Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Daily brain training can moderate moods
Stress for Success
May 29, 2012

Brain training based on current brain research can help diminish what haunts you mentally and cultivate better moods.
According to the authors of “Buddha’s Brain” Drs. Hanson & Mendius, to make progress on this, you must let go of regretting what has already happened and worrying about what the future may hold. Both the past and the future are beyond your control. All you can do is deal with is your present reality.
Evolving brain research, as covered in their excellent book, offers suggestions on how to shape your present reality to influence your future in a variety of ways. For instance, if you’re trying desperately to stop a defensive reaction to someone who hooks you emotionally, when you’re with this person take a very deep, slow breath and exhale more than you just inhaled. This breathing style triggers the relaxation response (the calming parasympathetic nervous system). It allows you to “choose” a more appropriate and hopefully calmer response. Doing this won’t guarantee you’ll actually change your defensive reaction but it facilitates the change if you want to make it badly enough.
Or when you relive an upsetting experience, like doing poorly in an interview, make yourself recall the feeling of an experience when you were very competent, impressive and successful. Relive the positive experience for several minutes. Allow the image to sink into every part of your mind and body. This gradually permeates the upsetting memory with a positive feeling.
Another small strategy done often that can gradually lead you to better mental states is to deliberately extend feelings of happiness. This increases the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps your attention stay focused.
The book’s authors tell us that doing little things like this throughout your days, month after month, changes your brain “from the inside out.” They caution that to be successful with the techniques you have to be kind to yourself and forgiving of whatever created in you the emotional states that now inhibit your happiness. You must simply accept that your only influence is in the here and now. Any blaming, complaining, worrying, or regretting what made you the way you are will only reinforce the moods you want to change, making them more difficult to alter.
The authors also say the major roadblocks your mind (your brain) constructs to inhibit change are usually ones that involve some kind of suffering. After all, it is only we humans who worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We become frustrated when we don’t get what we want and disappointed when others don’t behave as we wish they would. We become angry with other drivers on the highway, sad about seeing the same person in the mirror every morning.
But Drs. Hanson & Mendius share some very good news: since this anguish is constructed by the brain, the brain can also create other mental states like contentment. I’ll share more of their ideas next week
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html. Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Knowledge of the brain helps balance your moods
Stress for Success

May 22, 2012

Moods are tricky things. Some come and go quickly, causing no real distress, but others are more obstinate. Some can be overwhelming causing depression or other uncomfortable mental states. But a better understanding of the brain and how it works can help you avoid emotions’ ¬¬¬¬¬¬all-consuming potential.

A fascinating book, “Buddha’s Brain” by Drs. Hanson & Mendius, explains some of the complexities of the brain. Their Foreword states, “Buddha’s Brain is an invitation to use the focus of your mind to harness the power of attention to enhance your life and your relationships … Synthesizing ancient insights from contemplative practice … with modern discoveries from … neuroscience, (the authors) have assembled a thought-provoking and practical guide that walks you step-by-step through awakening your mind.”

They start with some basic facts about the brain, including:

• It’s organ tissue weighing approximately 3 pounds with 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons, each receiving about 5,000 connections or synapses from other neurons.

• Neurons communicate with each other. When a neuron fires, it sends signals to other neurons through its transmitting synapses telling them to fire or not.

• Typical neurons fire 5 – 50 times a second.

• Neural signals contain bits of information, which are mostly outside your awareness. Your nervous system moves this information around like your heart moves blood. These signals regulate everything from your stress response to remembering how to ride a bike to your personality tendencies.

• Your brain’s the primary mover and shaper of your mind. Even though it’s only 2% of your body’s weight it uses 20 – 25% of its oxygen and glucose. This should suggest you need to be more aware of what you eat knowing your diet also fuels your brain.

• The brain works as a whole system. Attributing a function, like attention or emotion, to just one part of the brain is usually an oversimplification.

The authors compare your very busy brain to a refrigerator: always humming away, performing its functions.

Scientists have learned more about the brain over recent decades than was learned in all of recorded history. The great news is much of what they’re discovering can teach us how to activate brain states that underlie healthy mental states, allowing you to influence your own mind and mood.

The authors begin to describe how by explaining three fundamental functions of the brain:

1. Regulation: Your brain regulates itself and its bodily systems through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights.

2. Learning: It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones.

3. Selection: It selects whatever experience has taught it to value. They point out, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid electric shock.
 These functions operate at all levels of the nervous system and are involved in any important mental activity. Next week I’ll share more of the authors’ insights into the brain and how to use this information to facilitate healthier mental states and less stress.
 Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html. Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.

