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Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen explores the hardwiring of our brains, and this can send us into fight or flight mode. She also offers some helpful tips to avoid traps and triggers for ourselves.


We thought it might be helpful to give a (very) brief overview of the hardwiring we humans have evolved with. If we can understand this, we are better placed to look out for traps and triggers. By gaining an understanding of this function, we can recognise and respond in ways that will work more effectively for us.


The brain is complex and while we are not in any way neuroscientists, there are three parts of the brain that usually work in perfect synchronisation:



1. The lower brain/ brain stem

The part of our brain that is responsible for survival—controlling our heartbeat, breathing, and other autonomic functions “fight, flight or freeze” -excellent survival strategies (for cavemen -less so for modern dwellers).



2. The mid/ limbic brain

The emotional centre. We refer to this as the alarm threat detect and response control centre.



3. The forebrain/prefrontal cortex

The logical, rational part of the brain. This brain is responsible for the regulation of logic, creativity, problem solving, language, and perspective- the sensible part.



In the presence of threat (real or perceived) brain 1 and 2 close ranks and go into work mode, whilst brain 3 struggles to keep up…can you see where this going? This is a primitive, involuntary response which is essential for our continued survival. It's efficient, perhaps too efficient, but imagine if we did not have this system (the Dodo – now extinct).


So, with the constant news and reminders of this unprecedented global crisis and threat to human life, job losses, isolation, is it any wonder we are feeling this way? In a fear situation like a pandemic our minds and body will react in this way whether you think you're scared or not - anxiety is even more infectious than COVID19. Your body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn't.



Tips on how to manage this


Focus on what is in your control

How coronavirus spreads, the economic situation is NOT within control but how you show up each day IS. Set your goal for the day, structure and routine will give you a sense of focus and purpose. Watch less news and spend less time scrolling through social media – our threat seeking minds like to constantly look for threats, it’s not helpful.


Notice your thoughts and feelings

Our minds never stop thinking, the goal is to be the observer of your thoughts, and not be controlled by them. Allow emotions in. To fight with emotions is like having a tug of war with a monster- the more you pull the more the monster will pull. Let go of the rope and name the emotion, change how you relate to it and let it pass. It's ok not to feel ok.


Communicate with others about how you're feeling

It's likely they can relate (but only if they know). If you are worried about your job then talk to your employers, if you are concerned about your finances, talking to banks, lenders, service providers. These are all things that are within your control.


Engage fully in what you're doing

Pay attention to things in the present moment. Notice how often the mind will pull you back to its chatter, practice shifting attention back to the activity in hand. If it’s a struggle to do this, notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste (5,4,3,2,1 technique). Make this part of your daily routine. Short regular mindfulness practice has been proven to improve wellbeing.



Be aware of your breathing

This sounds so simple, but longer, slower deeper belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and signals to the midbrain (brain 2) that all is well and can deactivate the fight flight response.


Take care of your physical health

Drinking water, eating, and moving also help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which reassures the sympathetic response that all is well.


Consider your personal values

What sort of person do you want to be? How do you want to treat others, yourself and the world? Take action towards these. At OK Positive the values we adhere to are connection, courage, communication and commitment, and there is an endless list of values out there.

Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen tells us about taking some time to herself and reflecting on how this made her feel



Today I had my first session with The Impact Guru, Esther, something I have committed to for me. I did not discuss it with anyone, just decided that this is work I have been needing to do for a long time. My career has always been around caring for others, and being a mum also involves muchous caring, so why should it be so difficult to make an investment in me?


After a bright start (due to a left in hair roller), Esther highlighted some things about me that my future audience might like to hear.


I felt a real sense of 'wow I can actually do this'

We closed the session with some action points, but what happened next? I noticed a light feeling and a sense of pride as I took the puppy for a walk, and then ideas started forming in my head (made a change from the endless to do lists).


I also had a real connection with my imposter syndrome, and how as much as it tries to help, it really does get in the way of me doing what I am so capable of doing.

Later that evening, carrying all these feelings, I climbed up Dougle’s hill to admire spectacular views, and watched the most spectacular sunset. I embraced the strong and capable woman I know I am.


And I felt….


on top of the world...this is what happens when we take care of you

Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen tells us about her personal experience of taking the plunge every morning into the sea and how she stays true to her values.


Living my life in clear sight my values matters to me!


Life sure as hell is uncertain and often challenging, but I try and live more from my heart and less from my head. Accepting that in order to be adventurous, strong, courageous and bold in my actions means that unpleasant experiences may arise. Connecting with the world around me serves as a reminder that I am part of something way bigger than my own experiences and keeps me on track (some of the time).


Moving from Edinburgh to a remote village in NW Highland‘s of Scotland in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was a challenge, life is on hold. Without any effort, a group of likeminded fierce and fabulous women met at a local early morning yoga class (pre 2nd lockdown), and magic happened. Every morning for the past few months, when the alarm goes off, despite it being cold (freezing), I get up, pull on some warm, easy to "put on in a hurry" clothes, and make my way down through the village to the woods to the secluded white shore.


Cautiously undressing next to the rock where the freezing wind chill brings to mind some familiar thoughts “what the hell are you doing”you could have stayed in bed, you have a busy day ahead” but knowing what's ahead, I keep going. One foot, then the other into freezing cold water. The urge to just walk back out is very present “who in their right mind”. The icy cold sea water shocks my body and the thoughts shout "you don't need to do this" and I want to stop. But I take a nice slow breath in, look ahead at the beautiful pink sky, the snow on the hills or the morning fishing boats heading out to sea for their daily catch. I breathe a longer more mindful breath, tell myself "you've got this" and slowly glide in.


Connecting with something much bigger than my experience, an eco system, something to nurture, and it feels exhilarating

A really pleasant tingling sensation surrounds my body, accompanied by a real sense of pride, for willingly putting myself in the North Sea. On the more challenging days I discovered that singing 80s pop classic‘s helps. I stay in just until my neoprene glove covered hands begin to feel that "funny" way, sometimes not very long at all. As I leave the water and my whole body as red as a lobster (must be good for the circulation), I notice I am smiling it feels brilliant!- so worth the effort.


Ready to take on the day and the challenges ahead feeling pleased with myself for showing up. Even on the most bitterly cold days I have NEVER regretted a swim but, I have and do often regret pressing snooze on my alarm and scrolling mindlessly on my phone.


These cold plunges into the North sea illustrate that there are actions we can take towards being the person we want to be. If my anxious mind had it‘s way I would of course have more comfortable and less challenging mornings BUT, I would never have these exhilarating experiences.


In order to feel BRILL just go ahead feel the chill.....