10 ways talking can trigger helpful changes in the brain

But how does talking help?’ is a question that I’m frequently faced with, and one that I frequently struggle to answer, despite the fact that in the young and old alike, I see changes afoot on a daily basis. A lady called Bonnie Badenoch is helping put an end to my opaque responses as to how and why. Badenoch wrote a book called Being a Brain-Wise Therapist. Below I attempt to translate the basics so you may be ‘brain-wise’ yourself – if you are not already that is.

It turns out that talking – and not just to a therapist – can change brain structure and function in useful ways. Should you be struggling with your feelings, sensations and/or symptoms, knowing what your brain is automatically doing to help you recover could be empowering and hope-inducing.

My intuitive understanding, before I learnt anything about the brain was that making sense of our experiences, naming them, and our feelings in response to them, was necessary for mental wellbeing. As a professional, daily I witness that talking increases awareness. This awareness is new information – and however subtle, I see it facilitating people to make different choices.

Beneath our conscious awareness, however, there is a ridiculous amount going on that renders talking (and reflecting) helpful. Focussed attention on our experiences impacts brain structure and function. It also impacts our nervous system. And, both consequently and directly, other internal organs such as the heart and gut, too.  

Below then are 10 simple ways in which brain structure and function could automatically improve by talking – the kind of talking that tends to happen in therapy. Enter neuroscientist Claudia Civai, whom I consulted for her technical prowess (and to make extra sure I wasn’t inadvertently telling any porkies – it turns out the brain is pretty complex).

1) Naming emotions affects blood flow in the brain 

When we name and differentiate emotions accurately, we move away from general and unknown fears. In this process, the amygdala region in the brain – that responds to the perception of fear – deactivates. That is, less blood flows there. At the same time, blood flow increases in the right prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that contributes to emotional regulation.

2) The brain is able to change

Every act of recall is also an act of modification: the brain has an ongoing capacity for change. This is known as neuroplasticity. Badenoch describes it thus: ‘all aspects of an experience tend to gather into a neural net that encodes a representation of that event. When one strand of that net is touched by a current experience, there is some probability that the whole net will be activated. This is called remembering’. 

One of the core memory areas is the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system; an important system for emotional regulation. (I find it helpful to be able to visualise the brain – if you do too, think of the limbic system as being in the centre of the brain.) The amygdala is part of the system too; this is why certain emotional stimuli can trigger memories, and emotions and memories are tightly connected.

So, the empathy of a therapist in relation to a memory may well initiate the growth of new neural connections that will now become associated with and ease the suffering contained in the neural nets of previous difficult/painful events.

3) Reflection releases necessary hormones

During the process of remembering, the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus is activated. This controls the neuroendocrine system. Reflecting on experiences can thus release hormones, helping to create stability in the body.

4) We can consciously lower our stress levels

The hypothalamus will also be activated if we feel stressed; the hormone cortisol will be released, again with the aim of restoring stability. However, our cortisol levels may become too high if we feel chronic stress, leading to adverse effects such as anxiety and depression. When chronically stressed, we need to consciously help lower our cortisol levels. If this is you, you may find my article, A Dollop of Self-Care, Please and Thank You.

5) Talking can give us access to important information 

Therapeutic talking fosters neural integration i.e. the removal of blockages in communication and the blending of inputs from different areas (for example visual, emotional, and memory systems).

During times of stress it is common for communication pathways in the brain to become blocked or shut down. The prefrontal region in the brain (the area directly behind our eyes and forehead) is where rational and emotional cognitions are required to converge for healthy decision-making. Therapy typically helps to ensure that as much information as possible is accessible – neural integration – when making choices.

6) Chronic stress harms brain health

For a moment I considered leaving this out as it could sound mildly terrifying, but it is pertinent: chronic stress may lead to the death of brain cells. Chronic stress is rubbish! And may have longer term consequences – try not to wait to help yourself/get help.

7) Talking can help us use our brains to their full capacity

Processing emotions and whole experiencing (including the non-verbal and bodily) utilises brain nets usually found in the right hemisphere of our brains – ‘integrative’ brain nets. Not attuning to this non-verbal part of our experiencing means we are not using our brains to their full capacity. We may become disadvantaged in relationships and social understanding in this case i.e. if we place premium on the strictly verbal and analytical left hemisphere brain nets.

Further, it is my experience that society in the Western world – and institutional patriarchy more generally – tends not to place particular value on an integrative approach. I thus witness in clients a bias towards the literal, when in fact it is also vital to process what is perceived and received non-verbally; to take in all information surrounding an experience at once. Clients and I often uncover that their feelings are not that illogical when such information is also allowed to surface. Be aware of this bias if it exists in you; you may be missing useful information and underutilising your brain if so.

