02 Jul Ten Questions With Shelley Laslett
This week’s Ten With Taryn I’m hanging out with the fabulous Shelley Laslett, Neuroscience Coach and master of rewiring the brain. We cover lots of ground including how a negative body image can cause weight gain (hello stress hormone cortisol) and why we should take hurt feelings as seriously as physical injury. It’s a BRILLIANT read, grab a cuppa and enjoy – and don’t forget to leave a comment, we love feedback x
1. For the average punter like me, in layman terms what the heck is neuroscience?
Shelley you have one of the most impressive resumes, you’re a social scientist with an anthropology major and worked with brands including: The Walt Disney Company, Verizon, IBM and NASDAQ, and if that weren’t enough you’re also completing your postgraduate studies in Neuroscience at Kings College London. You’ve devoted the past 10 years of your life studying people and mostly recently neuroscience. So firstly why neuroscience?
Haha that makes me sound quite impressive. But trust me there has been a lot of side moves and self-doubt along the way.
Neuroscience is simply the study of the brain and the nervous system. There are different areas of Neuroscience (just like any science) but my focus is on social neuroscience. Social neuroscience is about understanding what our brain does during social interactions and the underlying processes of social interactions themselves. In essence, we seek to understand why do we humans do, think and behave the way we do, and what do we need to not only function effectively but also excel and thrive.
The why which motivates my work and my never ending research is because I love people. I find us, and our incredible brains fascinating. I have always loved people, and believe that in the right environment(s), with the right support and education humans are capable of truly incredible things. My focus on neuroscience is motivated by this cruel irony, that we all have a brain, we all own our brain, it is the thing which determines everything for us in this lifetime, and yet most of us don’t know how it actually works. We seek to close that gap. To take the complex world of social neuroscience out of the lab and simply into people’s everyday life.
Because learning about our minds – ourselves and how to influence our minds, actually influences everything and our entire life. If we want a better future, to advance ourselves and our societies we must start better understanding ourselves because the first place external change and growth happens is internally – within us.
2. How can we apply neuroscience principles to support our journey to embracing our bodies?
Gosh! So many ways. There is a huge amount of literature and practices with neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and psychologists (including the awesome Tami and Glenn) who help people practice this everyday. But below are three neuroscience principles which are important to help us embrace our bodies.
1. Hurt Feelings really do Hurt.
The old saying sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me is actually a big lie. Here’s why – physical pain and emotional pain are the same to the brain. When we are offended, threatened and hurt by words (online and in person) it’s the same as when we are offended and threatened by physical threats. Yet how often do we take hurt feelings as seriously as physical injury? How often are we told to ‘get over’ nasty comments online or let the ‘haters hate’? Well that’s kind of the same as saying, just ‘get over’ that broken leg, just ignore it and go for a run! We need to start acknowledging and respecting emotional hurt, social judgement and body shaming in the same way we acknowledge and respect physical threat and pain.
Neurologically, when we are emotionally and/or physically threatened, our brain moves into an away state. Shifting neurological energy away from our prefrontal cortex and redirecting it towards our limbic system, namely our amygdala (our fight and flight response) because our brains primary job is to keep us alive. When we are threatened and/or offended we go into survival mode. Our stress rises, and our ability to maintain perspective and being able to ‘ignore it’ or brush it off significantly decreases. Knowing words can hurt as much as the physical and be as destructive, choose them wisely and use them carefully.
Getting upset about someone commenting on your body about what they think is ‘healthy’ for you is allowed. It’s ok and it’s normal. It’s your brain doing its thing. So we need not to be too harsh on ourselves. We need to acknowledge that these comments can hurt, but we can reduce their sting, reduce their effect, simply by the way we think about those people and those comments. Which is point 2. Gosh! So many ways. There is a huge amount of literature and practices with neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and psychologists (including the awesome Tami and Glenn) who help people practice this everyday. But below are three neuroscience principles which are important to help us embrace our bodies.
2. Loving your body starts and ends with a choice.
When you change the way you look at things – things change. This isn’t just nice inspo that rolls around Instagram. This is neuroscience, and it relates to a neurological principle called reframing. What we know of reframing is that when we change our emotional response to a situation, how we see the situation (within our minds) and thereby feel about the situation it changes. This can happen independent of there being no external change. Meaning that you don’t have to wait for outside factors to change a situation, for you to change how you feel about it.
