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A New Emotional Health Strategy: Flip the Switch

Switch off stress chemicals and activate a surge of joy chemicals.

You can overcome emotional health issues, by learning more about the brain.

Problems and issues are stressful, so taking charge to overcome stress can help. The new brain-based approach to health is to switch off stress chemicals and activate the healing chemicals of well-being.

We can become more confident in our approach to healing if we see stress as something the brain can learn to make a positive experience. Stress can be good for us if we train the brain for resilience, however, adverse childhood events and later stressful experiences can make the brain stress-reactive. Then, a little bit of stress can cause stress reactivity to increase. Health problems in the body and brain naturally follow. We can do something about that.

A new approach to healthcare, including mental health care, is to focus on our stress circuitry. It’s a self-help process, with added coaching or small group support, but generally a personal skill. You work with your physician and mental health professional to develop a brain-based plan.

The plan is very straightforward and based on several key concepts:

Concept #1: We are always running brain circuits

When stimuli arrive in the brain, circuits that tell us how to feel, what to expect, and how to respond vie for activation. The strongest on wins out and the imbedded instructions in that circuit cause chemical and electrical responses to occur without our awareness or permission.

Concept #2: There are two kinds of circuits—resilient or reactive

Humans have two responses to daily stress: either homeostatic that moves us through stress to wellbeing (“resilient circuits”) and allostatic that trigger stress extremes and not only have no shut-off valves but activate other stress circuits, so we find ourselves careening out of control (“reactive circuits”). The resilient circuits keep the executive functioning intact, but the reactive ones cause our prefrontal cortex to go offline so that we are controlled that circuit’s ineffective instructions.

Source: Laurel Mellin, Ph.D.
Source: Laurel Mellin, Ph.D.

Concept #3: We can switch off reactive circuits and activate resilient circuits

If we try to think our way to switch off a reactive circuit, research has shown that it is not effective. When we are under the guidance of a reactive circuit, research has shown that cognitive methods are not effective. This is confusing to most people because when they are guided by resilient circuits, cognitive methods work well. Then, right when they need to have their prefrontal cortex online and acting like the internal “good parent,” stress causes these tools to stop working. Often, people blame themselves for their extremes. In truth, it’s that the coping methods they use “fail the stress test.”

Concept #4: We can plan our recover based on brain circuitry

When these reactive wires are controlling us, medications and psychotherapy can often help. However, if we rely on thinking, analysis, and mindful awareness, we may not be healing from mental health problems as rapidly as we might. It takes emotional tools to switch off emotional circuits, so my colleagues and I developed emotional tools that rapidly switch off stress. They are for use in the prevention and treatment of emotional and behavioral health problems, a fundamental life skill to decrease stress reactivity and maintain more personal, independent control over one’s recovery.

The brain-based resiliency check-in begins with a moment of mindful awareness, then leans into powerful emotional processing. Initially, we asked participants to memorize the techniques but learned that as the executive function is offline when we are in high-stress states, the tools were more effective with the help of the Brain-Based Health app. We also learned that contrary to expectations, essential to success in rapidly switching off stress and keeping executive function online throughout is a brief internal expression of anger. Once accomplished, feelings begin to flow, and in two to four minutes, stress subsides, and positive emotions flow. Research findings on the effectiveness of these tools are promising.

In one UCSF study , participants who had learned the tools showed positive effects that persisted. At the two-year follow-up, 86% reported coping better with work stress, 91% had improved mood and happiness, 77% had improved weight, the blood pressure of 69% had decreased, and 90% used harmful substances less. More research is needed but as these reactive wires are emotional circuits, adopting emotional tools to process them appears to pay off.

Transitioning to a brain-based approach

It is inevitable that psychotherapy will become more brain-based, as it is the brain that causes stress reactivity or stress resilience. The new brain-based approach to emotional health is to continue with all the methods we use now, but take charge of our own chemicals and responses by learning how to flip the switch.

You can begin to transition to brain-based psychotherapy and healthcare now by being aware of your stress level, and asking yourself, “Do I feel connected and balanced and running a stress-resilient circuit or disconnected and unbalanced and running a stress-reactive circuit?” That one question is important in honoring that the brain is the chief controller of our emotional health and being aware of and actively switching our circuits gives us more power to control the quality of our day, and the fundamental chemicals that harm or heal us.