How Our Brain Can Turn Calm On

You no longer have to feel defeated by your brain chemicals being out of balance. Recent research is shedding new light on the complexity of symptom development, including the role our stress (or fear response) plays in symptom development.

Brain research illuminates how we can use the brain structures we already have to not think everything is a threat in emotionally charged situations. While brain chemicals play apart in how we regulate our responses to difficult situations, it’s more about how well our brain communicates between the thinking and emotional parts of our brains.

The good news is individuals can improve their communication with their brains over time. They can use the structures already in place to access options in difficult situations (that is, if there family lets them develop that ability…but that’s another post).

Understanding How the Brain Interacts with Stress Response

Before we talk about how to better access the calm thinking part of our brain,  let’s explore how our brains interact with the stress response. Did you know our brains are constantly taking in new information both inside and outside our body, mostly outside of our awareness? The brain is trying to decide whether or not there is a threat it needs to rev up for.

There are many pathways the brain takes to communicate with itself, but for the focus of this post, I will over-simplify. The amygdala, or “emotional center”, can accelerate our bodily systems, such as heart rate and respiration, to deal with a perceived threat in the environment. While the hippocampus can put the brakes on fear and slow down the body when not perceiving the environment as threatening.

Again I am leaving out several parts in this description, but imagine what the amygdala would do if it thinks everything is a threat. It would keep communicating with the adrenal system to keep sending more cortisol, one of the stress hormones that speeds us up. If you stay hyper-alert to threats, then you would eventually develop symptoms, imbalances, or sensitivities.

Luckily, we have more than just the primitive parts of our brains, and there is a part of our brain called the “prefrontal cortex” that also helps us turn off our emotional or fear response. This part of our brain gives us the potential to monitor complex information, see options, and learn from our experiences. Basically, it gives humans the ability to be less reactive and automatic.

We are more controlled by those primitive parts of our brain than most of us would like to admit. In fact, most have a hard time getting our thinking part of the brain to override our emotional/stress center. Leading brain scientist and author of “Emotional Brain,” Joseph Ledoux, concludes that:

“the connections from the cortical (prefrontal cortex) areas to the amygdala are far weaker than the connections from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why it is so easy for emotional information to invade our conscious thoughts, but so hard for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.” – Joseph Ledoux

Strengthening Our Brain’s Pathway to Calm Thinking

Before you give up, this is good news. While we vary in on our abilities to do this, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This is an opportunity to strengthen those “weaker” pathways. And participating in counseling is one of the ways that people can access those thinking parts in the face of great distress!

You aren’t trying to eliminate emotions, just be less controlled by them. Developing the ability to sort out your thoughts from your emotions, and you are already slowing down your reactions. Giving your thinking brain time to communicate to the emotional center, instead of emotions always taking over.

With or without counseling, here are a few ways that strengthen the communication pathway from the thinking part of your brain to the emotional part:

1. Practice Self Observation: Become a better observer of yourself and it will help you slow down your reactions and access your thinking. Observation doesn’t mean being self-critical. It means being curious about learning about how your symptoms and functioning vary.

2. Choose More Neutral Thinking: If you aren’t in immediate danger, but you perceive a threat then find way to interrupt this fear. For example, if your spouse looks at you in a certain way, and you immediately start fretting about losing them, you have interpreted a facial expression as a threat. Find another way to think about the trigger that’s more neutral and curious, and less wanting to let it change your own behavior.

3. Move Toward Stressor: What!? Yes I am serious, if you face things that are hard for you, you give your brain new information – you can do hard stuff. A new pathway is initiated every time your spouse’s face changes to that one you can’t stand, and you don’t check out into your phone, computer, or the kids. Instead you stay in contact and teach your brain that it’s not all that threatening after all.

4. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat: I know most of us want change to be easy, but it’s hard work to take responsibility for managing our own reactions. And definitely hard work to strengthen a pathway in our brain. To make this pathway stronger, it needs many repetitions. Think about how much easier it is to walk on a freshly paved sidewalk instead of hopping on bumpy rocks across a stormy creek! You are trying to pave a new pathway, not just throw some rocks out and hope you make it.

While there are many ways to interrupt the stress-fear response, nothing is as powerful as re-wiring our brains. It may not be the quickest way, but it will give you the most payoff for your work on self and in difficult situations.

“We’ve inherited a lifetime of challenges, it’s not about avoiding it, it’s about finding a way to manage it, and going as far as you can with it.” ~Murray Bowen, MD

Please share your comments, questions and ideas…

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A special thank you to Dr. Robert Noone, psychologist and founder of Center for Family Consultation for sharing his insights and research discoveries on the brain, stress, and families. This post is a summary of ideas he presented at the KC Center for Family Systems in 2013-2015. Your learning and contribution stirs my thinking and I hope sharing it with others will stir theirs too!