This applies equally to embracing. To love your body, to start looking at your body for the incredible masterpiece that it is can occur without surgery, losing that weight or dropping a dress size. Using reframing, and seeing her body as an awesome vehicle to her dreams, and not an imperfect or less than object, Taryn changed her brain. She learnt to re-wire, change and rebuild the view of the body she once ‘hated’ to create the body she now loves, despite her physical body not changing. This is the power of your brain, and using this reframing hack, we are going to teach you do the same. We are going to teach you how to perform neuroplastic surgery on yourself. 🙂
3. Connection & Tribe = Happiness & a Healthy Brain
Connection with other humans is not just a ‘nice to have’ it’s a neurological need. It is a primal condition to not only survival, but also to having a high performing brain and balanced mental health. Being connected, acknowledged by your group and connected in your society is hugely important to our happiness because humans are social creatures. When we are judged by society for how we look, or we feel we are being shamed for our appearance it sounds off threat alarm bells within our mind.
When we feel socially isolated or restricted in what activities we participate in (going to the beach, eating out, going shopping etc) we start to feel disconnected from the process and the people this social interaction involves. Remembering that social pain and physical pain are the same (point 1 above), when we start to feel attacked by other people’s judgement, we start to cautiously and hesitantly approach what should be fun, joyous and stress-free social situations. If you have ever avoided these situations or felt scared or fearful of these social situation – don’t worry, nothing is wrong with you. Your brain is just doing its primary role – trying to keep you safe. Being on the outer because of how you look is hugely painful to the brain because it denies your brain it’s primal need – social connection. Please don’t ever judge yourself for feeling that way, it’s normal and it’s part of being human.
Yet how we can use this same process to help us embrace is to actively remind ourselves that we are safe. That our bodies are our business and not anybody else’s. And that we are always safe within our own bodies, no matter what. We can also use the neurological need of connection as the flag that we are not connected with our tribe. Your tribe, your friends, family and anyone in your life that loves you just as you are. They love you. They protect you and they don’t let you talk down to yourself. This program is all about extending your tribe, connecting you with women who are going to back you and protect you. Who are going to love you and that awesome body of yours, just as you are.
3. So many people have given up on the possibility of learning to love the skin they are in. Can we retrain our brain to think more positively about our bodies?
Yes! 100% – you can absolutely retrain and change your brain. We are able to do this because of Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity means that our brain and our nervous system are plastic. They are malleable, capable of being remodelled and rewired in response and experiences throughout our lifetime. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s incredible ability to reorganise, rewire itself, forming new neural connections. This principle also allows neurons (nerve cells) within our brain to respond, rebuild, reorientate and adjust especially when brain injury and disease occurs. It is the reason stroke patients can learn to walk, talk and move again but also more humbly, the reason why we can learn, grow and change our opinions, our thoughts and ourselves throughout our lifetime.
It is because of this incredible principle that my answer is a big yes! You can learn to love the skin we’re in. You’re not born hating your body. You’re not born with any concept of what ‘healthy’ is or ‘attractive’ looks like. We learn this from being in the world. In the same way we easily learnt these often unhealthy ideas, behaviours and patterns around body image, we can just as easily unlearn them and replace them with more healthy, loving and reasoned ideas about our body. All it takes to change our brain (because of our plasticity) is choice. So the moment you decide to start loving your body is the moment these changes start to occur.
I also just want to call out that our brains are plastic throughout our lifetime. Our brains are plastic until we die. So no one is ever too old, too young, too anything to change. Change is possible at any given moment.
4. We have over 70,000 thoughts a day, which quite frankly doesn’t surprise me, my mind never stops thinking, assessing and analysing but it can be tiring! Is brain fatigue a thing and if so, how can we treat our brain to some self-care?
That is one figure yes. Though there isn’t a strong consensus on this yet. Some researchers think 5,000 per day, others suggest up to 80,000 per day. Though despite the inconsistencies, you are right, our brain does an incredible amount of processing each day, requiring a huge amount of energy to do so, and thereby daily refuelling (eating), recharging and sleep.
