Lets Talk…. How Neuroscience and Coaching are a great match for change.

Guest Blog post Published by Louise Spurgeon on 29th March 2021

For this blog post I have decided to shake things up a bit. I have decided to invite a guest writer to the site. This blog post is by Louise Spurgeon. Louise is a friend and colleague and a great coaching psychologist. She is also one of the founders of the Nutcracker Collective: It exists to integrate mental and physical wellbeing into personal and professional lives. She has written this post about the positive effects of coaching from a neuroscience perspective. So let’s talk’….

How Neuroscience and Coaching are a great match for change.

Have you ever wanted to undertake a significant change in your life? I (Louise) always wanted to change careers and create my ideal week but there were so many things stopping me. The usual suspects played their part in scuppering my plan -namely fear, self belief, money concerns, pension plans, not being good enough… I could go on. Little did they know that whilst I had been studying neuroscience, and with the aid of coaching, I had actually found numerous and beneficial ways to challenge these nasty killjoys! From conception our biology interacts with our environment and we are often fooled into thinking we cannot challenge our destiny. Here I give a brief overview of what neuroscience is and if it is a good match with coaching.

What do we mean by neuroscience?

What exactly is neuroscience ? In simple terms it is the scientific study of the brain and the nervous system. “The human brain, with its vast network of alive, constantly changing neural connections  simultaneously managing everything from our heartbeat to our dreams, our immune system to our imagination” (Shebib, 2017). The brain is not a fixed organ, it adapts to the environment. It makes sense of the world by predicting the future based on modelled expectation (Quanta Magazine, 2018) influenced by our own experiences. We therefore need to learn to challenge the modelled expectation. In my case, how did I learn to challenge the default blockers that arose when I worked on my career change? Before I answer that let us spend some time on learning and the concept of body budgets (Feldman Barrett, 2020a). 

Neuroscience has shown us that when we learn something new, new synapses (the part where one neuron connects to another one to exchange signals) between appropriate neurons are created to store information (Palmer & Whybrow, 2018). As we learn and grow, we interpret signals from our internal and external environments and we strengthen the neuronal circuits that are most relevant to us, whilst others weaken and are unmade (Sakai, 2020). The brain’s capacity to unmake these synapses is massively important since we would otherwise have no way of unlearning information or behaviours that are no longer useful to us, nor adapt to changes around us or achieve new goals that we now deem important (Purves, White, & Riddle, 1996). 

Harnessing neuroplasticity

We therefore have a brilliant ability to change our brain’s architecture by altering our environmental experiences – a process known as neuroplasticity. So how did I leverage this key process to support my career change? These are some of the steps that contributed to neuroplasticity taking place:

  • I stepped away from a permanent position and and set myself up as a self-employed contractor. This gave me the security of working in a familiar environment but the onus was on me to find the work. I viewed this as a first step to making a significant change.
  • Whilst contracting I returned to studying a topic that was more related to my future career goals in my spare time. My brain was learning new information as I was learning to manage life as a contractor. New and different pathways were being established in my brain. 
  • I cultivated more beneficial responses to challenge my unhelpful beliefs about not being good enough by shaping and reinforcing these new neural pathways. By challenging these unhelpful and stressful beliefs, I increased the engagement of my parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which puts the brakes on our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – the part of our autonomic nervous system that drives the stress response (‘fight or flight’ system). The PNS is crucial for our wellbeing enabling restoration, creativity and open-mindedness to name just a few, and therefore called the ‘rest and digest’ system!

Birthing new brain cells

The brain not only allows us to change its architecture via neuroplasticity, but also has the capacity to create new neurons using a process known as neurogenesis in key parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, an area important for learning, memory and mood regulation (Gage, 2002, Jung et al., 2018). It probably won’t surprise you to hear that optimal wellbeing, exercise and enriched learning environments result in more neurons being produced which support more helpful neural circuits being created (Van Praag, Kempermann, & Gage, 2000). Chronic stress can mediate neuronal death in the hippocampus and could indicate why memory and cognitive deficits occur with poor mental health and wellbeing conditions (Jung et al., 2018). Neuroscience describes the biological basis that contributes to where we are on the wellbeing spectrum, and why it is important to support these processes with helpful habits that maintain optimal wellbeing, such as good nutrition, sleep, exercise and effective stress management.

Managing our body budget

We have to also pay considerable attention to our ‘body budget’ – this term is used by Lisa Feldman Barratt, a renowned psychology professor and neuroscientist, to describe the biological process known as ‘allostasis’ (Feldman Barratt, 2020b). Allostasis is an automatic process our body uses to predict and manage our energy needs before they happen, so it follows nicely to use the term ‘body budget’ (Feldman Barratt, 2020b). We are social creatures and neuroscience has shown us that our interactions with others also regulates one another’s body budgets.

Throughout our life time, outside our conscious awareness we make instalments and withdrawals into other people’s body budget and they do the same for us (Feldman Barrett, 2020a). Here is a possible scenario: if over a long period of time you are consistently bombarded with negative and disparaging words from an unsupportive boss, partner or parent, this will drain your body budget due to a chronic stress response mediated by an SNS that is constantly on and reactive. Such verbal aggressions can injure the brain just like rejection, abuse and neglect. In contrast, we can increase our body budget deposits from people around us who make us feel loved, valued and encouraged, supporting the PNS and reducing our stress response. “There is a real biological benefit when people treat one another with basic human dignity”(Feldman Barrett, 2020a).

How does coaching fit into this?

Turning our attention to coaching, let’s describe what coaching is? The fundamental aims of coaching are to support change in behaviour, thought and emotion in a personal and/or professional capacity. McKay (2018) writes “coaching can be thought of as a strategic and purposeful environmental tool to facilitate change and maybe an effective means of shaping neural pathways”. As I have demonstrated above, change simply cannot be sustained without constant neurophysiological changes taking place, and therefore human beings are never too old or too inexperienced to change if they take those first steps and reinforce them.

A coach can help challenge the millions of limiting beliefs held by so many that they are too stupid, not worthy or too fearful to make any change. By challenging these restrictive beliefs it is possible to feel more present, thereby reducing the fear of change. This can then allow for more helpful neuroplasticity to take place as you rewire new circuits. While I continued to establish my new career, my internal dialogue was very focused around failure, but my thinking had not explored what that actually meant. My coach flipped it on its head and asked me ‘what my measures of success actually were’? When I really stopped to consider that question, I could see that I wasn’t failing at all because my journey to create a career that focused on my own values and strengths was well and truly underway.

By working with a supportive and encouraging coach you are given the time and space to explore the change you want or need, setting goals and the incremental steps needed to make the change or achieve the goal. A coach can act as a soundboard, allowing you to speak freely without being judged. The coaching relationship can also allow for emotional contagion to take place, whereby the positivity generated (with the right coach) is transferred to others even without their conscious awareness (Kramer et al, 2014). Furthermore by encouraging coaching clients to think of situations that produce positive emotions, it has the ability to trigger behavioural changes that can lead to greater sense of self worth and/or belief (Palmer & Whybrow, 2018).

Bringing it all together

From personal experience, I was stuck, I was fearful, I was frustrated, but small incremental changes lead to bigger changes that allowed for an increase in self-belief and a reduction in fear. Although change might not always be easy, it is possible. I concede that change does not happen simply because of an alliance between neuroscience and coaching. However, they are a great match since coaching can facilitate and leverage neuroscience-based processes because our brains are not static or fixed. The brain is truly built to be adaptable and malleable, and that is a truly powerful tool for us to harness for any type of change.

References

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