At the 2017 American Counseling Association Conference in San Francisco, ten counselor educators presented a day-long Learning Institute titled Neurocounseling: Brain-Based Clinical Approaches.  Each speaker focused on a chapter written for the newly published ACA book with the same title.  (This article was originally written for the ACA readership with permission to share for educational purposes.)

            I learned many new ideas from my colleagues, but two main additional insights were created from that day. The first curiosity came from a discussion with my husband, Dr. Ted Chapin.  Looking at the presenters, we were both struck by the varied age differences and age span of the speakers and even the participants.  After inquiring, I discovered that the youngest presenters were in their thirties and the oldest in their eighties!  I began to wonder if neurocounseling and the idea of bridging brain and behavior would impact age groups differently? The second question that came to my mind was which group might benefit most from neurocounseling?

            In April of 2017 at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, our online Master’s in Counseling students arrived for their residency where they were finishing up the Neurocounseling: Brain and Behavior course.  The last day of class, I interviewed students in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s about my two questions. I had 13 students in this class, and I was amazed at the distribution of ages, gender, and cultural diversity.  There were 4 students in their 20’s.  There were 3 students who were in their 30’s.  Three students were in their 40’s, and 3 students were in their 50’s. Four of the students were males, and their cultural backgrounds were Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian.  What wonderful diversity I had in my class.  I decided to also interview Dr. Allen Ivey and Dr. Thom Fields who were two of the main speakers at the Learning Institute.

            Here are the very fun and fascinating responses to my questions: How does learning about neurocounseling and bridging your brain and behavior impact you at this time in your life?  What is the largest benefit to you? My students and colleagues gave me permission to share their ideas.

Lori Russell-Chapin
2017 Bradley University Residency Cohort
Source: Lori Russell-Chapin

The 20’s Age Group

Tess, Tiffany, Meghan and Stephanie worked together and stated they are definitely more conscious about the foods that are being eaten and its impact on the gut/brain axis. Discovering the many contributors to brain dysregulation was new and fascinating. This group realized how important self-regulation strategies are to combat some of the daily life stressors. They want to continue meditation, yoga and exercise.  Understanding the Default Mode Network helped in realizing the importance of time with yourself and self-care. Epigenetics helps in deciding how to take care of us, as we begin to navigate big life changes. In this transitional time and with our brains still developing, we can use neurocounseling to help with these major changes.  Neuroplasticity helps us remember that our environments can influence us negatively and positively.

The 30’s Age Group

Matt, Stephen and Brendan believe at this stage in their life, we are at full capacity and operating in that mode.  All three agreed that striving for peak performance was essential, and that being mindful of our family and professions is so important. We have reached the age of full responsibilities, and at this point in our lives we have the energy and hunger to want to learn and be as healthy as possible. We take our life roles very seriously. We are at the age where it takes maturity to plan for our future. Brendan stated that every year gets faster, and as we get older time seems different.  All three stated that incorporating brain-based research into counseling makes counseling more efficacious.  Brendan realized it is never too late to begin self-care, as we begin to feel the finite nature of life. Stephen made the entire class laugh when he shared that he now realized that a lot of brain pruning went on in his twenties!!

The 40’s Age Group

Amy, Briana and Tameka all shared a wish that they had known this information sooner. Amy learned about the gut-brain connection last year, and she said it completely change her life.  Both her pain and depression were lifted. Briana enjoys this age, as this group can view life from both ends of the spectrum.  This group can even explain life before technology and can see the advantages and disadvantages.  Neurocounseling education assists in seeing life differently. Self-care seems to be more important in the forties. We can use our wisdom to assist in any life changes from empty nesters to menopause to life conflicts. Briana stated that everyone wants the same thing in life, so neurocounseling aids in that goal.

The 50’s Age Group

Linda, Mina and Alex enjoy this part of life as they have overcome many life experiences and challenges. This age brings about more intuitive understanding, so a better comprehension of the brain and body helps with understanding how intuition works.  All three loved the concept of neurogenesis.  The encouragement that building new neuronal pathways until we die brings to every day and every age astonishment and excitement.  At this life stage our life experiences and skills can bring about the best treatment. Alex said he does not ever think about his age.  Mina said after this class, she will never use her age as an excuse again. Linda expressed her excitement about finding her true passion in counseling in her fifties, and she is excited to be a role model to others. All three discussed the importance of daily exercise as they better understand exercise and the role of the cascading brain derived neurotropic factors (BDNFs) for waking up the brain and body. 

Here are Dr.Thom Fields answers to my questions.

Like many graduate students, my master’s program had very sparse training in neuroscience outside of my addictions course.  This changed during my doctoral studies in counselor education, when I was immersed into the neuroscience of counseling during an advanced counseling theories course at James Madison University. I learned about brain regions and anatomy, the implications of activation in the limbic system vs. pre-frontal cortex in client functioning, and an emerging new theory named interpersonal neurobiology.  I was hooked, and became keenly interested in what was happening in the brain of the client during the counseling process.  I soon found myself independently researching information about brain functioning, began publishing articles on the application of neuroscience to counseling practice, and created a new neuroscience-informed model of cognitive-behavior therapy (nCBT) with Drs. Eric Beeson, Laura Jones, and Raissa Miller.  I was appointed the chair of AMHCA’s neuroscience interest network, and was later appointed as Associate Editor of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling’s special section on neurocounseling alongside Dr. Eric Beeson.  Alongside Drs. Laura Jones and Lori-Russell-Chapin, I was also an editor of ACA’s first published text on the integration of neuroscience into counseling practice in 2017, entitled Neurocounseling: Brain-Based Clinical Approaches. 

