We all experience stress – perhaps more so now than ever with global pandemics and conflict punctuating our daily lives while we try to recover and pick up a sense of ‘normality’. The Internet and social media are awash with strategies to help with stress – but did you know that you can easily reset your nervous system, through understanding how the different parts of our brain evolved over time? Read on to find out how we can use simple techniques to reprogram our brains to help us thrive.
There’s lots we can do to restore balance to our stress response. Simplifying a complex journey beginning about 600 million years ago, your brain has developed in three basic stages:
Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”.
The brain is highly integrated, so these systems are working together all the time – but each function is performed by a specific area of the brain.
The brainstem (area associated with avoiding harm) and structures on top are rigid. Neuroplasticity (which is the capacity of the brain to learn from experience by changing its structure) increases as you move up the evolutionary ladder and structures of the brain.
In this sense, to help you feel less concerned, uneasy, nervous, anxious or traumatised – feelings associated with the reptilian brain/brainstem processes, you need many repetitions of feeling safe, protected and at ease to train the brainstem and limbic system structures – associated with fear.
The brain has a negativity bias – negative experiences are entrenched whereas positive experiences have to be learned and remembered. Basically, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones!
Practice: Become aware of the ongoing background anxiety in your mind as you interact with people and guard yourself throughout the day. Concentrate on reminding yourself that you are actually ok right now.
Remember that most signals to the brain are from your body – so when you tell your brain that “all is well” it starts a feedback loop and a cascade of hormones to help you relax. Deep breathing techniques such as 4-7-8 breathing can also help to reset the limbic system.
Bring awareness to your daily activities – have a monologue of being SAFE, everything that needs doing is getting done, I am alive and well. Staying with these feelings for 10/20/30 seconds in a row will transfer them to your implicit memory.
The mammalian brain
By internalising experiences of enjoyment and accomplishment, we can build up inner resources for resilient well-being.
This has many benefits. When you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving.
We achieve our goals, we feed our heart. Feeling fed also helps us enjoy positive emotions – pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease and worth. These feelings help us reduce stress, recover from illness, strengthen resilience, help us see the bigger picture and build inner resources.
This is important in the bigger context – we live in an economy and culture that strives for success and status all the time. This can be healthy sometimes – buying yourself a new pair of shoes – but it’s also important to remember what we already have – rather than pursuing the desire for more.
Practice: Find opportunities to feel fed and take in these experiences. For example:
Eating – be aware of your food…chew 30 times! Eating mindfully in this way reduces overeating and helps us appreciate and express gratitude for the food in front of us. Enjoy the taste, textures and aromas.
Breathing – know that you’re getting all the oxygen you need
Senses – sight, sound, smell, touch.
Accept warmth from people.
Walk barefoot – feel supported by the Earth, sunlight, water, plants, animals.
Feel protected and enabled by human endeavours.
Notice when you achieve small goals – washing up, arriving at work, sending an email.
Note how difficult things bring good experiences – e.g. exercise or doing this course!
Take moments to appreciate and show gratitude – keep a journal – write down three things every night that you’re grateful for.
The important thing is to FEEL, ABSORB and INTERNALISE these feelings.
The primate brain/neocortex
The primate brain is what helps us develop a sense of inclusion and being loved.
In ancient times, if you weren’t part of the tribe, you didn’t survive. Today, feeling belonging and a sense of inclusion is not so much a life/death matter BUT it does affect our happiness.
Some of us don’t get enough empathy, compassion and understanding. Some of us have experienced rejection, trauma, abuse or abandonment.
To satisfy our innate tendency for connection, we have to love ourselves.
Practice: Open up to feeling care. Think of someone who was caring towards you – (NOTE: you will instantly think of times you haven’t been cared for! This is normal…)
Recall being with someone who was caring towards you.
Then open to feeling cared about. What does your body do? What thoughts and feelings do you have? What’s your emotional response? Remember this so you can come back to it.
This week find opportunities for feeling cared for – an employee bringing you a cup of tea, a child giving you a hug, a partner being supportive.
When you feel this, let it wash over you, feel it in your body.
Then before sleep, remember that feeling, rest in that feeling.
YOGA and MEDITATION
The anterior part of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, is the most evolved part of the brain and is responsible for positive capacities like concentration, happiness, creativity, and rational thinking. Studies using EEG have shown that meditation strengthens communication between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain.
A 2010 study found that subjects who meditated 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala—which is linked to fear and anxiety—and an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, which plays a vital role in memory formation.
Yoga has been shown to have similar effects, especially in improving the tone of the vagus nerve which is often impacted in people who have post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘union’, signifying the union between body and mind attained through its practice. Yoga has traditionally always been used to prepare the body for meditation – it is only here in the West that we have adopted it as a stand-alone form of exercise. When used in combination, yoga and meditation can have powerful effects on the nervous system and overall physiological health of the body and mind.
Some people suggest that we are more stressed than our ancestors – politics, religion, war, road rage, waiting in a queue…
Despite the amount of stress we experience, however, our ancestors almost certainly experienced more. With no police, no food reserves, no medicine, no laws, rampant infections, and prevalent predators, danger could come at any time. True, social groups were closer, kin networks were stronger, and people spent all their time with each other, none of it alone reading books. Still, life was hard. Perhaps in that environment, where stressors were more often physical, the stress response was more useful than it is now.
Stress is a mismatch between the demands made on an individual and individual’s ability to meet those demands. We think of these demands coming from the outside, like the sabre-toothed tiger.
Actually, a lot of our stresses today don’t come from physical danger or deficiency, but from our tendency to commit ourselves to personal goals that we can’t achieve. When we don’t manage to accomplish these goals, or when we can’t achieve them all at the same time, we get stressed. So one could argue that stress doesn’t come from a mismatch between our abilities and our environmental demands, but from a mismatch between what we desire and what we can have.
Reflect on one thing you have taken away from reading this. What will you implement this week?