How counselling changes your brain

In my experience of 26 years as a counsellor, no one comes to counselling to tell you what a great life they have. Invariably they come out of a desire to change some aspect of their lives they are unhappy about.

There are a number of different therapeutic styles, but I am going to focus on the 'cognitive approach', most notably Cognitive Behavioural Therapy more commonly referred to by the acronym CBT.

The CBT approach is geared towards helping you change the way you are thinking (cognitive), and then what you are doing (behaviour) as a consequence. It focusses less on the past and more on the here and now and what you can do about the way you are currently thinking and acting, using practical solutions to help you feel better now. In other words, changing your brain.

Negativity bias

Every one of us has a brain built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. This is called negativity bias and is so automatic that it is found at the earliest stages of the brain's information processing.

Throughout our lives, we are continually bombarded with negativity and this starts when we are very young. A UCLA survey reported that the average child hears the word, "No", more than 400 times a day. So it's no surprise that our auto setting or our attitude to life is more heavily influenced by negatives than positives. It's that negative focussed breeding ground for unhappiness that brings people to counselling.

When neurons (the neuron is the basic working unit of the brain designed to transmit information) are repeatedly stimulated, changes in the brain take place. The more time you spend focussing your attention in a particular way, the stronger those neural networks become and we become very good at thinking and behaving in a certain way, be that positive or negative. Think about driving, swimming, cycling, all activities we had to practice repeatedly to become good at. In simple terms, what you focus your thoughts on grow in the brain.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

A study from Kings College London and Maudsley NHS Foundation has shown that 'talking therapies' - counselling, and in particular, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can change the brain. It does this by encouraging you to change the way you think about and respond to difficulties. Changing those thoughts and behaviours strengthens the connections in the brain (the neurons) associated with a more positive outlook.

The great thing about talking to a counsellor and learning new techniques and strategies is that you are then equipped with techniques you can continue to use once the therapy has ended. Once those techniques and strategies have been embedded through practice and repetition, research has shown that those changes continue to have a long-term positive impact on your continued wellbeing. If you re-programme your thinking you can, quite literally, rewire your brain.

The ABC technique

Your counsellor, if he or she is using a CBT approach, will probably introduce you to something called, 'The ABC Technique of Irrational Beliefs'. Basically:

A = Activating Event or objective situation

An event that ultimately leads to some type of heightened emotional response or negative unhelpful thinking. The event or situation is already in the past and cannot be changed.

B = Belief

This is what you think or believe about the event.

C = Consequence

These are the negative feelings and dysfunctional behaviours that follow on from the 'belief'. This could be anger, sorrow, anxiety, depression, etc.

Albert Ellis, who formulated this theory, believed that it is not the activating event (A) that causes negative emotional and behavioural consequences (C), but rather that a person interprets these events unrealistically and therefore has an irrational belief system (B) that helps cause the consequences (C).

So it's about looking at your unhelpful, negative beliefs and evaluating them. I find the following three questions a useful tool to help with this:

  1. Could there be another way of looking at this event or situation?
  2. Do I need more information to help me do this?
  3. How will I benefit?

A simple example might be:

The Activating event

I rush to the station platform only to see my train leaving, without me. I've missed my train!

The Belief

I am a failure, why didn't I leave sooner, the people I am meeting will think me a fool.

The Consequence

I feel depressed, unhappy with myself, my self-confidence dips.

If I apply the three questions and evaluate my situation:

  1. There is another way of looking at this situation? There will be another train.
  2. Do I need more information? When the next train leaves and from which platform would be useful.
  3. How do I benefit? I am back in control; I have solved the problem.

There is an old axiom:'If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.'

Keep a positive diary

One final technique for you to consider, is an idea to help to address your natural tendency towards negativity.

Keep a positive diary. Note down the things that have gone well today, the things that have made you smile, the people you have met who had a positive impact, your achievements at work, anything in fact that is positive.

Focus on the positive and the more positive you will become.

Written by: Richard Jenkins

Richard Jenkins is a Behavioural Psychologist with a particular interest in Resilience and how we can make simple yet often life-changing adjustments to the way we think and behave to improve personal wellbeing and performance. As well as running a counselling and hypnotherapy practice he is a frequent speaker on the subject of resilience, writing and delivering training, talks and seminars in the UK and abroad.

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