+61-409-869-664 jan@brainpotential.net
The difference between sympathy and empathy in leadership - photo of two women - one is clearly upset and the other is comforting her.

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for the “One Moment Please” podcast and had a wonderful time answering a broad range of questions that Fiona had for me which hit on a lot of the common problems that people struggle with.

You can go ahead and listen to the full podcast below.

If you are short on time, I’ve summarised a few of the key questions and my answers (perhaps a little more eloquently now I’m not thinking on my feet) for you in this article.


Is there a genetic difference between people who are resilient and those that are less so?


Yes and No – it’s complex.

Bessel Van Der Kolk wrote a book called “The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma”.  I highly recommend this to anyone who has experienced trauma in the past and they believe is still affecting them.

The brain holds on to the memory of a significant emotional event not only in the mind but also in the body.

When we look at epigenetics, it is possible, for example, that a parent who has normalised depressive behaviour for their children may find that his or her grandchildren end up with a natural tendency to depressive behaviour too.  The DNA that has been passed down has been altered over years of experiencing that depressive behaviour.

Regardless of your genetics, it is possible to build your own resilience.

Children who grow up in a dysfunctional family environment may only need one adult they can model to pull them out of the dysfunctional behaviour.  It could be a teacher, a sports coach, a church member or even a family member who lives in a different household.

Even as an adult, focusing on eating a nutritious diet, getting plenty of exercise, quality sleep and practicing brain relaxation techniques can help you to build your resilience.  Self-awareness in the moment is essential for change to occur.  If you are experiencing fear on a regular basis – your amygdala is working in overdrive and being triggered by little things – challenge yourself and ask if there is a real reason for me to feel unsafe here?  For more information about how chronic stress affects the brain – read this article.

Developing routines for healthy daily habits can be incredibly beneficial for developing resilience.


Why does what we eat affect us to such a degree mentally?


You can say ‘we are what we eat’ so choosing unhealthy food can of course equate to being unhealthy.

It has to do also with your Autonomic Nervous System which is governed by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve (vagus meaning tributary) runs from your brainstem through to your abdomen and intestines.  Neuroscience has shown that the neurons in the vagus nerve not only receive messages from the brain to the body but send them back to the brain too.  The vagus nerve runs through all the major organs in your body including your gut (your gut covers the region from your mouth – the in region – to your bottom – your out region).

Stimulating your vagus nerve for better mental health is easy, simply sing, hum, chant, or breath out long slow breaths.

Deb Dana (2018) explains the autonomic nervous system so well by using the visual of a ladder.  Here it is explained below:

Imagine you have a ladder running through your body from the top of your head to the bottom of your torso.  From your neck up is ventral vagal, from the top of your chest to your bellybutton is sympathetic and from your bellybutton to your pelvic region is dorsal vagal.

The diagram below shows what I am referring to:

Polyvagal Diagram

When we are experiencing stress, we naturally enter the sympathetic part of the ladder which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Problems arise if we stay there too long or go there too often as we may slip down the ladder to dorsal vagal which is an unpleasant place to be.  Being in sympathetic mode for too long can also be very exhausting as you will recognise from the words in the above diagram.

The way to move up the ladder and spend more time in ventral vagal is with mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, go for a run, eat healthy food, etc.  For more ways to be more mindful, this article may give you some great tips.  It’s good to note that you can move up and down this ladder throughout the day.

In times of stress, when we choose to eat what our body may be craving such as sugary or savoury things, alcohol instead of water etc then we can upset our autonomic nervous system.

When doctors are measuring stress, they test HPA levels – H for Hypothalamus, P for Pituitary and A for Adrenals.

The hypothalamus is like the general manager of your organisation – it knows most of what’s going on but isn’t too familiar with the ground floor people.  When we experience external stress, our hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary saying “quick outside stress – internal stress – fix it!”.

The pituitary is like the floor manager who passes on the message to the adrenals (the ground floor workers) to work harder.

The adrenals are now working overtime producing adrenaline, which is what increases your heart and breathing rates, and cortisol.  Too much cortisol in your brain will give you brain fog which causes you to make less rational decisions than you otherwise would.  That’s why we reach for the chocolate in times of stress!

Calming yourself down is the key to reducing those adrenaline and cortisol levels so you can make better food choices.  If in the workplace and there’s something frustrating on your computer, try walking away and distracting your mind.  You could practice some breathing exercises or take a short walk.


Do environmental factors have a direct impact on our mental state?


Yes absolutely.  We may function well in a busy city because that’s what we are used to but an escape to the country or the beach can tune us back to basics and highlight what is important to us.

Think about where you feel best.  Most of us instinctively feel drawn to natural environments – bodies of water, trees, the sand between our toes.  It allows us to increase our self-awareness and be more in tune with how we feel which is important for both mental and physical health.