Since that first doctoral course, I have discovered that learning about neuroscience needs to happen in the community.  The field is vast, and it would be near impossible to possess knowledge about all areas of neuroscience related to counseling practice. Belonging to neuroscience interest networks, research teams, and editorial boards has helped me to better understand the neuroscience field. For example, I am continually learning about broad fields such as epigenetics, social neuroscience, neurofeedback, psychoneuroimmunology, neural development, and traumatic stress. I have learned so much from my colleagues and peers, and find the learning process exciting and rewarding.  Discussions with colleagues in the neurocounseling community has helped me to parse empirically-based neuroscientific knowledge from theoretical models and pop psychology.  Being in my thirties, I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn!

I have noticed that interest in the application of neuroscience to counseling practice has grown tremendously over the past few years. The topic seems to attract people of all ages, backgrounds, and experience.  Graduate counseling students have completed undergraduate programs in psychology or biology that are increasingly emphasizing neuroscience, and are looking for this emphasis in their graduate programs.  Experienced practitioners are intrigued about what is happening in their client’s brains, and are exploring neuroscience as a means of better understanding their clients. There are also clinicians who are specializing in biofeedback and neurofeedback.  It is indeed an exciting time to be learning about the application of neuroscience to counseling practice!

Here is what Dr. Allen Ivey wrote about neurocounseling.

           My knowledge of neurocounseling has made an immense difference in my life. 11 years ago, I started my journey into neuroscience/neurobiology. 9 years ago in Honolulu, I made the first presentation on applied neuroscience (now neurocounseling) to ACA. Professionally, neurocounseling reinforces my lifelong emphasis on prevention—and, as well, using preventive methods as treatment. My successful microskills and prevention work with Vietnam Vets years ago made this point clear to me. But preventive treatment remains a hard sell to the helping professions.  There is no money in prevention, unfortunately.           

Personally, I have learned that my 83 year-old-aging brain can still grow and develop due to neuroplasticity. I have discovered the complex connections between my prefrontal cortex and amygdala/limbic system. This leads to more effective emotional regulation enabling better cognitive functioning and ability to write and present, as well as to engaging and enjoying emotional experience. Aging no longer scares me. I now teach stress management to cardio rehab patients at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital. There I focus on the importance of exercise, diet, sleep, socialization, and other Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes. Personally, I have lost 22 pounds, now exercise and meditate daily a full hour each, and have completely changed to the Dean Ornish diet (Google Dean Ornish).  Luckily I have Mary and many friends who meet my socialization needs. I like to think that I will “go bravely into the night.” 

Here are a few more of Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin’s answers.

Interviewing all of these people did seem to validate my original questions and insights.  These perspectives added strength to my being in my sixties and knowing that neurocounseling has made such a difference in my life both personally and professionally. I believe integrating neurocounseling strategies has actually saved my life and has given me additional choices to having a healthier lifestyle.  Because of some of the biofeedback techniques of skin temperature control, heart rate variability, diaphragmatic breathing and therapeutic lifestyle changes such as nutrition and exercise that I implement on a daily basis, my brain and body are healthier now than ever.

Neurocounseling has impacted my professional life in profound ways.  I truly see my clients in a different way.  When I shake their hands or watch them breathe, I have a new set of clues into their lifestyle.  Probably the major impact though has been a better understanding of the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges.  For thirty years of conducting counseling, my main goal has been symptom reduction.  That is still important to me and my clients, however, my major goal now is to assist clients in emotional and physiological safety and offer skills for self-regulation.  These skills can then be transferred to any part of my clients’ and students’ lives and can be utilized over and over again.   One of my students just wrote this comment after the residency course.  I knew neurocounseling made a difference, and I was delighted that the class could experience it as well. My student gave me permission to share his thoughts.  Stephen Porter from Illinois wrote,

“Dear Dr. Lori, 

I wanted to say thanks again very much for the experience of the residency and the class overall. It was a really great couple of days - and the fact that you (and Dr. Chapin) welcomed us into your work, your home, and your office really set the tone for a great learning environment. As I am learning from the paper I just submitted, you effectively activated our social engagement systems with consistent signals of safety!”

Conclusion

I am convinced that neurocounseling is important to every age group.  The acquired information impacts every person in a unique manner.  Erickson’s psychosocial stages came to mind as well.  Our main developmental focus at that time will benefit from better understanding how brain health impacts the efficiency of our particular stage of development from raising ourselves to raising a family to raising a profession. Understanding epigenetically how our brain and bodies are treated in our twenties will certainly impact how our brain and body will age and function in our nineties!  Realizing that the definition of a healthy brain is the rate of speed processing and the accuracy of that information helps set measurable goals.  And once the world is viewed from a neurocounseling philosophy, we can never go back to seeing the brain and body independently.  So today instead of saying, “I am going to take care of my body.  The new mantra needs to be today I am going to do everything I can to take care of my brain!”  Here’s to neurocounseling and better brain health. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts about neurocounseling and its impact on different age groups.

For information check out Bradley’s Online Master’s in Counseling.

References

Fields, T., Jones, L. & Russell-Chapin, L. (2017). Neurocounseling: Brain-based Clinical Approaches. Alexandria,

            VA: American Counseling Association.

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