‘The sound of birds gives a deep, almost unnoticed pleasure’ (Simon Barnes)

I’ve been noticing more birdsong recently as the mornings are getting a bit lighter.  I always find that this lifts my heart as it seems like a glimmer of spring.

Studies show there are seasonal changes in the brain structure of songbirds linked to breeding patterns.  There is an increase in the number of neurons in late summer compared to early spring due to changes in song behaviour.

The human brain shows similar flexibility (or ‘plasticity’) with structural and functional changes over the lifespan.  During childhood the brain changes and recalibrates as a developmental process and our brains continue changing throughout adulthood, a capacity known as ‘experience dependent’ plasticity.  For these reasons, neuroscientists suggest that our brains are more like ‘playdoh than porcelain’.

A wealth of recent research has shown how the brain changes in response to the environment and the actions we take. For example, when we master a new skill, such as learning a musical instrument, we forge new neural pathways.  There is a well-known example of the enlarged hippocampus brain region of London Hackney cab drivers due to the 3-4 years they spend learning ‘the knowledge’. These research insights are proving useful in the search for treatments of neurological diseases such as Alzheimers.*

For these reasons, neuroscientists suggest that our brains are more like ‘playdoh than porcelain’. Yet the changes that occur in the brain can sometimes be negative, in response to what is going on in our external environment.  When chronically stressed, for example, we literally devote more brain space to the focus of our worries.

A fascinating study by Professor Pascal Leone demonstrates the power of positive mental rehearsal. He conducted a study with two groups of participants, each learning to play a piano piece over a week-long program and studied how the brain changed during this process. One group practiced the piece physically each day and another group mentally visualized the practice each day. The surprising finding was that both groups demonstrated expansion in the same brain region (the motor cortex area that is associated with finger movement).

Such insights are empowering for clients as they see the possibilities for achieving positive change through positive visualization and mental rehearsal. Hypnotherapy can support clients in harnessing the capability of the brain to over-ride unhelpful patterns of thought and achieve positive change.


Begley, S (2007) The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself:  Not only can the brain learn new tricks, but it can also change its structure and function–even in old age. Time Magazine.

Bentley, GE.  Van’t Hof, TJ.  Ball, GF (1999) Seasonal neuroplasticity in the songbird telencephalon: A role for melatonin Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,  96  (8) , pp. 4674-4679.

Free, C (2021) London cabbies’ brains are being studied for their navigating skills. It could help Alzheimer’s research. Washington Post


Maths anxiety: what does it tell us about the brain?

Isn’t it striking how many people say they are ‘rubbish at maths’, dismissing the whole subject in a way that they do not seem to do about other subjects such as English or Geography? I have my own painful memories of school assemblies where we had to recite the times tables.  The school prefects would walk down each row and if anyone was heard stumbling, they had to recite the times table in front of the whole school the following week.

Recent research suggests that 1 in 10 people suffer from maths anxiety but this may be an underestimate.  Research conducted with 10000 school students indicated that this form of anxiety is experienced by pupils with low and high attainment profiles 1 which suggests the scale of the issue may not be fully visible to teachers. This study also showed a higher rate of reporting of maths anxiety among girls.

Maths is a compulsory subject up to GCSE level which means many people must cope with this anxiety for a long time.  Good numeracy is a requirement for many jobs and is a hot topic in the press where we see a regular focus on the UK’s numeracy performance in the international PISA rankings.

Tobias and Weissbrod 2 provide a broadly accepted definition of maths anxiety as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem”.  Recent empirical studies support this definition and indicate that there are two components: a cognitive dimension (worry about performance and consequences of failure) and an emotional dimension (nervousness, tension and apprehension).  This finding has been replicated in both primary and secondary school contexts 3.

Much of the research is based on data gathered at one point in time which means that the findings can only be described as correlational.  This leaves the question of whether a general level of anxiety leads to lack of confidence in maths or whether a lack of ability in maths causes anxiety.  However, a longitudinal study with seventh grade pupils explored the link between self-concept and anxiety levels on three occasions over a school year 4.  The results showed the effect of self-concept over anxiety was stronger than the effect of anxiety over self-concept 5.