Subscribe to the Liberating Choices Newsletter for monthly articles inviting you to turn hard stuff into opportunities for growth and intimacy.

Top 10 Relationship Growing Tips in 2014

Flower-Life-Choices

I am frequently asked if I could summarize what makes a marriage work in one word. And I honestly can’t. I have so many words to share with you.

In an attempt to keep it simple, I think marriage satisfaction increases when you work on your own emotional reactions in the presence of your significant other. It’s our negative reactions to what our spouse does, doesn’t do, says, doesn’t say that contributes to increasing emotional distance and marriage conflict. And the more negative the interactions, the more emotional intimacy and marital friendship is blocked and eroded.

“In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.” ~ Psychology Today

Most marriage advice tells you how to get your relationship where you want it to be or how to get your spouse to meet your needs better. Well I am going to throw a wrench in these ideas, because I think both of these can make a marriage more miserable.

Think about it this way. If you think you know how your marriage needs to look or your spouse needs to be, then you are interacting with pressure and expectations instead of openness and respect. Dr. Dan Papero, family therapist and international speaker, said it best when he defined intimacy as:

“…the ability to have a relationship with another human being in which I can be myself. And you can listen without correcting me or backing away. You can stay connected to me, and I can do the same for you.” ~ Dr. Papero, Divorce Video

It can be so hard to admit it, but we are each part of the problem and luckily part of the solution too. Marriages do take work, but it’s working on ourselves not the relationship or our spouse that grows relationships.

My Top 10 Relationship Growing Tips for 2014

I have updated what I think are the 10 best emotion and relationship tips I know so far. Read on and tell me what you think in the comments section.

Tip #1: Better Manage Your Own Emotions and Reactions

Tip #2: Find Your Own Happiness Switch 

Tip #3: Stay Interested in Learning About Partner (Without Taking Personally)

Tip #4: Communicate Anger Without Blame

Tip #5: Deal With Conflict and Differences Respectfully

Tip #6: Be Emotionally Intimate (Instead of Pulling Intimacy Out of Partner)

Tip #7: Allow Partner to Have Their Own Unhappiness

Tip #8: Work on Your Own Emotional Distance and Openness

Tip #9: Resurrect Your Sexy Self

Tip #10: Release Resentment by Giving Yourself Boundaries

While I haven’t given you a simple, quick fix solution for your marriage problems, I imagine you’d rather start working on self than waiting for your spouse to change. Even if you have to keep working on yourself every day, you will be boosting your own confidence and ability to interact personally and more positively along the way.

I’m growing too, so each year I add to my understanding of what makes marriages work. I’ve spent far too many days trying to shape up my man, only to help create more emotional distance and conflict. So I will spend the rest of my years learning how to love my man better and how to be a more emotionally responsible self.

“Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.” ~ Joseph Barth

What ideas do you find most useful? Any tips you disagree with?

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Marci offers face-to-face counseling services in the Kansas City, MO area and is available for coaching via Skype. Schedule an appointment today to turn life and relationship challenges into opportunities for growth and intimacy.

This will be my only post this month, as I am working on going digital and paperless in my practice. Make sure you are subscribed to my monthly newsletter, so you can hear all about using online scheduling and appointment reminders!

Photo Credit: “Life’s Options” by Pink Sherbet 

Is Successful Divorce Possible?

How do you cope with a divorce when you are the one wanting the divorce? Initially  you may feel relief when you think about getting away from your spouse. You may have convinced yourself that he or she is the one making you miserable.

At some point, those negative emotions about your spouse will resurface in the divorce process, in co-parenting or future relationships. Getting a divorce is a complicated and intense process. Most people work more on cutting off from their ex, then working on their own reactions and interactions with their ex. 

Negative interactions are inevitable, but how do you do your best to manage the emotions that divorce (and relationships in general) brings up? If you take on the growth challenge, you will need to work on the same things whether you are staying together or divorcing.

That means taking responsibility for your part in the problem and managing your own reactions. It’s in managing your emotions to the other that you can be open to hearing them without criticizing or withdrawing. Then you are better prepared to make co-parenting decisions and to know what to work on in future relationships.

Dr Daniel Papero, international speaker, author, and family therapist, shares his ideas on how to have a calm divorce in this video:

In doing so, Dr. Papero also dispels myths about what does and does not lead to divorce. I am interested to hear my readers and clients thoughts after you watch this video.

What do you think contributes to a successful divorce? And is it the same as what contributes to a successful marriage?

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Subscribe to Family Matters on You Tube to hear more videos. The mission of the Bowen Center is “to assist families in solving major life problems through understanding and improving human relationships.”