Stress is the culprit often pointed to for emotions that are out of balance. Learning to regulate the emotions we feel is a powerful tool for enhancing our cognitive abilities because we think better when we are focused and positive in our expectations. In Awakening the Brain, I have offered a model for understanding the influence of emotion on human functions and proposed that emotions are information to guide us. When we let emotion take over, we are at the mercy of the reptilian reactivity that is deep within us to protect us. Unfortunately, that is a protective mechanism that is designed for emergency use only, but we are currently activating it as a daily lifestyle. Not a good idea! The American Psychological Association tells us (1/11/12) that 39% of Americans report their stress level has increased over the last year.
Lets look at the latest research findings from the Yale Stress Center published in January 2012 in the journal of Biological Psychiatry. In a recent interview, a healthy population of adult subjects was asked for the degree of traumatic and recent life altering stressful occurrences. MRI studies of the subjects’ brains were analyzed in relation to their cumulative stress levels. High stress levels were associated with revealing less grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain enables us to stop and think, take a deep breath, pay attention to our internal compass that sends out warning signals to guide us before we act, and enable us to shift and take a healthier course are slowly deteriorating under stress.
Although this is the first study to show this finding in a healthy population, it is consistent with prior research done in animals and psychiatric patients. Not a direction that I want to go in. The more often you recognize how close you are to the glass ceiling where the reactivity of the fight and flight response will go off and take over, the more likely you will be spared activating the adrenaline, stress hormones, and cortisol that negatively affect the brain and body.
In Awakening the Brain, I offer a model for understanding this complex survival chemistry intended to protect us and suggest we see emotion as information to guide us instead of rule us. When the point is well taken and the insight is achieved from the message your body’s reaction is telling you, you do not have to engage in the emotions and the chemistry that is not good for your body or your brain. You can be guided to better choices by the emotional information within you.
When have you made a neuro-choice to change the way you feel emotionally by taking a bigger perspective or focusing on compassion and then had a breakthrough of greater peace, joy, and fulfillment in your life?