Mental Health neurological rehab Pre Natal and Post Natal

Use Your Neuroscience to Feel Fulfilled and Grateful Now

Have you ever noticed how you can spend most of your day dwelling on the past, or worrying about and planning your future, or agonizing over your circumstances? When we are so focused in the past and future, finding fulfillment and gratitude in what we are doing now can be impossible. How can we find happiness, fulfillment and gratitude in everyday life experiences when we place little mental attention on the now?

Our morning routine, sitting in traffic, soothing a crying baby, moving with persistent pain: We plan, we daydream, we ruminate; we take in our world through a lens of interpretation and add to our ever-evolving personal story.  This type of narrative thinking throughout our day is pre-programmed and habituated in our lives. We identify ourselves through the stories we create out of our past experiences and our goals for the future.

This type of narrative focus illuminates specific neural circuitry in the medial prefrontal cortex and memory regions including the hippocampus, as in a study by Norman A. S. Farb and colleagues. In this study, mindfulness training changed the neural pathway of experience.

Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully paying attention to the details of your experience as they arise and without judgment: monitoring the state of the body and mind, as we are immersed in an activity, through sensations, tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and thoughts. With direct experience, different regions of the brain become active, including the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, regions used in perceiving body sensations and attention!

Additionally, these two neural circuits are inversely correlated, which means that one is less active while the other is active. This is why when our neural circuitry is focused on the narrative and we feel anxious and stressed about a circumstance it helps to take a deep breath and connect with your sensations in the present moment. This way we can trigger our brains to enlist the insula and anterior cingulate cortex and suppress the narrative that is poisoning our experience. We can cultivate a feeling of being grateful, a feeling of being fulfilled and a feeling of being happy in each moment by tapping into our neuroscience!



3 steps to make use of your neuroscience to feel fulfilled and grateful now:

  1. Light up your insula. Practice focusing all of your attention to a direct sense, and do it often.
  2. Find a way of practicing mindfulness that fits into your everyday life.
  3. Notice and contrast how you feel when you are experiencing your experiences as they arise, in real-time vs. in your mental narrative, or going through the motions as you plan, dwell or anticipate.


I use this process in my everyday life experiences. For example, when my baby is crying, I like to focus on the sensation of her weight in my arms and the sensation of her breathing and mine as she is pressed against my chest. By keeping my insula active even in times that could be considered stressful, I am able to remain calm and grateful for each moment with her, even if she is inconsolable.


Not thinking about the past, future or yourself through a narrative story, but experiencing the information presented to all of your senses in real time, allows us to be more adaptable in our interactions.  By focusing on the present moment, we experience life unencumbered by our past, habits, expectations or assumptions, therefore cultivating a feeling of fulfillment and gratitude in each moment.


Find a way of practicing mindfulness that fits into your everyday life. With enough practice, you can change your neuroscience and create greater gratitude and fulfillment in your everyday life experiences.


neurological rehab

Feel, Feel, Feel! Creating Change through Attention to Sensation

John* (*name changed to preserve privacy) fell while at work and suffered a fifth cervical vertebrae (C5) compression fracture and was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia. Spinal nerves carry messages to the muscles for movement and each of the muscles in our body has a corresponding nerve innervation at the level of the spinal cord. When this pathway is disrupted in spinal cord injury, the muscles that receive their signals from below the level of injury can’t receive the signal to move, preventing the muscle from firing. In incomplete spinal cord injury, not all of the nerve fibers have been severed and the person has the potential for regaining motor function (each person in his specific circumstances to an individual degree).

When John was referred to me for occupational therapy he demonstrated emerging movement in both upper extremities. John was able to demonstrate movement at the elbow, wrist and some movement in the fingers. John was experiencing movement below his level of injury (finger and thumb movement is at the eighth cervical level, C8 to the first thoracic level, T1). Although John could flex his fingers in making a fist, and extend his fingers to open his hand, he could not grasp objects functionally because he could not integrate his thumb into his grasp (think about picking up a cup to take a drink!). John wanted to be able to use his cell phone, drink from a cup, get himself dressed, golf, return to work and everything that was important to him in his life.

Every time that John would try to grasp using the full function of his hand, he would move his thumb slightly and then his thumb would stick tight to his palm as the rest of his arm would lock up, co-contracting every muscle in his arm at the same time in full effort. John’s body was trying to compensate for what he was unable to do with the use of other muscles. In one session we were able to make changes through attention to sensation and this is how we did it:

John closed his eyes. I asked him to focus 100% of his attention on the sensation of his hand supported on the table. I had him move the thumb, just in the very small range he had before the aggressive co-contraction of the rest of his arm and FEEL it! We did this a few times and each time when he would start to move into the range where co-contraction occurred, STOP! He felt the sensation of the movement without the co-contractions and then he felt the sensation with the co-contractions. He could then differentiate the two very different attempts to move the thumb. Finally, I had him coordinate his movement with his breath: inhale the thumb out and exhale, grasp. Through ruthless attention on the sensation that each movement created, and calming, reorganizing the nervous system with breath, John was able to move his thumb through the full range necessary to grasp and release.

Attention Matters!

If you want to make change in the body, especially after neurological injury, take the time to concentrate on your sensations and use that knowledge to create change. Focusing mental attention stimulates neurons to produce strong connections between them. New or stronger neural connections rapidly respond. In addition, pranayama or deep breathing (diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing) can help set the stage for producing neuronal connections by calming and organizing the nervous system. So check it out in your own experience: Can you create change through attention to sensation?