Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

25 Jul 2018 By Dr Rose Williams, Psychotherapist and Creative Arts Therapist

I’m sitting in my parent’s garden on a warm sunny afternoon. Ahhhhh….its very relaxing. I’ve been a psychotherapist for fifteen years now and I’ve just returned to Australia from Scotland. I’ve noticed since getting back that I head outside as soon as the sun is up and try and stay there despite the winter chill. Nothing beats a sunny afternoon at the moment for feeling good. Maybe because of that, I’m thinking about what might bring back this settled and soothed experience that I get from sitting here in the garden, when the snow is coming down or the dark has set in? To put it another way, how do we face changed (and often stressful) emotional and physical circumstances while also bringing with us some calm?

Research tells us that our emotions are physical experiences, they are not happening just in our minds they are happening all over and through our bodies. The Brain’s Amazing Drugs Cabinet is just the start. Once the cascade of brain drugs gets going our bodies are fully participating too – cold sweats, tingly rage, blind panic, warm love, calm contentment – they all involve our heart, our vascular system (all your veins that your blood pumps through), our skin, our muscles, all our senses – and much more besides. Every emotion is a full body system experience.  So how best to keep up with all that and keep your cool?

Let me introduce you to your mirror neurones. Currently we think that these little brain buddies do what it says on the tin – they mirror feeling and thinking states in our own and other people’s brains. You know that feeling you get when you get close to an angry person and you suddenly find yourself feeling more prickly yourself after a while? Or around a calm person and you begin to relax a bit? Or around a sad person and you feel a bit sad yourself? Some research says it is your mirror neurones kicking in. They help us to empathise and have compassion with others and to be able to do the kind of emotional “mind reading” that is needed for us to know how to understand any social interaction between people. Mirror neurones help us to pick up on other people’s feelings and thoughts and mimic or respond to them – without us doing anything other than turning up! Even just thinking about people, places or things that have emotional connections for us, can get our mirror neurones to start mirroring back to us the feelings we connect to that memory. Like remembering your kid sister’s laugh that makes you smile yourself, or thinking of your grans hugs makes your muscles start to relax. Mirror neurones can help us to get our happy brain drugs going again even in the most difficult situations, as they begin to change the structure of our own brain activity and allow our cascades of brain drugs to begin to flow differently.

So here is a useful experiment to do just for fun in your own head to get in touch with your mirror neurones and say hello to them. Just where-ever you are now, notice how your body is feeling. Where is there tension? Where are you feeling comfortable or tight? Once you have an idea of this then turn your thoughts to a relaxing physical experience you had recently, a cuddle, a warm bath, a calming walk, a chat with a kind friend. Hold that in mind for a little while and then stop. Check in with how your body is feeling now. What happened? Some people need to take a bit of time with this as it is hard to connect with thoughts and feelings sometimes. But the more we do this the more our mirror neurones group up into mirrors reflecting back good physical and emotional states. Then they set off those chemical waterfalls which helps us to calm and be content even in difficulty.

In fact, meditation practice and mindfulness are based on helping you to develop mirror neurone patterns that can re-map and re-wire your brain in little doses at a time. So even one minute a day over time makes a difference. Mirror, mirror on my brain wall….where is the cosiest place of all?