The neurological foundation of a sense of self is based around our 7 primary emotional systems. Emotions that aren't learnt but the emotional systems we are born with. These primary emotional systems are seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief and play and they have been identified neurologically in animals, and humans.
Humans have a secondary level of these systems which are developed through experience, learning and memory. These systems each play a role in the development of our 'self' as well as issues associated with emotional regulation. For instance, a depressive state manifested from the panic/grief system (such as the death of a loved one) stimulates the cortex, a part of the brain that is responsible for memories. Depressive memories are triggered, producing a loop in our brain. We go from a sad event, to sad feelings, to sad memories, then back again to sad feelings - the neurological loop of depression. The depressive state is set on replay now and proves difficult to break.
What neuroscience shows us is that this neurological loop, this never ending cycle and replay, can be disrupted and changed. We have learned that our body can change our brain. This is done by training ourselves to label our feelings; finding a distinction between anger and sadness for instance (yes I'm speaking of mindfulness again). If we allow ourselves to 'fully experience' something, we allow ourselves to experience the beginning, middle and end of it. If we avoid it, which will decrease the intensity of our feelings, we won't have the conclusion we need and will be stuck in a loop.
If we allow ourselves to grieve the loss of a loved one, we allow ourselves to experience the full intensity of this grief, and we give ourselves the power to have a beginning, middle and end to something awful. If we avoid, we don't grieve, and we may find ourselves stuck in this depression loop. A loop can me modified from experience, and repetition. We are literally changing the way our brain is wired by breaking loops. We are modifying it by changing the physical structures our brain has created, simply by being in control.
If we think about our cohesive sense of self - as we have many roles, many 'self's. We can have our caring self, the self that parents our children or empathizes with others, we can have our grieving self, or our angry self - all roles that can be originated from the 7 primary emotional systems. We don't have to define ourselves or each other as a 'caring' person, or an 'angry' person, but accept that at one time throughout any day we can play any one of these roles.
It's important to remember this, label it, not define ourselves by it, experience it and don't let it find it's way into a loop. Our neurological sense of self, is that of many 'selfs' and it's up to us to identify ourselves as this whole, made up of many parts. Then we can accept and experience, rather than develop never ending cycles, or loops in our brains that may be detrimental. A happy moment amongst a bad day is still a happy moment, and a happy moment can fester into more happy moments. A happy day leads to happier days. Its neurological.
For more information about Emily Scott and her work helping children and adolescents to reach their full potential visit www.exploringminds.net
For many of us, life problems become so entrenched in our everyday life that they consume our thoughts and feelings. When we get stuck into these difficult patterns, solutions seem almost impossible to find.
Many of the parents I see in my practice have seen numerous helping professionals such as psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists but haven’t seen the outcomes they had hoped for. There are still unsolved problems. Many of these parents feel lost and unsure of what their next step should be. They don’t see light at the end of the tunnel and feel worried every day and night about the wellbeing and safety of their child.
Now there are two sides of parenting an adolescent that is struggling with behavioural or emotional issues and we see these issues in the bush as well. Firstly, there is the “Crisis Management” aspect involving managing those angry outbursts and oppositional behaviour. The second is all about where we focus our attention. That is what this blog is about.
One of my assumptions as a solution-focused therapist is that “Change in inevitable.” Things cannot stay the same. But the truth is that this is all a matter of how we choose to see things. I recommend pulling out your imaginary magnifying glass and emphasising the times where things are going a bit better than usual. In our clinical work, this is called “Searching for Exceptions.”
This, for example, is when our child seems less depressed or less angry. Or the class in school our child actually enjoys attending, and why? Is there a day that you don’t fight with your partner as much? What happened that day that made a difference? Can we do more of it?
This is hard to do but we have created an easy to use worksheet that you can use each week to find these exceptions and help to amplify them. When I review this worksheet each week with one of my clients we talk about exceptions that were important to them and see what it took to make this happen. If we have more awareness about what we did, how we did it and why we did it, we will feel more in control about doing it again.
Here is how you can do it this week step by step.
1) Think of an exception that happened this week. For example, a time when you didn't feel so angry or felt happy in your relationship.
2) How did you feel when this exception was happening?
3) What did you, or someone else, do to make this exception happen?
4) What do you have to do in order to make it happen again?
I like to use a fun metaphor for the last question. Think of a recipe for your favourite dinner or dessert. Some complicated dishes can have a lot of ingredients and methods to get to the final product. Think of your exceptions this way.
Lets say you had a conversation with your son and he didn't get angry or explosive with you. What were the ingredients that made this happen? You can even ask him this question as well if you’re still in conversation with him.
The point for us is that there is always an exception to the problem but we have to be there to find it. Then we can try to make those exceptions happen a bit more often. This will help you to de-stress, feel happier and more centered.
If you would like to learn more about solution-focused approaches, finding exceptions or would like help in finding new solutions, feel free to contact us. For families living in Adelaide we have a beautiful counselling suite that you can visit. For those living interstate, ask us today about our 14-day adventure therapy program for adolescents and learn more about what services are available for you.
Will Dobud MSW
True North Expeditions
1) Headspace – This is my personal favourite. Not to be confused with Australia’s national mental health service, this app, created by meditation teacher Andy Puddicombe, gives 10 free meditations lasting 10 minutes each. These are incredibly practical and great for beginners. There is no need for previous experience. I love it. There are great videos in the app that teach us how just 10 minutes of mindfulness can help us think more clearly and de-stress. Definitely worth it!
