Training the Brain

‘ With neuroplasticity, extrordinary change is possible.’

Rick Hanson

Often I have wondered what it would be like to actually take my brain out of my head and have a look at what’s happening inside it. Brain’s fascinate me and I love how complex each of our brains are. We can’t take out our brain in order to try to understand it, but we can still come to know our brains by absorbing knowledge about how they work. Neuroplasticity is the potential of the brain to reorganise and change. We can train our brains to change so they work better for us. Here’s something useful to know……..

Everything that we experience, whether it is a thought, a sound, a sight or a feeling; it all requires underlying neural activity. Neural activity means activity in our brains, between the neurons that are there. The more our neurons fire together and join up in particular ways, the more patterns within or brain activity develop. These patterns become ‘the norm’ in terms of what our brains routinely do. Our brains take their shape and develop patterns from whatever perspective our brains routinely rest upon. If you wake in the morning and rest upon the idea that ‘I am alive, I am breathing, I have another precious day to live’, then this affects the structure your brain will take. If you wake in the morning and think ‘I really don’t want to face what I have to do today, it’s all just so mundane and monotonous,’ your brain structure will be affected. What your brain routinely rests upon can be down to choice, once you become aware of what is happening in your mind and this, in my opinion is good news. It means that once we are conscious of how we interpret our experiences, once we pay attention to what our brain is ‘resting upon’ on a regular basis, we learn that we have choice. Even if the experience is simply waking to a new day, we have choice about how we train our brains to interpret this experience.

The adolescent brain is at a stage of massive development. So much growth and change happens during adolescence which makes it a prime time to gain awareness of one’s ability to train ones brain. Treat the brain as you would any other muscle in your body. Approach it as you would any other muscle, knowing that you can’t control it completely but you can certainly train it to be strong. Step one in this process is to become conscious of how you are interpreting your experiences……….. of your one and only, very precious life.

Mental Fitness

‘Mental Fitness’

‘The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.’
Tony Robbins

Being fit, getting fit, feeling fit; there is a lot of talk about it at this time of year… with new year’s resolutions abounding and RTE’s Operation Transformation on many people’s TV screens. And there is no doubt about it, fitness is fantastic and has a multitude of health benefits. But think for a moment just about the word fit…. think what it would be like to then focus on the term ‘mental fitness’ in your mind, instead of always associating it with the physical. Physical fitness has almost become one word but what if we were to broaden the word out…
What would you imagine this country would be like if RTE dedicated an entire series of Operation Transformation to our mental fitness? Yes, physical fitness matters a great deal and it is important to pay attention to our diet, our level of physical activity and our BMI. But is it more important than our level of mental fitness? Does our daily diet of thoughts not impact on us just as much, colouring our experience of living this life, influencing how we each feel?
We indeed have a crisis in this country. As a nation we are physically less active than we ever have been before so attention to physical fitness, particularly for children, matters an awful lot. But mental fitness matters too as the levels of depression and anxiety being experienced are at a very high level, for our young people growing up as well as for many adults. It’s just not as obvious as how a person is doing mentally is not immediately obvious when we look at them, whereas a person’s physical appearance which can hint towards a level of physical fitness, unlike a person’s mind, is readily available for us to see.
The phrase ‘mental fitness’ is one I tweeted about this morning. I stated that a person’s mental fitness level mattered as much as a person’s physical fitness level and I got an immediate positive response from Operation Transformation. So maybe the idea is catching on. Maybe a new journey could be beginning where people in the future will spend 30 minutes every day doing a ‘mental fitness workout’.
What do you believe would happen if people in this country took their mental fitness as seriously as they take their physical fitness? What would happen if as much effort was going into selecting thoughts for the day as is going into the planning of healthy meals? Would the mental health of the nation start to rise? I believe it certainly would. Do you?

Mindfulness at Christmas

Mindfulness at Christmas….

‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too…. Whatever you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’

W.H. Murray

Some people find it hard to begin mindfulness practice and some find it hard to continue with it once they have begun. While mindfulness is a great practice which helps us deal more effectively with difficult times and help us appreciate more the good times, while it has been found to change for the better how people experience their lives,  it is still sometimes, a difficult practice to incorporate into daily life. Part of the reason for this is that people find it hard to do. But all you really need to do is commit. Commit to the decision to do it.

We all know how to be mindful and live in the present moment but sometimes it is hard to believe this. Try and remember back to what Christmas was like when you were a child. If you were lucky enough to live in a society like this one, where a certain special visitor brought gifts from the North Pole for all the children who tried their very best to be good all year, you will probably remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation that that special time brought. Now try to remember what it like when you went downstairs to open gifts  that were left for you under the tree. Remember the moment you saw the gifts, the moment you got to see what was inside. Try to remember back to what it was like to open those gifts and maybe take them out for that first play…. were you living ‘in the moment’ then? We are each born with an innate ability to live in the present moment. We forget that though and do it less and less as we grow (generally speaking) as we have more and more on our minds and our minds are all clogged up. But don’t ever think you can’t do mindfulness. Don’t think you can’t sit still and look up at the stars, or look at the Christmas lights and nothing else….just being in that moment for a moment.

