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Homework - Not a swear word!

As with all therapies, there are key elements that are crucial to a successful outcome; the therapeutic alliance between the client and therapist is one of the defining factors of success for example. There is, however, an undervalued tool that, when used correctly, is so effective in engaging the client in the processes of change and also in deepens the neuronal changes that occur, I wonder why it isn’t utilized more.

Clients who buy-in and are engaged in their therapy are much more likely to achieve their goals; that’s kind of obvious. The way in which they engage though can give a serious boost to the sessions. In Solution Focused therapy (Brief, Hypnotherapy, coaching etc) homework is used to draw attention to the positives changes that the client is trying to achieve, the changes in emotions and responses that are happening. This is great for engaging the Reticular Activating System in the brain.

As you know, the Reticular Activation System works like a filter that analyses all the incoming and homeostatic sensations in order to focuses attention on the important stuff. It’s been likened to a receptionist or a bouncer. It holds a list of things that are important (such as your name, family names, words associated with danger etc.) and if it comes across one it pushes this information up to the consciousness. You may have experienced it yourself when talking in a noisy crowded room when out of nowhere you hear your name being said. It’s not because it was said any louder than the rest of the chatter, it is because your subconscious is listening all the time and when it found something on the list of important words, it sent it straight to your awareness.

We can also put things on the list of importance ourselves. Anyone who’s played the motorway game of finding cars of a certain colour will know, that if you want to spot yellow cars, all of a sudden they’re everywhere. Even after the game has finished, you continue to see them. We use this mechanism in our homework tasks by putting on there things that we want the client to notice, things like the positive changes that they can see and feel, the positive parts of their day to day life, even just noticing the things in their life that they want to keep doing/feeling. These are all ways that the Reticular Activating System is called into play.

There is another powerful homework tool that can be utilized in this way, that of creating predictions. The mind is a giant prediction engine, predicting where the floor is when we step, where the door handle is when we reach for it, what the world will look like and how we will feel in certain situations. It does this for two reasons. Firstly it saves a whole lot of energy if you already know what to expect and what you’re doing. The power hungry pre-frontal cortex barely has to get involved. Secondly, it does this to ensure that your actions and reactions are in line with keeping you safe and alive. If it knows that you are going to be in a room with your nasty boss, it prepares you for it (not necessarily in the most useful way), if you are seeing your best friend then it gets you excited in anticipation. There is an element of what NLP would call, ‘schemas’, involved in the exact buttons and switches that are used in order for the environment to alter our states, but essentially, we know what’s coming most of the time.

Great you may think, but what if it gets it wrong? Well, when we make a mistake about where the door handle is or the floor we then have to go grasping for it or slip a little; how many people have gone up the stairs and went to take an extra stair that wasn’t there? When we make an error in the emotional way then it sets up something called a cognitive dissonance, a gap between what it thinks is/should be happening and what actually is. Now it could assess the situation, change the neural pathways and adjust its prediction, but that takes energy and effort. It could equally just push a few emotional buttons and change our perception of the event to match its prediction which is much more efficient.

For example, you could be expecting another rubbish day in work with the boss shouting at you and feeling useless. Then, when you go in, the day could actually start to go alright. No shouting and work goes well. Part way through the day the brain will assess and say, ‘hold on a minute, I predicted a day much worse than this!’ A gap has occurred. So then how many times do we suddenly start to see the negative things, the colleague who’s annoying us, the cold coffee and the emails coming in? It can adjust our awareness and perception in order to fit in better with its prediction.

Now, we can use this to flip the situation around. By sitting down in the evening and thinking about the day ahead, you can actively write down the positive predictions for it, the way you want to feel, the way you want to act and react to situations; how you want to perceive the following day. Then the next day happens and if gaps begin to appear, the brain will naturally push your perception towards to positive end rather than the negative. That evening you can reflect on the day and your predictions in order to make them more accurate (and therefore build trust with them) and write down the next days. You even start to become much more fluent in the words you use to describe the feelings; instead of feeling good about this or good about that, you can feel excited, relieved, proud, calm etc. The more nuanced the words the more accurate they become. This also builds on the control of labels we assign.

I have found with my clients that the use of these tasks help shape and tailor the therapy with great results. They take charge of what they want their day to be and how they want to feel in it and use this in their homework task, shaping their goals and making them feel so much more empowered. It has helped so much that I have designed a series of homework journals to use that are published by Anisian Publishing and available from Amazon that I give to my clients. They are called ‘My Solution Focused Journal’, and ‘My Solution Focused Prediction Journal’. Not only do they aid in the therapy, but are great ways of adding value to their therapy journey.

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