8) Talking can soothe physical symptoms of anxiety

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) links the brain to the body. The ‘autonomic’ bit just refers to the part of the nervous system that controls the internal organs, and is therefore outside our conscious control.  

Several parts of the brain – including that to do with implicit/unconscious memory and emotional state – play a large role in the regulation of the ANS. As such, paying attention to our experiences/memories, such as in therapy, helps to bring our ANS into balance. If our ANS is not in balance, we feel crappy, with symptoms such as palpitations or stomach ache.

9) Face-to-face connection improves wellbeing

There is a direct connection in the brain between the nerves that control the face, relating to perceiving emotions and actions in others; and the heart, relating to our own experiencing of emotions and actions. For example, when we perceive another’s warmth or empathy via a gesture, this sets in motion calming communication via neural pathways in the brain and the ANS to our bodily feelings.

Connectedness between two people thus has a transformative power: our brains dampen defensive strategies, says the Professor of Psychiatry and author Stephen Porges.

10) The H-bomb

Hope is something that I regularly see clients stumble upon. And, like a muscle, it can get a workout in a 50-minute session.

Chemically, hope impacts us: neurochemicals (endorphins and enkephalins) are released which actually mimic the effects of morphine, describes Terry Small, author of ‘The Brain Bulletin’. Hope also stimulates the decision-making and problem-solving abilities governed by the frontal lobes explains author and neuroscience expert Mark Waldman. He also states that it stimulates the immune system, motivates us to take action, and turns off the worry centres in our limbic system and right prefrontal cortex.

In sum, humans have the capacity to set off a series of unconscious events that can help direct us from mental illness to recovery. If you aren’t feeling tip-top mentally, I hope this brain-wisdom supports you to make a first step.

Jigsaw puzzling against anxiety, depression, and more

‘It sorted me right out after an interview knockback.’

‘I came to most of my insights subconsciously whilst doing a jigsaw puzzle. It was meditative.’

‘All I wanted to do was come home and get on with my puzzle.’

Sold. I nipped down to a local charity shop the other week, to cast my net for a jigsaw puzzle. I’d sought advice on the best approach for procurement. Charity shops I was told. BUT MAKE SURE THE PIECES ARE IN A SANDWICH BAG, my jigsaw mentor insisted. The relative merits of patterns versus pictures were also discussed; as were post-procurement jigsaw methods. For example, whether or not to look at the cover whilst ‘puzzling’.

I came home with Handsome Frank’s ski resort. And it delivered.

Mindful jigsaw puzzling: an antidote to anxiety and depression

The process of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, intrinsically, a mindful one. By this I mean awareness is brought to direct experience in the present moment. Given that anxiety and depression are invariably linked to difficult feelings about the past or future, mindfulness as an antidote has been the talk of town for quite some time. So, ‘puzzling’ is also a balm for these mental health problems.

Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of ‘Feel Better in 5’, also advocates immersing yourself in a jigsaw puzzle for 5 minutes at a time as a way of bringing yourself completely into the present moment.

The science: why puzzles are prescribed

According to a 2007 study of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective, when we are mindful as when doing a jigsaw (or painting, reading, or listening to music perhaps) we are using a brain network that is (unsurprisingly) called the ‘direct experience’ network. Most of the time, however, we are using an alternative network, called the ‘default’ or ‘narrative’ network, when we are planning for the future or ruminating about the past, for example. As Dr David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work puts it, ‘there’s nothing wrong with the default network, the point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.’

Each network – default and direct experience – attunes to different kinds of information. The oft-neglected or underused ‘direct experience’ network – exercised when doing a jigsaw puzzle – yields visual and sensory information pertinent to our mental health. The more we use this network, the more we will be able to choose to do so, rather than automatically use our default networks. For example, we can choose to be in the moment and focus on the visual details of that (damn) piece we are missing; or we can think about what is on our work schedule tomorrow. Puzzles can expand our choices and ability to engage with the wider world.

Further, the author of Mindfulness on the Go, Anna Black, highlights that the area of the brain that activates the stress reaction – the amygdala – is less active in those people practising mindfulness, through doing a puzzle for example. This is because mindfulness activates the body’s internal calming system.

Greater self-awareness – and improved relationships – from a puzzle?

Doing a jigsaw puzzle confronts one with their relationship to patience. In the modern world, much of our experience – and now expectation – is of immediate gratification. Jigsaw puzzling is the antithesis of this. So far, I’ve been dipping in and out of this puzzle for a week and a half, and am nowhere near finished. I’m good with that: cultivating patience could help me in a myriad of ways, including, of course, in relationships.