We can certainly reduce our cognitive capabilities and make decisions, such as sacrificing sleep, eating poorly, ignoring signs of stress and fatigue which will certainly compromise our brain’s ability to work effectively. There are a number of physiological (physical illness) illnesses and mental illnesses that can affect the brain but the one which mostly affects all of us, and our brains ability to function is our lifestyle choices, and stress. Namely chronic stress. It’s worth noting, this is a massive area in itself and one which researchers spend a lot of time on.
So to keep it simple, below are three ways you can limit and neurologically bust this stress.
1. Moving more – increasing oxygen to the brain (via movement and exercise) helps with executive functioning and emotional regulation, making it easier to dampen your stress and emotionally regulate your responses to stress. Walking (and any exercise) also releases endorphins (happy hormones) which improves the prioritising functions of the brain. After exercise, even a light walk, you are more focussed, less distracted and thereby more productive. Regular exercise greatly improves your body’s ability to manage stress and thereby your cognitive performance.
2. Sleeping more – getting enough sleep, 7–9 hours a night is vital for a healthy mind and a healthy body. Sleep helps you move effectively, regulate your emotions, see things clearly and more effectively manage stress. Sleep is a restoring, processing and repairing time for your brain. Your brain is incredibly active when asleep, and in some cases more than when you’re awake. Sleep is still work and what you need for the working day, it is not the absence of work. Getting enough sleep helps you better manage stress and actually reduces your stress levels. Sleep is tonight’s investment in tomorrow’s output.
3. Eating well – Eating wholefoods, which have a low Glycemic Index (GI), like whole-grains, proteins and low-fat dairy can help you combat stress and remain more even tempered throughout the day. Additionally, foods which are high in GI increase feelings of stress. The high GI foods which increase the feelings of stress are; sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, foods with additives and foods high in saturated fat. Avoiding these in times of stress and replacing them with low GI options is a quick and easy solution to help reduce your stress levels.
5. How long does it take for the brain to form or break a habit? For example, if someone wants to break the routine of weighing themselves every day or if someone wants to form a regular fitness routine.
This is a bit of a complicated area, because it is hugely dependent on, one the individual, two the length they’ve practiced this habit, and three whether it’s an addiction. Remember, a lot of things, not just substances or gambling can have addictive qualities and/or can become an addiction.
Though for the average habit to be busted open it takes ~2 months (66 Days). This timeframe applies to the average length of time for a behaviour to become automatic and prioritised. This research from spearheaded by Psychologist Philipa Lally from University College London.
This is a general guide for changing habits, but it can happen far quicker and/or slower depending on what techniques people are using, and namely how much they actually want to change. The most important thing to remember is that your brain is plastic until you die and it is designed to change, so any change you want to drive is possible with your willpower and belief behind it. This conscious change is something we called neuroplastic surgery. Your brain is performing neuroplastic surgery (changing, rewiring, reprioritising updating, upgrading) all the time. So when we actively choose our thoughts, become conscious of our internal dialogue and start to proactively and consciously drive the change we want, our brain will prioritise it more and thereby, accelerate the change.
Additionally, as we know from the neuroscience of reframing, the moment you decide to change your emotional response, your feelings to the situation, the situation changes. So learning to love your body, establishing a healthy routine and stopping the torture of the scales all starts with the willingness to do so. The conscious choice to change, to perform neuroplastic surgery on yourself, is half the change already complete.
6. Last year I had the pleasure of watching you wow an audience on stage in Fiji, one of the nuggets of gold I took away was “Imagining and doing are the same thing.” Can you explain this principle and how it can be applied to developing a positive body image.
Ahh yes. This incredible principle. Your brain really does have a tough time distinguishing between doing and imagining – to the point that they are actually the same. What we think or imagine happening, causes the same chemical and neurological response as if it is actually happening in that moment. This is why previous painful memories of injuries, physical and emotional, can still envoke feelings of pain and discomfort despite the wound being healed or that time being in the past. And conversely why, retelling a funny story can have you in hysterics in the same way you were when it first happened.
What we think and feel, what we remember and recall literally creates what we see and influences what we do in the moment and how we see the future. Because of this principle, our thoughts literally do become our reality.