Adults (generally speaking) don’t bounce on trampolines. Adults don’t usually sit down with a packet of twistables and colour in a Christmas tree but that doesn’t mean gmailwe couldn’t do it. We could if it was what we choose to do. So neither should we say we can’t be mindful just because we’re not in the habit of it, but habits are down to choice and once we commit to making it part of our day, it becomes automatic again, just as it was in childhood. If we as adults have lost the ability to just be, then all we need to do to be mindful is to make a commitment to it. Notice your in breath. Pay attention to the beauty of the lights…… watch and learn from those lovely little people all around. They are doing it automatically an awful lot of the time….kids at Christmas, living in the moments.





Minding Mental Health

Minding Mental Health

‘If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.’


E. Joseph Cossman

We all know how it goes…. Someone tells you not to worry about something and while it may help marginally, the worrying does not just automatically stop. Someone else telling you not to worry about something can be good because it gives you the idea that for others the thing you are worrying about is not necessarily that worthy of worry, you may even feel that things won’t  turn out so bad. But to take control of your mind, to actually train your mind to not get stuck in loops of worried thought, that can be a harder  thing to achieve.

Research has emerged that is suggesting a possible link between chronic worrying and the likelihood of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the Epidemiology Department of Michigan State University, researchers have found while studying participants over a long number of years, that those who as children were prone to worrying a lot over everyday occurrences were much more likely to develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a traumatic event. The statistics indicated clearly that chronic worrying is an indicator of vulnerability to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rather than the chronic worrying being a feature that develops as a result of the trauma.

So how can this research help us to better mind our children’s mental health? Are there things we can do to try to steer our children away from developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder later in life if a traumatic event occurs for them? We can’t necessarily avoid the trauma that happens on the journey we all make through life but can we better prepare the next generation to meet trauma with resiliency? Tuning in to how much worrying children do is the first good step in helping them take control of minding their mental health. If the child has a natural propensity towards worrying, you can guide them to an alternative way of thinking, not by saying not to worry but by increasing their own awareness about what thinking is behind the worried feeling. To explore with them what the thoughts are that are causing the worry and then to look at the evidence to suggest that that particular thought is not essential. For example, a child who is worried about what may happen in the schoolyard may be feeling worried because something difficult happened in the yard the week before. By exploring the child’s thoughts around this, they may be able to come up with a strategy to deal with the particular situation and then will begin to develop a belief that is along the lines of ‘I am able to problem solve.’ If this belief becomes strong over time, by strategising when worried feelings arise, even a child who has a natural tendency to worry can gain control of their thoughts and learn to manage their mind. This is not only then a route to better mental health but as the researchers in Michigan have found, it may also be a part of the resiliency a person develops to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes life is really tough and there are traumas that happen that knock us right over. Sometimes developing Post Traumatic Stress disorder is unavoidable but we can try to build up the resources of the next generation to better deal with trauma just as we can build up our own resources too. Minding mental health. There are things we can do….. and it matters.

How Parent’s Can Support their Child to Engage in Activities

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released in the body if you extend a hug a with a person you have a strong loving bond with for a period of about twenty seconds. Oxytocin is a hormone produced naturally in the body and it is a natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety hormone. So what has this to do with children and activities….. here’s the link.

Another way to release Oxytocin is to maintain eye contact for a period of up to twenty seconds. If a child doesn’t want to go swimming, for example, and you as their parent feel that it is good for them to learn to swim, you could take the following approach.

  1. Understand that the activity may trigger a negative emotion for the child such as anxiety, sadness, frustration, fear especially if the activity is something the child finds challenging or unenjoyable.
  2. Ask your child to look you in the eye and keep eye contact with you and keep this up for at least 20 seconds.
  3. Ask your child to continue to look at you while you chat together about swimming.
  4. Understand that starting the conversation after 20 seconds of eye contact means the Oxytocin will probably have been released and any anxiety that is felt by the child when swimming is mentioned should be neutralised.
  5. Explain to the child that the way they feel about swimming is related to the way they are thinking about it and brainstorm with the child other ways to think about it….
  6. Ask them what feeling they have as you talk. If it’s now a happy feeling, ask them to close their eyes, feel the happy feeling in their body and think of swimming at the same time.
  7. Continue to have these ‘chats’ which begin with eye contact for a period of about 10 days.
  8. Believe in yourself and that what you are doing is going to work and this will be communicated to the child through your eyes.
  9. Support and encourage your child when they are able to express a more positive sentiment towards the activity.
  10. You can influence a child’s beliefs and this will then influence their thinking and their feeling………this approach works best if you intervene when the anxiety or frustration starts.