One’s approach to a puzzle could facilitate other valuable learning, too. For instance, in the process I discovered I was a bit of a wildcard, sticking pieces all over the shop initially, then coming to some order later on. A trial and error kind of puzzler/person. I have myself down as quite a careful character, so was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t so ‘neat’ here. Others are slower and more deliberate – strategic? Perfectionist? What is/would be your ‘puzzling’ vibe? And, if this is the approach to take more generally, is this helpful to you/how you want to be.

The activity invites me to shimmy up to another self-awareness biggie: how do I value a process versus an outcome? Some puzzlers savour their masterpiece at the end; others couldn’t care less for the finished product. This very concept – journey versus destination – is one that I discuss with clients on a regular. Valuing a process rather than coveting mainly or only an outcome speaks of health to me, not least because it keeps us somewhat in the present. Again, this could be particularly helpful for those suffering with anxiety or depression.

Not puzzling but dazzling

Surely, we are then agreed that jigsaw puzzling is ridiculously healthy – and empowering – an activity? And you don’t have to persuade yourself to step outside, spend a fortune (my baby set me back £2), or even utter a word.

Three common sentences that block communication – and some alternatives

Communicating is a tricky business. So many things can trigger us and block our ability to get what we need from conversations and relationships. For me it’s a process of continual learning too; and even if I’m aware of the following ‘traps’ I find it useful to be reminded. Perhaps it’s similar for you.

1. ‘But that was not my intention’. This is a sentence I hear a lot. That may well be the case – in my experience it is rare for someone to intentionally hurt/anger/upset another – but these words are a block to communication. They are a distraction from hearing what the other is saying. If someone is telling you about the impact on them of something you have said or done, try to resist any temptation to defend yourself with this line.

Instead, try thanking them for telling you, for confiding in you. If someone is telling me they are angry with me, I tend to feel grateful – relieved even that they are including me in the conversation. How can we work on it if I don’t know about it? That does not mean I have to agree with them – at all – but it makes it a communication at least. An excellent starting point.

2.‘Why are you telling me this now?’ is also a frequent flyer. And, another distraction from listening to the content of what you are hearing. If you are trying to listen, but it is particularly hard, be aware of that. But try – and then figure out what specifically make it so hard for you to hear. Is the content unsettling, frightening, overwhelming, infuriating?

Invariably, the same communication lands differently with each of us. Work on being aware of your part in how something lands with you. For example, I may find what I’m hearing overwhelming because I am not used to frank conversation – I may even feel threatened and frightened in that overwhelm. And that may be because that was not the culture in my family growing up; and perhaps that I have not worked on improving my ‘resilience’ since then. A common response would be to defend; but your history, nature and choices will play a part in that overwhelm. Take responsibility for that part.

3.Speaking from ‘I’ before checking out what you’ve understood from the other person. Saying aloud what you’ve understood – and being corrected if need be – before speaking from your point of view is particularly useful if you are having a thorny discussion. It can work wonders.

Note: The above does not apply where there is abuse.. I’m not interested in communicating differently in that scenario, I’m interested in everyone being safe. This would be a time to seek one-to-one counselling: https://www.bacp.co.uk/search/Therapists.

Focussing: 6 steps to mental health with nothing but your good self required

I know I’m relaxed when I realise I’m cutting a cherry tomato into no less than 6 pieces. What about you – what are the tell tale signs of what’s going on inside? Staying in touch with our ever-changing selves is key to mental health. You may already be on top of this. If not.. Continue reading “Focussing: 6 steps to mental health with nothing but your good self required”

Love is love: on friendship

Love is love – familial, romantic, fleeting or friendship. And love can be a bugger.

Across ten years of listening to clients, I’ve heard many speak at length about their friendships. One of the first things I ask suicidal clients is “are there are any friends in your orbit?”. This is because friendships are pivotal to our sense of community and belonging in the world. Put another way, ‘friendship is vital to human wellbeing because this form of human love gets under our skin quite as much as any other’ (Vernon 2012). Continue reading “Love is love: on friendship”

If you are in a position of power – that is, any kind of leader – therapy may well be a great idea

You may not be prime minister, but having power at all is a tricky business. I know that therapy and supervsion certainly support me to act with integrity and rigour given that I have some power from my role alone. Although the following article relates to having vast power within politics, I suspect we could all learn from this: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/12/prime-minister-therapy


If you need permission to do or to be just as you are – or less – today, here’s your ticket. I love this poem – ‘Today’ by Jean Little. 

TODAY I will not live up to my potential.
TODAY I will not relate well to my peer group.
TODAY I will not contribute in class.
I will not volunteer one thing.

TODAY I will not strive to do better.
TODAY I will not achieve or adjust or grow enriched
or get involved.
I will not put up my hand even if the teacher is wrong

and I can prove it.

TODAY I might eat the eraser off my pencil.
I’ll look at the clouds.
I’ll be late.
I don’t think I’ll wash.