Research shows, therefore, that maths anxiety is a persistent and widespread problem and is significantly shaped by negatives beliefs and fear of failure which can have a knock-on impact on cognitive function.  Neuroscientific techniques provide insight on the short and long-term impact of maths anxiety.  fMRI scanning techniques show that high emotional arousal due to maths anxiety engages parts of the brain which suppress the capabilities of frontal cortex to process instructions and problem solve 6.  Negative experiences associated with this emotional state can be compounded as this heightened attention may influence how memories associated with such learning situations are encoded. In fact, researchers have shown that people who experience maths anxiety begin to activate areas of the brain associated with pain processing 7.  As such, maths anxiety can have a detrimental impact both on working memory and long-term memory.

As former university lecturer and teacher educator I have a perspective on how this form of anxiety can be alleviated through educational strategies which help to reduce the level of stress and apprehension towards the subject and improve self-efficacy.  In my current role as a hypnotherapist, I support clients in reappraising negative emotions and to break out of the vicious circle that is created by self-limiting beliefs.



1 Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill, F., Dowker, A., McLellan, R., & Szucs, D. (2019). Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school studentshttps://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.37744

2 Tobias, S & Weissbrod, C (1980) Anxiety and Mathematics: An Update. Harvard Educational Review 50 (1) 63-70.

3 Wigfield, A., and Meece, J. L. (1988). Math anxiety in elementary and secondary school students. Journal of  Educational Psychology. 80, 210–216. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.80.2.210

4 Ahmed, W., Minnaert, A., Kuyper, H., and Van Den Werf, G. (2012). Reciprocal relationships between math self-concept and math anxiety. Learn. Individ. Dif. 22, 385–389. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2011.12.004

5Dowker, A. Sarker, A, Looi CY (2016) Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years? Frontiers in Psychology,  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00508

6 Marshall, E., Mann. V., & Wilson, D. (2016). Maths anxiety: A collaboration. HEA STEM conference, Nottingham: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/5.6_what_is_maths_anxiety_handout.pdf

7 Lyons, I.M., Beilock, S.L., (2012) Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety, Cerebral Cortex, 22 (9)2102–2110, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhr289




The Adolescent Brain

The Adolescent Brain - Sarah Jayne Blakemore

In this important book Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore explains how the brain changes, both structurally and functionally, during adolescence.

Her fascinating research career was motivated by her doctoral work on schizophrenia and a compelling interest to understand why such conditions tend to develop in adolescence.

Blakemore observes that traditional western medical training tends to give little attention to the normal workings of the brain, particularly in a developmental sense.

Written in a highly accessible style, and from a point of deep empathy, the book challenges negative societal attitudes towards teenagers as being impulsive and self-centred.

New brain scanning techniques show how sub-cortical brain areas associated with reward and emotion systems mature earlier than the ‘self-regulation’ system (located in the frontal cortex of the brain).  The research identifies those ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ contexts which can cause risk-taking or foster self-control.

A capacity for self-control is associated with positive life outcomes (health, education, life expectancy) and Blakemore’s current research explores how this capacity can be enhanced through mindfulness training.

The book offers valuable insights for educators, legislators and medical practitioners. Blakemore identifies practical implications for the design of health initiatives (eg. anti-smoking, healthy eating) so that they are autonomy supporting rather than overly authoritarian.

In counselling and hypnotherapy contexts, the research insights can be empowering for younger clients and/or parents of adolescents to better understand and navigate these developmental changes.

#adolescentbrain #goodread #neuroscienceinsight #selfcompassion #alwayslearning

#solutionfocusedhypnotherapy #teenagestress  #Anxietyrelief  #healthyminds #mentalhealthmatters #youthanxiety #schoolanxiety #universitystress #collegestress

I’m dreaming of an imperfect Christmas

As we all know this time of year can be stressful, not least because the list of ingredients for the ‘perfect Christmas’ seems to get longer each year. Advertisers persuade us of the need for ‘table gifts’, Christmas pyjamas, dog advent calendars and more! Our time and energy can be consumed in curating this image of perfection, leaving us depleted and unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of being with loved ones over the holidays.

Research shows a significant increase in perfectionism since the 1980s in three forms, each of which are much in evidence at this time of year:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: where we link our self-worth to achievements and are unable to feel lasting satisfaction from those achievements.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: perceiving that perfection is demanded in our immediate social environment and through broader cultural values.
  • Perfectionism directed towards others.

