerful influence of advertising.
Belief has nothing to do with fact. Because whatever you believe is based on your own imagination. We can believe something will happen tomorrow, because that’s the way it’s always been before. It is not just a belief in an outcome of something, it’s our self-belief as well that has power over us. Our self-belief of who we are, what we’re capable of (or incapable of) and what we can/can’t do, what would happen if we did try to do something or not try to do something. Our beliefs can be rigid and they fundamentally shape who we are. If we feel we have to suppress part of ourselves through some kind of external pressure, and that then means we are not able to meet our needs, our body can react to this suppression with anger, anxiety, chronic illness.
The thinking, rational conscious brain that pays attention, helps us makes decisions and is responsible for willpower … this gives us a feeling of control. But in fact, it is not in control. There is another part of the brain, the subconscious. This is the part that never sleeps. When a threat happens the subconscious brain will cause us to very quickly take action ... to protect us. That happens before our conscious part is even aware. And working to support us, it always tries to act on our beliefs, as well as our needs. Sometimes there is conflict between what you really want to do and what you feel your should do. This is the nub of it! When a belief and a need are at opposite ends of a spectrum, you can’t act on both. So this is where you end up doing nothing .. good old procrastination! It can also lead to perfectionism. This does not make us perfect, it simply stops us from doing something in case we are embarrassed. It saves face!
“Cells that fire together wire together” is a key function in the brain and a foundation of the research and work of BWRT. Like a Pavlov dog, that has become wired to salivate for food ... we can continue to respond in a certain way after a strong initial reaction becomes wired into the brain. We form these neural pathways inside our brains which are links between the nerve cells inside our brains that fire off at the same time. And in just a third of a second, our brain starts to take action before we are consciously aware of what is going on. Research has shown that before a decision is made to take action, there is already neural activity inside the brain. All this can be good for us unless it causes a negative emotional response.
Failure of willpower is where we are working with the conscious brain, unaware of the role that the unconscious has over us. It’s hard to make a decision NOT to do something when your system is activated to move forward programmed by your subconscious, which is simply acting in your interest, driven by your beliefs. Sometimes you are fighting against your survival instincts.
So telling your brain to do something else instead is going to meet with resistance. Of course, you can make change because the more you do anything differently, the more successful you’ll be and the easier it will be. The best approach in BWRT is to stop the trigger in the first place rather than working on trying to resist.
Getting rid of anxiety is not done by trying to think of something else, it involves activating the anxiety because that in itself has energy as it is a neural pathway. Once activated it is immediately frozen to stop progressing. At this moment you can’t do two things at once ... you can’t stop anxiety and have it grow at the same time. By freezing it, your brain is called into a “wait state” and it is waiting for the next bit of information. This is when you break your automatic response pattern, it’s called a pattern interrupt. Strangely, your brain is highly likely to accept whatever new instruction we give it next. You decide the new action you want to replace the old habit reaction. With repetition (this is the recursive element in BWRT) this new action actually sticks.
This therapy overcomes the need for forcing change through willpower, it does not require long discussions about what is going on .. you simply want to know what new behaviour you would like instead. These techniques come from the newest brain science and neuro plasticity which means that all things can change with every second of every single day. Previously we thought that the brain at age 30 was pretty much shaped for life. Now we know that’s not true. This is a new area of research and overturns a lot of what we previously understood about the fixed nature of the brain.
John Taylor handed out a sheet of tools and tips with a Human Needs exercise. He is also very generously offered all attendees a personal and individual follow-up conversation during the next couple of months. He can be contacted on email and phone 01756 761604. Check out his website.
The bottom line is: our brain has an unlimited capacity to rewire and reorganise itself so all those old annoying destructive habits that we have got used to and suffer … they can all be changed. It sounds like a good idea to get specialist help with some of this but real breakthroughs are possible. It is helpful to study further and understand more about the enormous hidden powers that our brains have. The idea that our head is full of grey matter does not accurately reflect the powerful engine that controls every decision we make. Seemingly, anything is possible.
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