2) Smiling Mind – One of my younger clients taught me about Smiling Mind. I offered him a Headspace meditation and he asked if I had hear of Smiling Mind before. I downloaded it immediately. This app provides more interactive meditations such as guided imagery, quick check-ins and many mindfulness experiences. This app provides mindfulness meditations for all ages divided up between children, adolescents and adults. This app would be great in schools and has been very useful with my younger clients that may benefit from more mindfulness experiences.
3) Stop, Breathe & Think – This is the newest to my collection and I’ve loved it. My favourite part is the feelings check-in. If I am unsure of which of their many meditations I should try then I complete a quick survey telling the app which feelings I am currently experiencing. As a “feelings professional” I like that there are many feelings to choose from, not just happy, sad or tired. It's quite comprehensive. The app then gives me a list of meditations that may be good for me at this time. Today I completed a 6 minute meditation focused on gratitude and wellbeing and I’m feeling refreshed and tuned in.
Whether or not you’re an experienced meditator or a beginner, these apps can help bring some freshness to your day. They’re free and worth it. Let me know how you do! Likewise, if you’d like to come to our Adelaide counselling office and talk about brining more mindfulness into your life you can schedule that here or email me. I'd love to hear from you.
Do you have a favourite app that I should know about? Send it to me!
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending a webinar event held by our friends at the Psychology and Health Forum. The webinar titled 'The Neuroscience of Self and Self Acceptance Brain-Based Strategies for Addressing Entrenched Guilt and Shame' by Dr Tim Worden introduced a number of concepts to me. The most intriguing and valuable was to separate our sense of self from our evaluation of self and how this will lead to self acceptance rather than self esteem; that self esteem is a myth.
Self esteem is a myth? This concept blew my mind a bit, how can self esteem be made up when we talk about having low self esteem by being shy or nervous, and high self esteem, being seen as confident and believing in yourself? I found these answers by separating the idea of a sense of self, and an evaluation of self.
Now if we look at self esteem and what that means, it is a critique of our worth. It means when we have low or negative self esteem, that we are not enough, or that we are flawed. It is an evaluation of ourselves, compared to what we think we should be. If we're constantly evaluating ourselves as compared with external examples or societal forces of what should be, then we are constantly placing value on something outside of us, and we may never truly accept ourselves.
If we are to place worth on who we are, then we are enabling ourselves to feel shame, to feel 'not good enough', and to not accept ourselves. However, if we focus instead on our sense of self, on our own ideas of who we are, on our self concept, rather than self worth, then we can accept ourselves, our mistakes, flaws and all.
Evaluation of self is to place a worthiness score (self esteem) on who we are. It enables entrenched shame, and pessimism. Sense of self is to be aware of who we are, our values, our strengths and our weaknesses. To accept them and allow ourselves to move forward.
In therapy and across the board of mental health, especially within teenagers and high schools, 'self esteem' is referred to regularly. Learning from this webinar, as a therpist I can begin to practice in a way that encourages self acceptance rather than self evaluation. These concepts open up the door into numerous ways we can begin to decrease ideas of worthiness and increase acceptance and a foward thinking.
As spring has found us, I notice many social media posts bursting with light and colour and a sense of joy, a happy kind of anticipation. There's an atmosphere smelling of freshly cut grass, sunshowers and a 'new day' type of feeling. It reeks of positivity and optimism.
Optimisim; seeing the silver lining in your clouds, seeing the glass half full, making lemonade from lemons, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. You get it. Having just read Martin Seligman's 'The Optimistic Child', he explains that "optimisim does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes."
Seligman digs deeper than the superficial level of optimism and delves into what we think are the causes of specific events. How one event may appear completely different to two people, experiencing the same thing. How one person looks at the rain and says "ain't this day miserable" while another feels joy that it's gumboots day, or a warm tea and banana bread type of day.
What Seligman teaches us is that it's what we believe to be the cause of something that determines if we are being optimistic or pessimistic. It's expressed in our narrative, and we can spot it 3 different ways. We can view a negative experience as something permanent, global and internal and general.
Permanent: "My mum is the most annoying Mum in the world"
Global: "All teachers are unfair"
Internal and General: "I failed this exam because I'm dumb"
Or, we can view the negative experience as something temporary, specific, or internal and behavioural.
Temporary: "My mum is really annoying right now"
Specific: "Ms Scott is unfair"
Internal & Behavioural: "I failed this exam because I didn't study for it"
To become aware of our automatic pessimistic responses to negative events, Seligman recommends the ABC model: Adversity, Beliefs and Consequences. Adversity, the who, what, when and where. Beliefs, what beliefs do you have about this adversity and on a scale of 0-10 how certain are you about them? Consequences, what is each feeling you experienced and how did you act? Rate the intensity of each feeling from 0-10.
Here is an example of practicing this ABC model:
Adversity: My car broke down on the way to work.
Beliefs: Everything always go wrong, 7/10.
Consequences: Annoyed, shame, stupid, anxious, 8/10. I got my car fixed and went to work an hour late in a bad mood. I didn't speak to anyone and the day just seemed to go on and on.
Now from what we've learned about pessimism, we can that see that my belief "Everything always goes wrong" is perceiving the event as something permanent, and global. This is where changing our narrative is crucial, by challenging our belief. Asking ourselves, just how permanent and global is this really? 0-10, how often do things actually go wrong? How strongly do we really believe that it is miserable?
To increase optimism, we take a positive experience and attempt to see it via a temporary, specific and internal and behavioural lens. So next time you're stuck in a negative experience, challenge the beliefs you have about it. Is everything bad? Does this really always happen?
And when something positive happens, generalise it. It may seem simple or silly to generalize the good things, but it's how we narrate the world around us that can have a lasting effect on how we feel and act.
Happy optimisitc spring!
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.