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The Neuroscience Behind Coaching

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

The field of neuroscience has begun to explore how certain interventions used in coaching can facilitate positive changes in the brain and body.

Coaching teaches you that how you think affects how you feel and therefore how you behave. Coaches help clients shift their thinking to be more present-moment focused, optimistic and less fearful, which can stimulate neuroplasticity and lead to substantial changes in one’s mood and behaviour.

How Does Coaching Change the Brain?

The field of neuroscience has begun to take a closer look at what different coaching interventions are actually doing to the brain and body. We have begun to understand and how and why certain interventions are so powerful. Also, how to create interventions that will target positive changes in the brain and body.

What is Neuroplasticity

We used to believe that once we became adults our brain could not change and that changes only occurred in infancy and childhood. Modern research has shown that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and can alter exciting ones in accordance with new experiences, learned information and can create new memories.

Neuroplasticity is what underlies our capacity to learn new things and enables mental and behavioural flexibility. The brain is always going through a remodelling process. It has the capacity to change and grow through experience and enables people to bounce back from adversity and setbacks. This allows for people to build and tap into greater resilience and well-being.

Coaches help clients build resilience based on neuroplasticity by providing them with opportunities for greater learning. The client can be directed to more functional patterns of thinking that can restore cognitive and behavioural flexibility.

Fight or Flight System

Another area of the brain that coaching can help to re-wire is an oversensitive or stuck “fight or flight” system that is connected to our body's alarm and stress system. Stressful situations such as the conflict in one's relationships, looming work deadlines, or persistent worries can trigger the sympathetic nervous system that produces a cascade of stress hormones that have physiological changes such as increased heart rate, tension in the body, and an inability to think clearly.

One of the main reasons people seek coaching is due to stress. Stress can wreak havoc on the brain and body leading to an increased chance of dis-ease. This stress response also is known as the “flight or fight” system has evolved as a survival strategy to keep us safe but the body can begin to treat regular stressors as life threatening which takes a toll on the body and mind putting one at risk of major mental and physical health challenges.

Coaches can take their understanding of the body's nervous system and help them to re-wire it away from the “fight or flight” and into the parasympathetic also known as the "rest and digest" which will create more ease and resilience in the mind and body. There are a number of scientifically proven interventions that can do this such as mindfulness, physical activity, and relaxation exercises

Creating New Habits

Creating lasting change is difficult. Understanding the brain pathways associated with change can help begin to create new habits and routines.

  • The prefrontal cortex an area of the brain responsible for new changes.

  • The basal ganglia is also known as the brain's “auto-pilot”. This part of the brain operates without much conscious thought and is involved in routine habits.

We all mostly operate in autopilot (basal ganglia) which is good as long as our autopilot supports us in being our best self. When we wish to make changes, we need to use the prefrontal cortex which tires easily resulting in us falling back into our autopilot. Changing our autopilot takes a lot of work and can be difficult to do on one’s own.

A coach can help you begin to understand the changes needed to be made to adjust the autopilot so you can create new habits and routines that will support your growth and transformation. Neuroscience shows that it is through attention that we are able to create changes. Coaches help to guide the client’s attention to new changes through powerful coaching, explore new insights, and create opportunities to reflect and hold coachees accountable for new behavioural and thought change.

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