Though the coolest part about this neurological principle and how we can best use it to help us embrace is to use our imagination as the neurological tool to literally change our mind. Using our imagination, subsequent visualisation and cultivation of the positive feelings we want to feel about our body and our brain can start to create that reality. When we focus on the feeling we want, how we want to feel in our body and imagining what loving ourselves feels like – we start creating that idea of our body as our reality. We give our brain a clear directive of how we want to feel and what we want to focus on. So it prioritises the view and reorganises itself accordingly. We switch from autopilot into epic fighter pilot mode. The more we mentally rehearse loving our bodies, viewing our bodies as the incredible things they are, the more we prioritise these thoughts and the more practiced and thereby stronger these pathways and ideas become. The more we imagine how we want to feel in our body, the more we physically create that reality.
This isn’t just some nice ‘secret’ woo woo stuff, this is neuroscience. Athletes and sport psychologists have been using this principle to help people reach their peak and accelerate healing post-injury. To help assist their rehab and strengthen their mental pathways, athletes use mental mind practice as they cannot physically practice. Athletes literally practice using their injured limbs in their heads as if they weren’t injured. This mental training hugely enhances recovery.
The epic visualization tool isn’t just available to athletes – it’s available to everyone. Research has demonstrated that mental training, and visualisation can be almost as effective as physical training in terms of physically changing the body. In one piece of research, people who simply imagined doing biceps curls actually increased their muscle mass in their bicep by almost as much as those who physically pumped iron and did the bicep curls for the same period of time. What we imagine, what we create and what we tell ourselves really does create not only the body we see, but the body itself.
7. What is your most mind-blowing fact about the brain?
Gah! This is way too hard. There are so many. But the one which continues to blow me away, relates to epigenetics.
Epigenetics relates to our genetics. Our Genes, are sections of our DNA. DNA determines not only how we look, but also shapes how we are, and really how our entire life can play out. Epigentics refers to the ‘markings’ on our DNA. These markings are unique encryptions and coding which provides instructions for what our DNA should and/or shouldn’t do in certain situations. How it should mutate and respond. We used to believe that our Genes and DNA were set and locked, and any changes could not be influenced by us, our choices or our environment.
Yet what scientists have discovered through Epigenetics is that our choices do significantly impact how our genes behave. That is, that our ongoing, daily lifestyle choices, our stress, our environments, our homes and workplaces and our associated thoughts play a pivotal role in turning our genes on or off. What this means in a practical sense is that, you, as Dr Lisa Moscani says: “…have the power to activate or silence your genes.”
This is so important because how we treat our bodies, what we do with them, and the way we feel about them can actually affect how our body changes. It also means that we are not slaves to our genetics. If we come from a long line of larger or smaller relatives, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be the same. It’s what we do with our body, how we respond to situations in our lifetime that affects most of our health.
This is awesome to me, because it really does affirm that you are the master of your own destiny simply by your own design. You don’t have to wait for permission from anyone to start shaping your future.
8. You once said that before you watched Embrace the documentary you thought to yourself “I am good; I’ve dealt with my body issue demons” only to find out 10 minutes into the film that they were still there. What happened?
Gah yes! This was actually really confronting. I first watched the documentary on a flight (next to a colleague) and about 10 mins in I started welling up. To his horror, (he’s never seen me become emotional) and my embarrassment I couldn’t hold my tears back.
Firstly, I was so angry. I was so angry about the absolute lies and corrupted view of women’s bodies that we had been fed. This curse of perfectionism, and lack of diversity that represented women and their bodies. I grew up hating my body. Especially as a teenager. I was athletic, I had a booty, abs and muscular legs. This might be in fashion now, but it wasn’t when I was younger. I hated my strong build, I wanted smaller thighs and less shape. Which breaks my own heart now as I write it, because those are the things my sport, my exercise, my therapy created for me, but I couldn’t connect the two at the time. I thought more exercise just meant weight loss. Which is because that’s what the media told me.
