Tuesday, April 01, 2014

For emotional balance redirect blood flow in your brain

Stress for Success

April 1, 2014, Week 449

Emotions are interesting, aren’t they? Sometimes they are so overwhelming it’s easy to believe your emotions determine who you are rather than simply them being a part of you. They can feel so completely suffocating you can see no way out of them. It can feel like they’re never going away.

Looking at emotions intellectually can provide you distance from them allowing you to see you can control them rather than vice versa. Last week I shared the connection between emotions and stress hormones: your “Emotional Landscape,” provided by Heart Math. Here’s a review of their “positive” and “negative” emotions and their hormonal counterparts:”
·         High energy emotions: Anger, hostility, impatience, etc., and happy, motivated, creative, etc.
·         Low energy emotions: Bored, depressed, hopeless, etc., and calm, content, relaxed, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by cortisol, which in too high amounts over a longer period of time lead you to be vulnerable to illness and disease development: Anger, hostility, impatience, bored, lethargic, hopeless, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by DHEA, which helps suppress elevated cortisol: Happy, motivated, creative, calm, content, relaxed, etc.

For greater emotional balance it also helps to intellectually understand how the brain works emotionally to see how easy it is to get stuck in seemingly endless emotional cycles. This can lead to accepting there are Brain Training Techniques (I’ve been using this term longer than Luminosity has been advertising theirs) that can redirect brain blood flow away from the emotional areas to more rational thinking areas.

Before I address this, let me make clear that I am not advocating the avoidance of emotions. But too often, your emotional reaction can become more of a problem than the triggering event itself. Other times your emotions keep you from effectively solving whatever the triggering challenge is. Brain Training techniques can help restore emotional balance so better problem-solving is possible.

In a snapshot, here’s how your emotional brain works. Keep in mind, this has developed for survival reasons:
·         You perceive a threat or stress. It makes no difference that your neighbor may not consider the same situation stressful. It only matters that you do.
·         This triggers your brain’s “fear center” or your amygdala, the part of the unconscious brain’s limbic system, which is primarily responsible for your emotional life.
·         The amygdala sends out an alarm, triggering the physical fight/flight response with all of its potentially damaging stress hormones, including cortisol. The amygdala has been likened to a guard dog protecting property: it attacks first and asks questions later.
·         The problem develops when this automatic reaction triggers stressful, angry/fearful thinking, which continues to trigger the amygdala, which continues to trigger the stress hormones.
·         During chronic stress, the amygdala can actually grow while your higher level brain’s executive functioning region, the cerebral cortex, can shrink!

Brain Training techniques are intended to break this cycle and move to problem-solving.

Psychology has long offered up a host of skills to help break this cycle, prime among them is cognitive restructuring, a process to identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts. (Remember, stressful thoughts keep the emotional loop going.) On-going brain research now tells us why these skills among others can help. In my own nonscientific words, skills such as cognitive restructuring redirect the blood flow away from your amygdala to other brain regions to break the cycle of stressful thinking, amygdala engagement, and stress hormone dumping.

One truly simple technique to redirect the brain’s blood flow is to count. Not just to ten as your mother advised but to 50 or 70 or 100. It seems the region of the brain involved in counting is the intraparietal sulcus. This fact is unimportant to this discussion. The point is, to calm yourself emotionally you need to redirect blood flow away from the amygdala to pretty much anywhere else in your brain until the emotion is calmed. If upon calming and therefore stopping the counting your brain races back to the emotional loop, do it again. None of the skills work instantly. They all require repetition.

In my next article I’ll share several more Brain Training techniques to redirect your brain’s blood flow away from your brain’s fear center.

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