Accept Mother Nature’s survival emotions as normal
Stress for Success
May 15, 2012

Anger and fear have been called Mother Nature’s survival emotions because they prepare you to deal with threats by triggering your automatic, physical fight/flight response. This is partially accomplished by your amygdala, your brain’s fear center, which serves as your guard dog always keeping watch over your environment to spot possible threats. Just as a guard dog attacks first and asks questions later, sometimes your emotional reaction is an over-reaction and emotions run wild in your brain like an emotional pin-ball game.

Anger and fear are the umbrella emotions under which you’ll also find jealousy, aggravation, impatience, greed, etc. When you experience any of these emotions it means you perceive something as stressful. You perceive rightly or wrongly that you have insufficient control in the situation that has your attention.

If you don’t know when you’re stressed, use the presence of any of these emotions to increase awareness that you are. Immediately search for options in dealing with the situation since options equal a greater sense of control, which lowers stress.

Without these emotions, you’d be at a distinct disadvantage protecting yourself from life-threatening or typical run-of-the-mill stress. One purpose they serve is to focus your mind. The moment you notice stress your unconscious mind automatically narrows your attention to what’s truly important regarding the taxing situation. So if approached by a menacing person your unconscious brain automatically, actively searches for your options.

Fear also triggers the release of norepinephrine, the brain’s adrenaline, which makes your mind more alert when attention is important. This hormonal burst also stimulates the brain’s hippocampus, an important center for memory formation. This reaction, as all others, is for survival. If you encounter a life-threatening situation that is the same or similar to one you’ve experienced before, you’ll want to remember what happened the first time to help you deal with it this time.

Applied to a non-life-threatening situation like public speaking, if you experience a shaky voice or light-headedness know that it’s caused by the fight/flight response, which prepares you to physically fight or run away. Attractive options as they seem, you’re unlikely to punch someone or run away from your presentation. Rather, you slam on the brakes of this energy turning it into that shaky voice or queasy stomach.
 Earlier in my career when I experienced too much stress before a presentation, I’d pace the halls of the venue at which I was speaking, working off its physical energy. I’d also deep breathe focusing on exhaling to more counts than inhaled.

But many “performers” have learned that nervousness (fear) is a good thing if harnessed. A healthy amount of fear helps you focus like a laser beam on your stress-producing activity.
 On the other hand, any time you’re too relaxed you may lose focus as your mind wanders leading to a less-than-stellar performance.

Accept your stress emotions as perfectly normal. In truly life-threatening situations they increase your ability to survive. Trust them. In less dire situations they help you function more effectively with greater focus.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html. Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.

Fear is your friend
Stress for Success
May 8, 2012

Human brains and bodies are miracles. We all have great potential but usually don’t unleash it until “it’s unlocked by fear,” according to Jeff Wise, author of “Extreme Fear.”

Fear is typically an uncomfortable emotion to be avoided, but it’s a vital survival emotion intended to protect us. Since our ancient ancestors lived with potential perils on a daily basis nature provided them with a danger-response system that was automatic, swift and powerful to defend against attacking saber-toothed tigers.

Today we have the same system. It constantly monitors our surroundings routing sensory information into two paths, Wise says. One goes to the consciousness, where we observe and remember the sensory information. The other goes to the subconscious amygdala, which filters it for signs of danger. When danger is sensed, the amygdala triggers the automatic stress response so quickly we may react before we’re consciously aware there’s even a problem. It takes the conscious mind about half-a-second to perceive an outside event. The amygdala can respond in much less time: it receives signals from the ears and eyes in just twelve-thousandths of a second according to New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux.

The amygdala’s triggering of the fight/flight response is what gives us the physical energy and strength required to fight or flee if the danger is imminent. If the threat is more remote the reaction may be to freeze. Once the threat is consciously considered you may thwart the amygdala’s automatic response: freezing at the sight of a snake on the hiking trail then relaxing when you get closer and see it’s only a stick.

The greater the threat, the greater your potential energy reserves, like the family who during Hurricane Charley fled the master closer to the other side of the house when the roof over the closet began to separate. Their fight/flight responses enhanced their physical and mental ability to escape to safety.

The amount of strength available to you must be limited, however, to avoid injury. If the situation is life-threatening risking injury may be worth it and your strength limit may increase. When facing physical peril your danger-response system prepares you to punch your attacker with a greater wallop but the stories of a mother lifting a car off of her child are exaggerated. A 100 pound person under great stress may lift 135 pounds but not a 3,000 pound car, according to Penn State kinesiologist Vladimir Zatsiorsky.

The fear response facilitates self-protection by also deadening pain. Under heightened stress the brain releases powerful analgesics whose painkilling effects can override significant pain. This capacity, however, can cause problems after the threat has been dealt with by causing injury to your body.

So, look at fear not as a negative emotion to be avoided but as a self-protective response. What do you sense you need protection from? That’s the issue that needs to be addressed and solved to soothe your fear. Let your fear motivate you to problem-solve whatever is stressing you rather than avoid it.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html. Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.