Unfortunately, by my late teens and my early-20s the situation had become much worse. My inner perfectionist was raging. I needed to be perfect at everything I did. Nothing but my best would do, and I was so critical and so cruel to myself and my poor body. I was severely undereating and over-exercising. Obsessively. This wreaked havoc on my metabolism. This hugely unhealthy lifestyle combined with intense working hours (70+ hours per week) in London, huge amounts of work stress and anxiety meant despite the restrictive dieting and intense exercise I wasn’t losing weight, I was putting it on. Excessive Cortisol, a stress hormone associated with chronic stress is a massive contributor to weight gain and that’s what was happening to me.
I never got beyond a UK size 12 but I felt huge. I would buy sizes bigger than I needed because I thought I was that big. I was suffering heavily from anxiety and body dysmorphia. Whilst, fortunately, I never got to the point of anorexia or bulimia – I was very unwell. This lifestyle ended up causing me a number of broader health complications, thyroid problems and required an entire overhaul of my approach to not only my body, but my life.
This didn’t just happen overnight. It took months, in some aspects years and still it requires daily reminders. It took self-therapy, some real therapy, a completely different approach to food and exercise but above all else a fierce commitment to myself and my unwavering desire to fall in love with my body. To start honouring and loving it in the way it deserved to be loved. I had to learn to love my imperfectly perfect self exactly as it was in that moment. NOT when I saw my abs popping or dropped a dress size.
To help on this journey, I worked with a coach, who was trained in nutrition, exercise physiology and psychology – namely body dysmorphia. I cannot express how much this saved me. If it was not for this person and their incredibly healthy approach I truly worry where I would be. We worked together for 4 and a half years and he was remote. We lived in two different countries, and eventually two different hemispheres, but no matter where I was, I knew he had my back. I was part of a broader online community full of men and women all on a similar journey and together we all helped each other. That’s the power of coaches and community. They have your back no matter what. They are your courage, your strength, your positivity and loving perspective when you can’t muster the courage and strength in yourself.
This community, and the Embrace You community, are exactly that. They are the most powerful catalyst to change to learning to love your body that you can ever give yourself. I could never have learnt to love my body and embrace my body without the support of my community. This process continues today. Embracing is kind of never done. Loving your body and continually loving yourself is a constant journey. Which is what watching Embrace reminded me. I needed to up my embracing a touch more during that time.
So while, I am so much better, healthier, balanced and happier than I was, watching Embrace and my subsequent tears reminded me how bad it almost was for me, how far I’ve come, but mostly how proud I am. Because the woman I am today, the body I have learnt to love is something I fought so hard, so unbelievably hard to do. Climbing out of that dark place I had created for my body in my mind by allowing myself to fall in love with my perfectly human self has been the hardest relationship of my entire life – but it is the most important and most fundamental.
I share this very personal account because I know if I can do this, you can do this! I know, if I can change my perspective, if I can rewire my brain to love the same body that I once wished I never lived in, you can too. All it takes is a choice and a kick ass community. Conveniently, you have both things in front of you. 🙂
9. I know you are a speed demon because I ran with you at Bondi (actually just tried to keep up) fitness seems to be a big part of your life, why is moving your body so important to you?
Haha – you killed it when we ran together. Plus, I have never run a marathon, so you have the upper hand there. 😉
Fitness to me isn’t just about physical health, it’s about mental health. I exercise and move to keep myself sane. I have always been that way. I wrote my first fitness schedule when I was 7-years-old, not because of how I looked, but because I loved moving.
I was quite an anxious child, but I noticed that when I was active, my anxiety wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t feel bad about myself when I was moving. I was a super athletic kid. I loved sports. You could say, that’s because I was good at it, but it was actually because I knew even from an early age, it helped me feel better and safer in my own skin. The physical movement kept me in the moment, it stopped me worrying about everything. The team sports I played challenged me and showed me the healthy side of competition, respect and sportsperson discipline. It wasn’t just about winning or being better than others, it was about learning and growing myself.
Exercise is still my biggest stress management tool (coupled with meditation) – but as my time gets more precious and life gets busier, it has become more about freedom. The freedom and the privilege to move. No one can move your body but you. It’s your own and when you workout you’re in tune with it – you’re in the moment focussed on what you’re doing. Exercise is all about honouring, respecting and worshiping the brilliance of your design and what you can do. We are designed to move. Our bodies are incredible and every time I have the privilege to move I am grateful for it.
