Welcome to Issue 373 of Institute Inbrief
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Issue 373 // Institute Inbrief
Dear <<First Name>>,

Welcome to Edition 373 of Institute Inbrief. 
In this edition's featured article we discuss some of the research behind neuroplasticity.

Also in this edition:
  1. AIPC Upskill Micro-Credentials
  2. Social Media: Breeding Ground for Multiple Relationships
  3. Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away
  4. Helping Clients with Sleep Issues
  5. Quotations, Seminar Timetables & More!

Enjoy your reading!

Kind regards,

Sandra Poletto
CEO, Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors.

Diploma of Counselling
Join one of the most personally enriching careers.

There is no more rewarding way to help others than by providing emotional support that assists people get their lives back on track.

AIPC is the largest provider of counselling courses in the country. We have specialised in counsellor training for over 30 years. We have proudly helped over 55,000 people from 27 countries pursue their personal and career interests in counselling.

Our Diploma of Counselling is a journey of self-discovery, providing deep insight into why you think and behave as you do. And when you graduate, you will be extremely well prepared to pursue a career in counselling – employed or self-employed – enjoying our strong industry reputation and linkage.

As a Counsellor you will:
  1. Be truly passionate about what you do.
  2. Help people every day overcome challenges and lead better lives.
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Ready to start your Counselling journey, <<First Name>>?

Counselling & Community Services Courses
Helping You Help Your Community
By gaining a qualification within the Community Services sector, you will be contributing to an industry that serves a very important purpose: to assist those with personal or relationship challenges. There is nothing more fulfilling than helping others overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. And there’s no better time to do that than now!

Diploma of Counsellinglearn more
Australia’s most popular industry accredited course leading to professional registration.

Diploma of Mental Healthlearn more
Gain knowledge and skills to provide services to those with mental health concerns.
Diploma of Financial Counsellinglearn more
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Diploma of Community Services (Case Management)learn more
Join one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the country!
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Diploma of Alcohol and Other Drugs - learn more
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Graduate Diploma of Relationship Counselling - learn more
Specialise in the field of relationship counselling and family therapy.

Bachelor of Human Services - learn more
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Bachelor of Counselling - learn more
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AIPC Upskill Micro-Credentials
Our digitally badged short course micro-credentials will provide you with new skills and a deeper understanding in a range of important areas.

Each program is carefully crafted to enhance your personal and professional development. Each short course micro-credential is between 20 and 40 hours of deep, rich, learning. Learn more about each program by clicking the links below:
  1. Creative and Critical Thinking
  2. Working with Mental Health
  3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  4. Emotionally Intelligent Leadership
  5. Working with Adolescents
  6. Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace
  7. Diverse Genders and Sexualities
  8. Working with Children

Encouraging Positive Neuroplasticity

Naturally, the recognition that the brain changes has generated a great deal of interest in the strategies and techniques that can encourage positive change. This article will discuss some of the research behind neuroplasticity, but first a word of caution. This is an area where more – and high quality – research is needed. Some claims about strategies to ‘build’ brains or ‘brain health’ are highly questionable, and some have misrepresented and profited from products that they (without justification) claim will promote positive neuroplasticity or prevent neurological declines (FTC, 2016).

So, what might actually promote positive brain changes?

Learning and skills practice

It will not surprise to read that learning and repeatedly practicing skills are recipes for neuroplasticity – in fact, they rely on neuroplasticity to have any effect at all! Learning information is enhanced by repetition; thinking in depth about what we are learning and relating it to what we already know; and testing ourselves on what we have learned (Lilienfeld et al., 2015). Practice is enhanced by focus; attending to doing the activity properly; and making use of feedback and specific strategies for improving aspects of performance (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). 

In addition to mental and physical learning and skills practice, however, there are several other environmental and behavioural conditions which may promote positive neuroplasticity. As early as the 1970s, the ‘mother of neuroplasticity’ Marion Diamond discovered that certain environmental conditions could lead to neuronal growth or loss – findings that have since been replicated by others. Some of the current areas of interest for their potential neuroplasticity benefits include novelty, life-style factors, social connections, and mindfulness.

Novelty, challenge, and learning new things

Both animal and human studies have found that stimulating environments are important for improving and maintaining cognitive function. Two specific environmental factors that have been shown to have positive effects on cognitive functions are novelty (i.e., newness) and challenge (Shaffer, 2016). Exposure to new experiences and practicing new cognitive skills is associated with enhanced cognitive functioning, while challenge both improves cognitive function and increases enjoyment and satisfaction in tasks. Research in this area is on-going, with exploration of various types of new and challenging experiences and measuring changes in cognitive function associated with them from learning musical instruments, to listening to Mozart, to computer-based cognitive training.

