Stress is getting to us!
New data are showing that stress is getting under our skin and causing even more serious problems than we had thought.
At the very same time, neuroscience is helping us understand stress so that we can do something about it.
First the bad news: suicide and drug overdoses are on the rise. According to a New York Times survey, there was five-fold death rate increase for young non-Hispanic whites from 1999 to 2014. A meticulous analysis of national health data by two Princeton economists that was released last November showed similar trends.
Neuroscience shows us the way
What is the good news? There is plenty of it. First, according to Mark D. Hayward, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, mortality data is often an early warning sign that something ominous is on the horizon, in this case, stress. We can take note that environmental stress is becoming extreme and take effective action to prevent it from impacting the quality of our lives.
Second, neuroscience is showing us how to be far more effective in combatting stress. Our individual experiences of stress are caused by the internalization of our environment. The inevitable moments of stress overload – losses, changes, upsets – become stored in our brain as circuits.
Once encoded, they brain over-remembers them – holds onto those experiences as if our lives depended upon it. A moment of rejection leaves behind an "I am bad" circuit that triggers shame. If we reached for food, an "I get my safety from food" circuit that triggers overeating. These circuits can stay stuck in our brains for a lifetime, controlling our automatic responses to the stresses of life, ramping up our stress.
The great news is that these emotional circuits are among the most plastic in the brain. We can rewire the circuits that trigger our stress – and are responsible for most chronic stress – to create a neuroscience-based strategy to release stress.
Think "circuits" - not "issues" or "problems"
Neuroscientist and stress pioneer Bruce McEwen has helped us understand stress as a circuitry issue. With my colleagues, I developed a method of using simple tools to spiral up out of stress to feeling great and – at the same time – make small but important improvements in that wiring.
The method, emotional brain training (EBT), gives us a new tool for combating stress that is based on neuroscience. The traditional strategy has been to ease stress by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, setting aside time for social interactions, meditating and adopting a healthy way of eating.
The emerging strategy is to go to the root cause: our wiring. It's to begin thinking in terms of our circuits, identifying the ones that get us stuck in overeating, anxiety, depression, isolation – or other stress-induced problems, and using brain-based tools to rewire them.
Based on neurophysiology, we all have two kinds of circuits that trigger how we respond to the stimuli of daily life. One kind of wire is effective. When the brain activates it, we have self-regulatory success. We are resilient, moving through the experience with relative ease and returning to a state of well-being. The other kind of wire is ineffective and causes us to get stuck in stress and extreme emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
What kind of circuit am I activating?
Imagine two women, Anna and Megan, who are good friends and on a bright, sunny day, are walking toward a café to have tea and catch up on each other’s lives. All of a sudden, a large truck swerves toward them, then buzzes past them.
The sensations from that narrow escape land in the thalamus, which is located in the emotional brain, the storehouse of their self-regulatory circuitry. Instantly, circuits compete for activation, with the strongest one winning out. Whichever wire wins out both controls our momentary emotions, thoughts and behaviors and gains ground on the other wires by becoming stronger.
Anna triggers an effective circuit. She is appropriately alarmed and jumps away from the street. She checks to see whether or not Megan is safe, and then says, “Wow, were we lucky!” The circuit de-activates and Anna feels emotionally connected and happy to be on her way to the café with Megan.
In contrast, Megan triggers an ineffective circuit. She panics and begins shaking, then flies into a rage: “What an idiot. I hate that guy. What the #### is he doing!” The circuit gets stuck on and Anna has a protracted and extreme stress response. She can’t think about anything but what just happened, and the chance of having an enjoyable conversation with Anna is slim – or is it?
Simple tools to spiral up and feel better
According to emerging research in neuroscience, Anna and Megan could reframe that stressful moment as a positive situation. The ineffective circuits that ramp up stress are more open to reconsolidation when we are stressed.
Research conducted by Joseph LeDoux and his colleagues at the Emotional Brain Institute, New York University, has shown that stressful situations unlock ineffective circuits, presenting an opportunity to change them.
Given that Anna and Megan can't turn back the clock and prevent that stressful situation from occurring, they can choose to make good use of that stress. Anna can use the EBT tools to process negative emotions, so she feels better and, at the same time, improves her wiring. Megan can be a warm presence for her as she uses them, and will benefit, too.
If Anna and Megan understood the neuroscience of stress and the knew how to use the tools, their conversation might go something like this:
Anna: “Megan, did you get triggered?”
Megan: “Yes. I am totally stressed. My whole body is shaking."
Anna: “I’m sorry it happened.”
Megan: “Me, too.”
Anna: “Do you want to use the tools?”
Megan: “Yes, will you listen to me?”
Anna: “Sure. I want to spiral up with you.”
Megan: “It’s just a wire.”
Anna: “I know. I want to rewire it.”
They would go to the café and after the server brought their tea, Megan would listen while Anna used one of the EBT tools.
Anna: “The situation is . . . We were walking along and this horrible truck almost hit us and I could have been killed. What I’m most stressed about is . . . the man was so careless. He could have hurt us.”
By this time, Anna would be calmer, so she would use the tool for that works when we are a little stressed. There are five stress levels in the brain and 5 corresponding EBT tools. In this situation, she uses the Flow Plus Tool.This technique gives her the structure to talk about what bothers her, but also, to process her emotions in a brain-savvy way.
In addition, as the emotional brain has no walls, by using the tool in the presence of Megan or another member of the EBT online community ("an EBT connection buddy"), both people feel better and both people train their brain to release stress.
Anna: “I feel angry that he wasn’t careful. I can’t stand it that he didn’t see me. I hate it that he could have hurt me. I hate that!”
After expressing her anger, her more balanced feelings begin to flow. Soon her negative, stressed feelings turn into positive, relaxed feelings.
Anna: “I feel sad that . . . people are so careless. I feel afraid that . . . people are dangerous. I feel guilty . . . that I expect people to be perfect all the time.”
At that point, Anna has released her negative stress and her emotions become positive.
“I feel grateful that you are here with me. I feel happy that I can laugh about it, and I feel secure that life is not all bad. Last, I feel proud that I have a friend who will listen to me express my feelings.”
Megan has been present and aware of Anna’s feelings, which are infectious. The color returns to her face and she smiles slightly. Both women feel better – and they made small but important improvements in their wiring.
The power to spiral up!
Stressful situations come up daily for most of us. By taking a few minutes to use these emotional tools, we can prevent the day’s stress from getting under our skin.
Our environment may continue to be stressful, but these tools give us a boundary between that stress and our internal world.
Establishing that boundary takes work. It takes learning the five tools of EBT and using the tools with others, as these circuits are stored in the emotional brain, which is the social brain.
We can use the tools with those who are close to us – as Anna and Megan did – or anonymously through our private online EBT community.
With each spiral up we go to a better place for a moment – to a "sweet spot" in the brain of neural integration. In that state, we can experience a "flicker" of positive emotions, such as love, gratitude, compassion, hope, forgiveness, awe, or joy.
Our first spiral up feels great – and we are apt to want to feel that way more often. That's the goal of EBT, that is, to train the brain to release stress so that we naturally spiral up more often and stay in that state of well-being more easily.