Whenever I am feeling blue, training without a doubt will pick me up, and lift the cloud and allow me to see things with perspective and positivity. This is no mistake. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to how physical exercise helps combat, treat and deter mental illness. Helping to support happy and healthier minds overall. For me, exercise will always be my therapy.
10. What advice would you give someone to embrace and love their body more?
There is so much I can say to this and so many ways, but the fundamental principle is that what you think creates your reality. We know this to be the case for a number of neurological principles mentioned above. So the first step to controlling the outside view (how you view yourself), is controlling the internal conversation (how you speak to yourself).
One of the easiest principles or filters you can apply to your internal state, your internal thought processes is to be kind and loving to yourself. To speak to yourself, in the same way that your best friend would speak to you. To speak to yourself as softly, as kindly, as lovingly and as respectfully as your best friend would speak to you.
To continually embrace your body and fall more and more in love with how truly incredible it is by design, use your best friend filter. Your best friend filter works like this. If your best friend wouldn’t say it to you – STOP saying it to yourself. Learning to embrace and love ourselves starts by loving ourselves like the lovely people in our lives love us. Or for all those parents out there, this is similar to the way we unconditionally and kindly love our children. If you wouldn’t speak to your child in such an unkind way, why would you speak to yourself like that?
Your body isn’t your enemy, it’s your beautiful home. It is the only place you will ever live. But while you can’t change the address, and move to someone else’s body, you can change what you do with your special, unique and beautiful location. Beauty isn’t how you look, it’s how you feel. And how you feel, what you tell yourself, what messages, substances and ideas you feed yourself with and fuel your home (your body) with is very much your choice. This choice, and choosing to Embrace is a constant journey. We must continue to love our body and thereby our brain throughout our lifetime as they both change.
Which unsurprisingly, is exactly what our brain and body wants and needs to thrive. We know that our brain’s and thereby our body’s number one focus is to keep us alive. That means being kind, loving and careful with ourselves is our brain’s and our 100 Billion neurons key focus. Your brain wants you to be safe and feel safe at all times. That includes being safe within your own skin. Your body and your brain doesn’t want to be constantly stressed out, worried and fearful of how it looks based on some external ideas from society. It wants you to be happy. It wants you to honour and love all the work it does to keep you functioning, healthy and happy. You just need to give it permission to do so and that starts with the choice to do so. The moment you decide to make peace with yourself and with your body, is the movement you brain starts doing all it can to make this desire a reality.
Shelley Laslett is a guest facilitator on the Embrace You program. Embrace You has a 94% success rate. Want more time, energy, clarity, joy and fun? Learn more here
Shelley Laslett Bio
Shelley Laslett is the CEO and Co-Founder of Vitae. Coach (Vitae) – a coaching company that combines neuroscience with technology. Vitae uses the principles of neuroscience, neuroplasticity and brainwave technology to help people unlock their brain and accelerate personal and organisational growth. Vitae works with individuals, startups and high growth businesses. Shelley has a background in social science and is currently completing her MSc in Applied Neuroscience at King’s College in London.
Shelley is also a startup advisor, startup mentor at Techstars, startup board member, brain-based coach and international speaker. Previously, Shelley was the General Manager of YBF Ventures – a startup incubator and has also been part of corporate venturing teams. Prior to entering the startup world, Shelley was an international strategy and innovation consultant with Accenture throughout EMEA.
She has helped a number of companies evolve, change and bring their new ideas to life. Some of the companies Shelley has worked with include; The Walt Disney Company, Salesforce, NASDAQ, AgriDigital, Airtasker, Deloitte, Diageo Futures, WeWork Labs, Founders Factory, Founders Intelligence, Cover Genius, SKY Plc, Optus, Lloyds Banking Group, Huckletree, Commonwealth Bank, Tank Stream Labs, Springboard Enterprises, ANZ Bank, Sunculture, Bupa, Qantas, Dentsu Aegis Network, Innovation Bay, Fonterra, IBM, Royal Dutch Shell, Tech Ready Women and EY.
Poppy Renegade describes Shelley as, “…unlike anyone you’ve ever met before. She has an infectious, yet calming energy, a brilliant mind and a powerful presence. Shelley is blazing her own trail and lifting others to new heights along the way.”