As with many other areas of social science research, some studies into novelty, challenge, learning, and neuroplasticity have methodological limitations, often relying on correlational studies, using small samples sizes, and so on. As such, there is no doubt that further research in this area is required. The effects of some interventions have been subject to more rigorous testing, however. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, for example, is a large-scale randomised control trial with 2 832 participants in the USA. The intervention group received cognitive training and outperformed the control group in memory, reasoning, and speed of processing, with some benefits still observable 10 years after the initial intervention (Rebok et al., 2013).

Healthy life-style factors

As with so many things in life, it seems we cannot get away from the importance of a healthy lifestyle. It appears that engaging in exercise and maintaining physical fitness can spark neurogenesis, increase some cognitive functions, and reduce age-related cognitive declines (Shaffer, 2016). Sleep also appears to be important, with sleep deprivation associated with negative neuroplasticity.

Research is also being conducted into the types of foods, nutrients, diets, and eating habits that support brain health and, potentially, neuroplasticity. However, much of this research takes place in animal models, with findings that cannot be assumed to apply to humans. Other research in the area is correlational, and cannot identify precisely what foods or nutrients (or combinations thereof) are beneficial, or in what amounts. However, there are interesting initial findings involving levels of calorie intake and intermittent fasting; nutrients such as polyphenols and fatty acids; and types of diets high in plant matter and low in highly processed foods and red meats, such as the Okinawan and Mediterranean diets (Murphy, Dias, & Thuret, 2014). Remember, however, that interventions or changes relating to exercise or diet must be discussed in full with, and conducted under the supervision of, a general practitioner or other appropriate medical professional.

Relationships and social support

It will probably come as no surprise that romantic and familial love, friendship, and social support all impact profoundly on both mental and physical health. But there is also research to suggest that love might promote positive brain changes, too. Diamond explored this idea in her research with rats many decades ago, but we cannot ethically conduct experiments where some people are provided with love and support, while those things are withheld from a control group! Correlational research, however, does suggest that there may be brain benefits to relationships and support. For example, in one study, women holding their spouse’s hand were less susceptible to the threat of shock than women who were holding a stranger’s hand or women who were alone (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).

As Davidson and McEwen commented: there was “a significant attenuation of the neural response to the threat of shock in several threat-sensitive brain regions including the anterior insula and ventral anterior cingulate cortex… Since this and other similar studies examine the impact of an acute manipulation, the effects are likely to be phasic and short-lived but they raise the question of whether cumulative exposure to social support would induce beneficial plastic changes” (Davidson & McEwen, 2013, pp. 6-7).

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness is an increasingly popular concept among researchers and clinicians, as well as in the general population. Some researchers are particularly interested in finding out whether mindfulness and other meditation practices create changes in the brain. Some of this research has been correlational in nature, such as the brain imaging studies of long-term meditators which have found some areas of their brains to be, on average, larger than those of non-meditators (Hölzel et al., 2011). Other studies have looked at the brainwave patterns of meditators and non-meditators; when these patterns differ, researchers may claim the findings have implications for various mental factors such as the capacity for sustained attention (e.g., Lutz, Greischar, Rawlings, Ricard, & Davidson, 2004).

These studies, however, have serious limitations, two of which we will highlight here (for a thorough review see van Dam et al., 2017). The first relates to the subject groups used. In general, these groups are very small, which limits the confidence that can be placed in the findings and also calls into question whether the results can be generalised to other people and the general population. In addition, defining ‘meditators’ and ‘non-meditators’ is problematic, particularly with various researchers differing in (or being unclear about) what they mean by terms such as ‘long-term’, ‘meditator’, ‘meditation’, and ‘mindfulness’. Secondly, we cannot be sure that meditation or mindfulness practice caused the differences observed between meditators and control groups. It may be that other factors lead to such differences. It may even be that the causal arrow goes in the other direction: that people with such differences in brain structure or functioning are more or less likely to engage in meditation and mindfulness practices.

Attempts to demonstrate that mindfulness causes such changes need to use experimental methodology, and that is exactly what Hölzel et al. (2011) did. Comparing 14 people who completed a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course with 14 controls who did not, the researchers found that those engaged in the MBSR group, who reported practicing mindfulness across the course of the eight week program, had an increase in grey matter concentration in areas of the hippocampus. Given the very small sample size, that studies of brain structure are notoriously difficult to do, and that such studies regularly come up with chance results which end up being dismissed in further research (Lilienfeld et al., 2015), the results need to be interpreted with caution. 

What can damage the brain?

In addition to things we might look to in efforts to support our brain health and enhance positive neuroplasticity, we need to attend to those things that threaten both. There are time, environmental, and behavioural factors that lead to reductions in brain volume (known as atrophy), neuronal connections, and neurogenesis – changes sometimes referred to as ‘negative neuroplasticity’ (Tomaszczyk et al., 2014). There are also factors that increase neural volume in brain areas associated with problematic habits and responses to stimuli (Davidson & McEwen, 2013). The capacity of the brain to change in response to patterns of thought and behaviour can be negative, as well as positive, depending on the particular patterns we are strengthening.

