What are neural pathways?
While our brains are physical organs, it is our minds which regulate our brain and it is our mind which forms neural pathways. These pathways are formed by neurons which fire and wire together over time. Many messages in our head feel like they are fact - eg no one likes me when I'm upset. In reality these messages are not facts- they are learned experiences, often acquired, out of awareness ,during childhood. These messages become the narrative of our lives, they tell us who (we think) we are. Most importantly these messages /conclusions - which at some point in our childhood we accepted as reality- are often not true or helpful to us as adults. In fact these out of date conclusions can severely limit our lives, our choices, our relationships as well as damaging our self esteem and emotional/mental health.
How can counselling change my neural pathways?
The neural pathways in our brains reflect our learned conclusions about ourselves, our relationships and about the world we live in. When these internal messages are damaging to us, we experience repetitive thoughts, addictive behaviour and there is a mismatch between our internal world and the self we show to others. Counselling can help us become more attuned to our body sensations- after all we feel our feelings in our bodies, not in our brains. Counselling can also help identify and challenge our limiting beliefs and replace them with more nurturing ones. Over time this process will change our neural pathways as well as changing the most important relationship for all of us - our relationship with ourselves.
What are the benefits of changing my neural pathways?
- Having more energy in the here and now- keeping uncomfortable feelings pushed down is exhausting. Allowing and accepting your authentic feelings ( whatever they may be - rage, jealousy, terror, shame etc) as part of you is freeing, empowering and ultimately healing. Good mental health is about being present in the moment.
- Being more intuitive- trusting your instincts that you know what is right for you.
- Being able to respond, rather than have knee jerk reactions to stressful situations.
- Being able to manage stress- avoiding stress isn't realistic and can lead to anticipatory fear of certain situations.
What is the flight, fight or freeze reflex?
Humans have evolved this physiological/psychological response to threatening situations. At times this response is useful and could be life saving. Our brain activates adrenalin to be pumped through our bodies and this urges us to respond to danger as well as resulting in physical symptoms (like increased heart rate, increased sweat ). In our modern world - where there are few physical threats to our lives in daily existence- we can experience anxiety as a response to psychological threats. When this anxiety becomes heightened/goes into overdrive, it can cause chronic anxiety, panic attacks and panic disorder.
Understanding and accepting our flight, fight or freeze reflex -and the physical sensations that go with it- as normal will help us be attuned to our bodies. For example when we panic, too much oxygen comes into our brains but by regulating our breathing (eg by blowing into a paper bag) we can calm ourselves. Also we can use our frontal cortex (responsible for , among others, reflection and processing memories) to understand, regulate our responses so that we can consciously choose positive, nurturing messages to send ourselves.
How do dopamine and serotonin affect my mood?
Dopamine and serotonin are 2 neurotransmitters in the brain, which are responsible for regulating mood, sleep and appetite. Anti depressants work by allowing more serotonin to be available in the brain to relieve the symptoms of depression/low mood. Dopamine affects our mood and emotions- especially the ability to experience pleasure. The good news is that making lifestyle changes including starting to see a counsellor can boost your dopamine and serotonin levels.
What changes can I make to boost my dopamine and serotonin levels?
- Regular exercise and exposure to bright sunlight will increase serotonin levels
- Doing activities that you enjoy can have a domino effect- the happier you feel, the more serotonin you produce and the more serotonin you produce, the happier you feel
- Seeing a counsellor can make individuals feel happier, less stressed, more compassionate to themselves and others. This can have a knock on effect- the happier you feel, the more serotonin you produce and the more serotonin you produce, the happier you feel
- Eating foods that maximise dopamine (almonds, dairy products, avocados) and serotonin (brown rice, chicken, eggs, nuts , peas, sunflower seeds, fish, peanuts)
- Avoiding highly processed, junk food
- Seeing a counsellor can help individuals to manage and reduce stress. Stress reduces the amount of dopamine in the brain as well as having a negative affect on sleep and mood
- Taking omega fish oil supplements will boost serotonin production
- Doing meditation / mindfulness can increase serotonin production