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…
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!
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