On the Couch with… Stephen Ashley | The Gut-Brain Connection

One of the exciting aspects of psychotherapy from a professional point of view is the increasing convergence between older theoretical propositions and current neurological and bio-chemical research. Increasingly real science goes on to find proof for some of the theories postulated more than a century ago. We know now and can prove that successful therapy really does facilitate the development of new neural pathways in the brain.

These new pathways support changes in behaviour, effectively giving choice over old ways of being that have failed to deliver happy and purposeful lives and relationships. Sometimes we talk of this as re-programming because essentially this is what happens.


In childhood as our brains physically grow they are wired by experiences (and all over again during adolescence) and we develop ways of being, or personality. If our experiences in childhood are “good enough” we develop a reasonably stable and secure sense of self. We see ourselves in relation to others and to the world as good enough. We are confident and can manage life’s difficulties without being unduly stressed. We make life decisions that are good for us and allow us to develop and have a sense of purpose and value regarding our achievements and in our relationships, whether romantic, familial, in friendships or at work.  Where childhood brings experience that is not “good enough”, and yet not necessarily obviously traumatic, then our sense of self is impaired. We don´t have good self-confidence or self-worth and often for no obvious reasons seem to repeatedly end up in relational situations that preclude happiness and contentment.


A second exciting development is where science goes on to prove old beliefs and sayings. Gut feeling is an example. In psychotherapy I have said for many years that when we get our brains and bellies working in harmony we can make good life decisions relatively easily. It is amazing too that in more than 20 years as a psychotherapist many, many people I have worked with find their lives governed by their stomachs. Either emotion and anxiety keeps them glued to the loo or anxious about where the next working facility might be as they try to go about their day-to-day lives.


Although not a brand-new discovery, we know now that gut feeling, or in less dramatic situations, “butterflies”, is a sensation emanating in the stomach from an enormous network of neurons that line our guts. Many people now talk, write and research what is often called our “second brain”.


We know that while the second brain is not a decision maker in terms of intellectual or moral decision making, it is not there merely to control our digestive system. This neural tissue mass works with our actual brain (full of many times more but the same type of neuro transmitters) to determine our mood and mental state. Furthermore, in conjunction with stomach flora and fauna, the second brain exercises great significance in triggering the development (or not) of some organic disease. More of this later.


Your thoughts and reflections are always welcome. Until next time…

Stephen Ashley


Psychotherapist Stephen Ashley writes a monthly column for our website.

For more information on him, go to his website:

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