In addition to age-related declines, research in animal models and some non-experimental studies in humans suggest that sleep deprivation, stress, alcohol, and other drugs of abuse can reduce neurogenesis and brain volume in important areas (Crews, Miller, Ma, Nixon, Zawada, & Zakhari, 2003; Davidson & McEwen, 2013; Guzman, Marin, & McGinty 2006; Sherman et al., 2016). In addition, holding more negative views of ageing is associated with greater age-related cognitive declines (Shaffer, 2016).

The good news is that, while further research is required, interventions promoting rehabilitation, wellbeing, and pro-social behaviour may help address these effects on the brain (Davidson & McEwen, 2013; Tomaszczyk et al., 2014). And, of course, we can take steps to get sufficient sleep, reduce stress, minimise drug use, and develop more positive views of ageing.

  1. Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032-1039. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x
  2. Crews, F. T., Miller, M. W., Ma, W., Nixon, K., Zawada, W. M., Zakhari, S. (2003). Neural stem cells and alcohol. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27(2), 324-335. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000052581.46630.C5
  3. Davidson, R. J., & McEwen, B. S. (2013). Social influences on neuroplasticity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689-695. doi: 10.1038/nn.3093
  4. Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things. London, UK: Vintage.  
  5. Guzman-Marin, R., & McGinty, D. (2006). Sleep deprivation suppresses adult neurogenesis: Clues to the role of sleep in brain plasticity. Sleep and Biological Rhythms, 4(1), 27-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8425.2006.00203.x
  6. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
  7. Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Namy, L. L., Woolf, N. J., Jamieson, G., Marks, A., & Slaughter, V. (2015). Psychology: From inquiry to understanding (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Australia: Pearson Australia.
  8. Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Rawlings, N.B., Ricard, M., Davidson, R.J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369-16373. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407401101
  9. Murphy, T., Dias, G. P., & Thuret, S. (2014). Effects of diet on brain plasticity in animal and human studies: Mind the gap. Neural Plasticity. doi:10.1155/2014/563160
  10. Rebok, G. W., Ball, K., Guey, L. T., Jones, R. N., Kim, H.-Y., King, J. W., … Willis, S. L.(2013). Ten-year effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly cognitive training trial on cognition and everyday functioning in older adults. Journal of American Geriatric Society, 62(1), 16-24. doi:10.1111/jgs.12607
  11. Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and clinical practice: Building brain power for health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1118. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118
    Sherman, S. M., Cheng, Y.-P., Fingerman, K. L., & Schnyer, D. M. (2016). Social support, stress and the aging brain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(7), 1050-1058. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv071
  12. Tomaszczyk, J. C., Green, N. L., Frasca, D., Colella, B., Turner, G. R., & Christensen, B. K. (2014). Negative neuroplasticity in chronic traumatic brain injury and implications for neurorehabilitation. Neuropsychology Review, 24(4), 409-427. doi:10.1007/s11065-014-9273-6
  13. Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … Meyer, D. E. (2017). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescription agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 36-61. doi: 10.1177/1745691617709589
Social Media: Breeding Ground for Multiple Relationships

All counsellors know about the consequences of crossing boundaries and entering dual relationships with clients.  In the ‘Digital Age of counselling’ though, how can a practitioner navigate ethically through its alien landscape? What do you do when a client ‘friend’ you on social media?

Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away

Long-term parental absence for work may be common for modern Australian families, however, it is not necessarily easier on the families who must make major adaptations in order to survive it. This article explores how this phenomenon affects the functions of family and those who experience it.


More articles: www.aipc.net.au/articles
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Each course is meticulously crafted and contains a range of learning resources including video lectures, peer-reviewed articles, case studies, workbooks, assessments, practical activities, and more. Credentials are 100% self-paced and accessible on-demand, so learners can start at any time and progress at their own pace.

Upon completion of an MHA Credential Course, you are issued with an MHA Digital Badge (an internationally-verifiable digital credential) and a professional development (CPD) Certificate of Attainment.
Currently offered MHA Credential Courses include:
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Have you visited Counselling Connection yet? Our official blog has over 500 posts counselling, psychology, self-growth, and more! Make sure you too get connected. Below is a link to one of our popular blog posts.

Helping Clients with Sleep Issues

Sleep plays a crucial role throughout our lives in helping to protect physical, mental, and emotional health; quality of life; and safety. How we feel when we are awake depends partly on what happens while we are sleeping, with damage from sleep deficiency causing not only daytime tiredness, but also interference with work, school, social functioning, and driving. This article entails some top tips from a sleep expert.


More posts: www.counsellingconnection.com
"Language can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality. This is the reason why true creativity often starts where language ends."

~ Arthur Koestler
Many students of the Diploma of Counselling attend seminars to complete the practical requirements of their course. Seminars provide an ideal opportunity to network with other students and liaise with qualified counselling professionals in conjunction with completing compulsory coursework.
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