How to Impact Positively on Children’s Self-Esteem

Impacting Positively on Children’s Self Esteem…..

‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t…you’re right.’      Henry Ford

Beliefs shape our reality. Whether we think we can or we think we cannot is down to belief, not facts, but when a person holds a belief with strong conviction, it can feel as if it is a fact. We all have beliefs… about the world, about how the world is, about people, about ourselves. Some of us believe we are lovable and deserving of love, some of us believe we are not. Some believe that financial success is essential to  happiness, others believe it absolutely is not. Some believe that to rely on others will lead to disaster. Others believe that close bonds are always worth the effort, even if people sometimes let you down. There is no right and wrong when it comes to beliefs and  while we may not even be fully aware of what it is we believe, make no mistake about it… our beliefs are the thing that influence us most, not just in terms of  how we think about things but what actions we take or don’t take, how we make decisions and how we live our lives. And our believes were most likely developing many years ago, when we were soaking up what was happening around us, absorbing by osmosis into our unconscious minds the stuff that became beliefs.

Becoming conscious or aware of this fact then brings up the question of how we can influence the beliefs that children and adolescents are forming about themselves and the world. They too most definitely  forming beliefs about themselves and the world  and this process is a very active process when you are very young. When we are very young, we learn a lot about ourselves and the world through our experiences particularly  with those close to us. Children develop core beliefs about themselves based on their experiences in the world so for example, a child who is listened to when he has something to say will most likely be developing a belief such as ‘I deserve to be heard’ because that is what his experience is teaching him. He will grow up believing that he has the right to express himself and be heard and will more likely not hold back when he has something to say. If the people closest to a child show them through their actions that they are deserving of love, respect  and care, the child will grow up to believe they are deserving of love, respect  and care. This will then set their expectations when they enter adult relationships and they will enter adult relationships believing that they deserve to be treated well. While this belief may not be apparent on the surface, it will be there, deep down, where all of us hold our core beliefs.

From around the time children start school, they are very well able to engage in conversation. One good way to start to encourage children to become conscious of what it is they believe is to ask them direct questions about beliefs.Questions such as…’what do you believe people like about you,’ ‘what do you believe is more important, to be kind or to be popular,”what do you like about yourself and why’. These types of questions bring what may be happening on an unconscious level up to a conscious level. By becoming conscious, we become aware and even for a child, this process of becoming more self aware can lead to greater self-esteem.

Ask a child what they believe about something. Ask them why. Their core beliefs are forming so you have lots of opportunity to influence them and steer them in a direction of endless possibility. You can influence how they see themselves and see the world.What a gift.

Managing Stress..and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Managing Stress

‘They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’

Andy Warhol

Whether you agree with the perspective above or not, it certainly is a perspective or view that is worthy of reflection. It is a perspective that gives people a lot more power than we sometimes believe we have.

In relation to stress, it often can be the case that it is circumstances outside of our control that seems to cause the stressful feeling to arise. But, if this is the case, does that mean that a particular method cannot be employed by a person in order to lift the weight of the stress off? Surely getting soaked in the rain doesn’t mean a person has to stay wet until enough time passes for them to eventually become dry again. We change our clothes and dry our hair and in those simple actions, we change things. So how about some action to combat stress? How about finding a way to let go of stress when circumstances land it on our plate? Stress, like so many other feelings that can overwhelm us, can be processed so that it doesn’t have a grip on us. Here is one possible route towards taking control of stress and it involves a Cognitive-Behavioural approach.


Research supports the assertion that cognitive-behavioural therapy works effectively when dealing with feelings such as fear, anxiety or stress. This model of therapy highlights the link between how we think, how we feel and how we behave. How we think influences how we feel and how we feel influences how we behave. With overwhelming stress therefore, the resulting behaviour may be lying awake at night tossing and turning instead of being able to rest and sleep. In order to have different behaviour, the feeling needs to change and in order for the feeling to change, some focus needs to go to what thoughts are in the mind, as the thoughts, according to Cognitive Behavioural Theory are influencing the feeling. Trying to change your thoughts is not that simple though, particularly thoughts that seem almost automatic. Ways of thinking can become well ingrained.

Therefore, the first step but not the only step is to begin to monitor your thoughts. Paying close attention to how closely linked our thoughts and feelings are requires effort. Then working to figure out why the thoughts are there is the next essential step in combating the stressful feeling as this process of working out what is influencing your thinking gives insight into what beliefs you hold. Beliefs influence how a person thinks, and yet sometimes beliefs that people hold are not that obvious even to person themselves. Uncovering them at least gives you a choice about whether you wish to hold on to that belief or not. Not knowing it is there means you have no choice to keep it or let it go. Sometimes when stress hits, it can feel as if there is nothing you can do to combat it but we really do quite often have more power than we realise. Taking control of your mind by managing your thoughts is a skill that takes practice and it can be done. The ultimate power is the power of mindset…that is what I believe.