THE SCIENCE OF MENTAL WELLBEING
At Culture Nudge, part of our mission is to combine the rigours of applied science with a compassionate mindset to maximise the effectiveness of psychotherapy, coaching, and leadership.
Emerging research from fields such as Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience have yielded powerful tools to enhance the quality of people's lives, in part by providing deep insights into the real reasons that people think, feel and behave as they do.
Applying science to maximise the effectiveness of psychotherapy and coaching
Increasingly, scientific research is informing our understanding of the processes and phenomena that underpin effective psychotherapy, for example in relation to:
Clients often seek coaching or psychotherapy to create positive change in their lives. Research has shown that old problems and unhelpful behaviours are merely reinforced when we focus on them. Instead, our strategies need to focus on the present and look forward to the future, which involves novel learning.
This process involves the development of new neural pathways within the brain, so learning new ways of thinking literally can change the very architecture of the brain (albeit in subtle ways)!
There is often a gap between a client recognising a need for change versus understanding what needs to be done (let alone then figuring out how to achieve the desired change). Research has indicated that a positive mindset can open us to possibilities. This enables us to identify novel solutions to our problems.
In line with this, one study observed an improvement in people's problem solving abilities when positive experiences outweighed negative experiences (in a ratio of 3 to 1).
Furthermore, it appears that fixating on the negatives can limit people's social and self -awareness. In this way, having a negative mindset can lead individuals down a spiral which can impair their ability to help themselves. It is therefore imperative for us to identify instances when we are attending to the negative as (if left unchecked) this can potentially predispose to depression.
When a circumstance is perceived as sufficiently negative, it can trigger a threat response in the amygdala. Activation of this brain region can result in the experience of an intense emotional surge that inhibits frontal cortical areas whilst increasing self-protecting behaviours. The inhibition of frontal cortical areas restricts creativity and meta-thinking. Thus, individuals become more 'zoomed in' on the the task at hand (rather than adopting a broad, multi-dimensional perspective), which can significantly impair insightful decision making.
Such neural activation patterns provide a rationale for therapists and coaches to help their clients navigate and moderate emotional extremes.
Emotional self-regulation has been positively associated with achievement, productivity, and good mental health.
At Culture Nudge, we encourage our clients to change the way they think about uncertainty, failure, fear of ridicule etc., to help with regulation of the fear response. This helps to maintain the cognitive capacity required to facilitate progress in coaching and psychotherapy.
Findings from social neuroscience have highlighted the significant impact that our social environment and interactions have on us.
Pro-social behaviours such as empathy and altruism rely on our capacity for theory of mind, which refers to an ability to surmise what other people are thinking.
In the workplace, displays of compassion from leaders have been shown to promote a healthy work environment.
In contrast, less pro-social behaviours can elicit a fear response, which might manifest as antagonistic behaviours (such as a 'me-against-them', or tribal, mentality).
In organisations, it is particularly important to manage negative responses toward others, as a lack of structure for resolving issues could easily contribute to an emotional contagion.
There is good reason to regard rejection as a biological threat. For example, brain imaging studies have shown that the social pain of rejection is processed in the same areas in the brain as physical pain. These findings challenge the assumption that social pain is imagined, and add weight to the importance of giving clients the space and resources they need to deal with stress of this kind.
A Primer On Evolutionary Psychology
Evolutionary psychology is the study of the ways in which our minds have been shaped by pressures to survive and reproduce.
As with physical traits, our thoughts, feelings and behaviours have evolved through the processes of natural selection. Over centuries of evolutionary development, adaptive behaviours which promote our survival and reproduction have been preferentially selected for and passed on.
The brain has evolved specialised mechanisms that were designed for solving problems which were commonplace in our ancestral environment. In certain instances, our environments have changed so radically that we find ourselves sub-optimally matched to the demands of the modern world. This mismatch (akin to a fish out of water ) has been hypothesised to contribute to the high prevalence of mental health conditions in the modern age.
Research into evolutionary psychology can provide a deeper understanding of the fundamental purposes of a range of behaviours. By considering neural mechanisms from our evolutionary past, it becomes apparent where our neural 'hardware' hasn't yet updated itself to reflect our contemporary lifestyles.
Relative to other species, human beings have a particular sensitivity to environmental influences. This capacity is in itself an evolved trait. Our behaviour is a product of our evolved neurophysiology and the environments to which we have been exposed, especially in childhood but also in adulthood.
The neuroplasticity of our brains confers a capacity for us to, within our lifetime, take on board concepts that would otherwise take thousands of years of evolution by natural selection to be incorporated and to modify behaviour. We can deliberately nurture our environments so as to create longlasting adaptive changes to our nervous system.
Our brains use shortcuts and cognitive biases to make sense of the complex environments in which we function. Cognitive biases can, however, lead us to make sub-optimal decisions. An understanding of such biases can enable us to compensate for them, enhancing the quality and success of our thoughts and actions.
In the workplace, authentic and clear communication between team members can compensate for each other's biases and blind spots, and overall decision making can benefit from the unique insights that different members of the team can bring to the table.
Our brains are designed to detect changes in our environment. The negativity bias makes us more sensitive to real or perceived negative changes. When we perceive a change that constitutes a threat, this can trigger a physiological fear response in us, which may result in a defensive or impulsive emotional response.
Because these tendencies are firmly engrained by centuries of evolution, it can be challenging to modify our thoughts and behaviours (even when there is a strong rationale motivating us to do so).
Our clients are helped to develop the skill of identifying patterns in their thinking and behaviour so that they have more control over the direction of their lives.
CBT has been shown to change brain activity, enhancing functional patterns of neural activity.
EXPERIENCE CHANGE WITH CULTURE NUDGE
We strive to embody bold and clear thinking, motivated by compassion and guided by science.
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