A recent study commissioned by the Wellcome shows that in chronic form, perfectionism is linked to depression and anxiety. Therapeutically, debilitating perfectionism can be alleviated through re-evaluating goals, recognising the value of mistakes and broadening self-worth through a focus on more than just achievements.

Engineering some imperfection into your festive season can bring unanticipated joy. Why not try:

  • Delegating Christmas tree decorating to younger members of the household. It can bring weird and wonderful results with a lot of fun along the way.
  • Ask other family members to take on a Christmas-related task (gift-wrapping meister, Boxing-day walk organiser). This can create new traditions that are unique and meaningful.
  • Borrowing (and adapting) Coco Chanel’s advice; before you launch into the festive season, try to take one or two things off your to-do list.

Wishing you a happy, imperfect Christmas!




Source: The Wellcome (2021) What science has shown can help young people with anxiety and depression: Identifying and reviewing the ‘active ingredients’ of effective interventions. October 2021. https://tinyurl.com/2fnkjv7v

Stress: What happens in the brain?

A recent YouGov survey reports that 1 in 5 people feel unable to manage stress at work. The research shows that lack of mental health awareness and access to support services are significant aspects of the problem.

Stress is an important communication between mind and body which directs attention and response to threats in our environment. This happens at a subconscious level. The amygdala (a small almond-shaped region of the brain) acts as an alarm system, sending out a distress signal to other brain regions when a threat is perceived. The brain’s hypothalamus responds and hits the accelerator, metaphorically speaking. It triggers an increase in adrenaline which we need for speed, strength, and alertness; and of cortisol, which we need to sustain this physiological state for the duration of the threat. This ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response is vital in protecting us from physical danger.

This stress response is an asset in unpredictable environments and cannot be eliminated entirely. Too little stress would lead to apathy and inability to deal with immediate problems. In the short term, stress boosts motivation and enhances our ability to deal with urgent tasks. When our body is in threat-response mode, however, other important bodily functions co-ordinated by the brain are de-prioritised such as digestion and cell repair. Therefore prolonged activation of the stress response can impair the immune system and have a negative impact on our physical and mental health.

We have had many additional stressors recently such as health concerns, caring responsibilities, job insecurity, financial worries and social isolation. Another stressor is our own thinking. An accidental scientific discovery in 2007 showed that our brains are more active in quiet moments than when we are involved in goal-oriented activity. This ‘default mode network’ our brain is involved in inner-rehearsal (like daydreaming) which can be creative and productive. However, when we are stressed or anxious our imagination can go into overdrive, thinking of all the things that might go wrong.

Neuroscientific research studies show that physical and psychological threats are processed in a similar way and prolonged physical or psychological stress produces functional and anatomical changes in the brain. When chronically stressed the amygdala becomes enlarged and we literally devote more brain space to threat perception and response. The communications machinery of the amygdala ramps up so that this alarm system becomes more sensitive which can create a vicious cycle. The good news is that these changes to the brain are largely reversible.

Sleep provides a natural mechanism for alleviating stress. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker describes sleep as overnight therapy with good reason. During the REM phase of sleep stress chemicals drop away and the brain can process and recalibrate our emotional responses to the stressors we experience each day. However, during periods of prolonged stress our sleep patterns are disrupted, and we are unable to process everything in our ‘inbox’. This can reduce our stress tolerance threshold.

Therapeutic support can help in developing resilience to stressors. Dr Olivia Remes is Programme Director of Leading Mental Health in the Workplace at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores how people living in severe stress-provoking situations respond in different ways. A key factor which distinguishes adverse and resilient responses is the range of coping strategies and sense of coherence people have and social support is a big factor in this.

It is important to be aware of how stress affects the brain and body and of the support that is available. There are many good online resources and support services available. Mental Health UK and Anxiety UK are good points of access to these. Employers are recognising the importance of preventative action to avoid the harmful effects of stress through new ways of working and proactive employee support. Employee assistance programmes are improving access to talking therapies such as hypnotherapy which help clients better understand and address the contributors to stress.

Contact me if you would like to know more about how hypnotherapy can alleviate the effects of stress and expand your mental health toolkit.

Catherine O’Connell PhD, Solution Focused Hypnotherapist