Train Your Brain: Managing Stress

This is the first post in a series discussing the sessions at the first Wellness Workshop.   Last Saturday, Shelly of Shelly Stewart Kronbergs Psychotherapy lead a terrific presentation and discussion about stress management!  We learned that stress is the socially acceptable expression of fear: fear of judgement, of isolation, of mistakes.  We discussed why and how thinking of stressful events produces the same body reaction as actually experiencing the events, and then learned ways to counter it!

stress management worksheet

Personally, one of my most stressful triggers is the thought of other people witnessing my mistakes.  The fear of course, is that they are judging and will shame me.  Making the mistake itself is generally fine, but just thinking about other people calling me out on a mistake makes my belly clench, hunches my shoulders up to my ears, and get's my jaw clenching.  Shelly (who's also my mom!) shared that this body reaction happens because of basic brain geography! *

Negative and painful memories are stored in a part of the brain that envelopes the area regulating autonomic functions: digestion, heart rate, and cortisol.  Think of your brain as a fist: the tucked in thumb is the brain basics, and the inside of the other fingers is the basic emotions and memory.  When a stressful/fearful situation is encountered, your brain will quickly jump from bad memory to body reaction, and completely bypass rationality, which is primarily located in a very different, and far away, part of the brain (the outside of your knuckles in our fist analogy).

This is great when our ancestors were faced with a savanna fire (brain sees the fire, remembers a previous shitty fire experience, heart rate shoots up and legs start running even before the brain rationally thinks 'wow a fire! I should run away!'), but does not serve me as I painfully imagine the disappointment on my partner's face when he realizes that I've yet again forgotten to get an oil change, maybe because I got publicly shamed by a teacher when I was 7.  Rationally, Anthony is not Ms. Whatever-her-name was, and of course he won't yell at me in front of my peers.  But, that bad memory is immediately triggered, which kicks off the body reaction, all the while bypassing the rational thoughts.  Most of the time, you won't even remember the memory itself, and all that's left is the feelings.

Unfortunately, there aren't very many natural neural pathways from your instinctual lizard brain to your lofty Cro-Magnon frontal cortex where all the rational "Is this really happening?" happens.  However, the brain is awesome, and is constantly adapting pathways based on repetition.  So despite the lack of natural pathways, you can train your brain to form those connection by using a trick.  Sticking to the fist analogy, instead of trying to punch your way through your fingers from the lizard brain to the rational brain, you move around the brain, like so.

fistmitten

And the parts of the brains that (roughly) coordinate with the sides of your brain/fist?  The parts that govern movement!  Your fine and gross motor control centers are perfect helpers in shifting an instinctual bad memory/body combo to your rational thought centers.  So standing up and stretching, or even better, activities where you alternate focus from one side of the body to the other (bike riding, walking or EMDR Therapy) are terrific to help shake off stress.   I always knew that getting up and moving helped me to feel better, but it was great to understand the actual brain biology behind it.  The more you start to move around, sway, rock, or dance when you notice you're stressed, the stronger those neural pathways will become, and then you'll be far better at snapping yourself out of it.  You'll be able to talk back to yourself, replying "Hmm, when I say I have no friends, that's clearly not true." Which is always a great place to be!

Conversely, when you stay in the poor memory/body place, and don't break free to rational thought through movement or other therapies, you strengthen the neural connections between the autonomic functions and the bad feelings.  The neural paths between body and rationality can fade away.  This is why folks with depression can't 'snap out of it', 'just feel better', or 'remember the good times'.  Check out this cartoon, particularly the 'dead fish' portion about a quarter of the way down.  My brain 5 months ago was stuck in the bad feelings/body reaction cycle over and over again because my pathways had degenerated.  I physically couldn't remember the good times.  But circumventing the fist still helps.   Even in the worst times, if I was able to move, be goofy, and chuckle then there was at least one neural path, small and snow plowed it might be, from the center of the brain fist, back to the outside where reason lives.

Let's return to my own stress example: the oil change.  Using the techniques that we learned, I would:

  • Feel the stress and fear of another day of not getting the task done
  • Notice that I'm stressed out
  • Start moving my body, sillier the better.  Wave the arms, wiggle the hips etc
  • Be able to think rationally!  "True, I didn't get that done today.  Let's make an appointment."

It was a great experience to learn the science behind stress, and know that we can make a simple, yet immediate impact on our everyday happiness!  Thanks Mom!

train your brain

*I am not a biologist, neurologist, or psychologist, so all of this is a layman's interpretation!