I spent a large portion of my life in Sydney where my life was hectic, I had a lot of different stresses impacting me.  Since I moved to the Gold Coast 7-8 years ago, I am much more relaxed and as a result I’m much more productive now than I ever was.

You are more productive when you are calm.

What led you to write your book “The Many Parts of You”?


In 2008 I completed a diploma of Ego State Therapy which identifies what state you are in at a given time.  For example, you may be in an angry state or a sad state or a confident state or a state of enjoyment.  We have many different ego states that we go in and out of all the time.

After completing the diploma, I realised that from a clinical therapeutic perspective, I could help a client unpack those states and become very familiar with the functionality of each state.  For example, if a client had to do a presentation for work, we could unpack every state related to that event both inhibitive and supportive.  They may have a few inhibitive states such as fear or discomfort.  They might have a state of confident which isn’t just present in this particular situation but they may have many other areas where they feel confident.

What I developed was a process called ESI (Executive State Identification) mapping where we unpack each state that is present by drawing attention to what the client is feeling and thinking when in that state.  We do that for each of the states.

When the client was able to see this visually, we would talk conversationally about how we can make the supportive state the executive for that event.  We would create a methodology for them to use in the lead up and during that event to ensure the best outcome.  What preparation could they do to help them get into that positive supportive state? What self-talk could they do? Etc.

I also spent 15 years in and out of jail… working with prison inmates and I used this process with some of them focusing on the states they were in at the time they committed a crime and whether they had other states that would be more resourceful for them.

It was then that I decided to write the book “The Many Parts of You: Understanding the Puzzle of Your Behaviour” which has since been published in both English and Finnish.  If this topic is of interest, you can purchase my book here.

The Many Parts of You Book Cover

If you feel stuck in a pattern of behaviour, what can you do to create momentum?


Our brain is like a highway of neural pathways. When a neuron is activated, it fires along some of those pathways and clusters of those pathways group together to form patterns of behaviour or a behavioural state.

The more we activate those same neurons and neural pathways, the stronger and thicker those pathways become and the more ingrained that behaviour becomes.

If the behaviour is one we would like to change, that requires us to form new neural pathways and practice our desired behaviour instead.  Continual practice and repetition will strengthen the new neural pathways.  When creating a new habit, it’s important to avoid triggers that may result in automated old behaviours.

For more in depth information about the neuroscience of habit formation, I have written an article all about it here.


Why is sleep so important?


We produce BDHD (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which helps the neural function in our brain when have good quality sleep.  If we don’t get enough quality sleep then the neurons will die off.  Whilst we have trillions of neurons, we ideally don’t want to be losing any!

Everyone has a different length of time it takes for them to fall asleep.  Going to sleep is like going down a set of stairs that are four levels and at the bottom of the stairwell is where we enter deep sleep.  Once in a deep sleep, we will come back up the stairs to enter a dreaming state and will then slowly drop back down into a deep sleep.  One of those cycles takes around 90 minutes.  Ideally we should have 4 or 5 of these cycles per night.

While we are in these cycles, the hippocampus becomes like a night time file manager.  The role the hippocampus plays is to process all the information you’ve received during the day – deleting anything that’s not required and filing things into your long term memory.

So when you don’t get quality sleep, your hippocampus is unable to do it’s file manager job and you may find that throughout the day, your memory recall is not as great as it could be.

6-8 hours of good quality sleep is essential for you to maintain optimal brain function.

If you aren’t sure if you are getting quality sleep, there are a lot of different sleep apps you can use which will measure whether you got into a deep sleep or not.  If you are having ongoing sleep issues, I recommend seeing your GP or a sleep professional to discover whether there is something else going on.

Why is it so important for leaders to do your leadership course?


The course is called the Brain Potential,  Leadership Powered by Neuroscience.

It’s about firstly understanding yourself and brain function in relation to behaviour.

We follow the Brain Potential Framework Model which is detailed below:

Brain Potential Framework Model

The foundation is psychological safety and the four main components of that are nutrition, quality sleep, exercise and brain relaxation.

Genetics and environment can also impact the foundation.

It may sound like the simplest of concepts but you would be amazed how many people struggle with at least one of those things.

Then building on that foundation are Connections, Control and Motivation and on top of that sits self-actualisation which is where we can truly begin to thrive.

Throughout the course we cover:

  • States of behaviour
  • Poly Vagal Theory and the autonomic nervous system
  • Communication Styles
  • Understanding others
  • Identifying the impact of stress on the brain
  • Strategies for coping with stress
  • Identifying and avoiding burnout

We also include coaching sessions with the course to help you implement new habit formation and support you through the material.

It’s a very comprehensive course and will help you to become a better leader and communicator in general.

If you’d like to know more about the Leadership course, you can find out more here.



If you’d like to know more about any of the things mentioned in this article, please get in touch.

The link to get my free “Brain Basics” Ebook is below so please go ahead and enter your details now.

Kind regards,

Jan Sky


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