Train the Brain

22 May

Everyone has stress in their lives. And the sources are many.

It can be the seemingly endless nights of crying babies; the increased job workload in which you think you’ll never get your head above water for the foreseeable future; or the anxiety of upcoming SATs or final exams.

But regardless of where it is coming from, stress can easily beget more stress — unless you take the time to slow down, figure out why your heart and mind are racing, and take constructive action.

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, explains that the increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other common symptoms of anxiety, are related to the region of the brain that responds to stress.

“The limbic system – which is a primal and very old part of the brain — interprets stimuli using your five senses to determine whether you are in danger,” Zack says.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Even though not getting your report finished on time or being 10 minutes late for your next appointment is unlikely to result in bodily harm or terrible consequences, these kinds of episodes can trigger the primitive part of the brain to trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

“This part of the brain has been conditioned to interpret everyday interactions in much the same way a caveman would respond to life or death situations with a saber-tooth tiger,” Zack says. “The amygdala (a part of the brain) determines that a situation is stressful or dangerous and releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones into your system. That automatically sets off a cascading series of physical and emotional responses that can be very distressing.

“This can occur periodically or chronically and leave an individual feeling overwhelmed. Aside from the immediate results of these hormones raging through our blood and increasing tension, the long-term effects can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being.”

Zack says that over time, a patterned way of responding to similar stimuli or situations can develop. “The neurons that begin to fire together are now wired together, and an individual may feel powerless to change it.”

She notes that when the limbic part of the brain is stimulated, it makes it much more difficult for a person to engage in logical or rational thought. But by taking a deep breath and thinking about what is happening, people can access the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for rational, logical thought.

To access the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, Zack recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • Is this an old pattern (of physiological or psychological response)?
  • What is my emotional reaction beckoning me to work on?
  • Given my insight, what are my options in addressing the stressful situation?

She says this type of thinking can begin to “rewire” the brain.

“When the pre-frontal cortex is being used, more blood flow is sent to that region and by default, less blood flow is sent to the limbic region of the brain,” Zack says. “In addition, new neural pathways are formed because the individual is now thinking about their response, as opposed to simply having a reaction.”

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