When we experience physical threats and what we would normally call "negative" or fear based emotions…
For example, (jealousy, shame, anger, fear, rage and hate), signals are sent to the brain releasing chemicals of stress.
Reacting to threats (or emotions triggered by unconscious perception of threats) increases the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our bloodstreams.
These are the key stress hormones, which prepare us for a speedy reaction to whatever is causing us stress.
This reaction, or the “fight or flight" response, includes redirecting the blood supply from our organs (involved in growth, digestion and repair) to the places where it’s most needed in stressful times: the muscles, limbs, and extremities that we use to either do the fighting or the running away.
When stress kicks in our bodies are hijacked with the chemistry needed to respond quickly to threats.
It’s all about survival.
Back in the day, this response would have saved us from many real threats - like large cats with sharp teeth..
When we perceived that the threat had passed, our emotional state would have shifted, we may have moved our bodies to release the pent up energy, we may have then found safety and support from our tribe - and the elevated levels of stress hormones would have quickly returned to homeostasis.
Our stress response is designed to be temporary. When it is, it’s adaptive and life affirming..
Long term however, these chemicals break down every tissue in our bodies, they break down our immune systems and contribute to most modern diseases.
When we are running on the hormones of stress our ability to make decisions, communicate, and lead others is impaired, our ability to create and change for the better is ambushed and put on hold.
MORE ON STRESS AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT
As mentioned, our stress response can manifest from internal emotional processes (even memories or other internal environmental factors)
OR the more obvious external situations and life circumstances.
The memory of the bully at work and facing the bully at work… can trigger the same chemical reaction. It’s pretty incredible.
Stress can be defined as acute (or chronic/ long term) feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, unhappiness, insecurity, worry, self doubt, anger, judgement, resentment and agitation.
Sadly these feelings seem to consume a large part of our emotional energy in our modern fast paced world. Even when we are engaged in our everyday life, and pretty much unaware of any specific stressors, these underlying feelings can become dominant within our internal landscapes, creating habitual - hardwired emotional patterns.
Recent neuroscience has found emotional processes (or feelings) operate at a faster pace than our ‘thinking’ processes.
Emotions can be triggered by our internal or external environments and do not tend to neatly follow our thoughts in a systemized mechanical way.
Our emotions (and habitual emotional patterns) often manifest before, or independently of our cognitive processes and can have a profound impact on our responses and decisions.
Current research in neuroscience is confirming that emotion and cognition can be thought of as interacting systems that communicate using ‘bi-directional’ neural connections between the neocortex and emotional centers such as the amygdala.
Neural connections from the emotional system (heart and mind), to the cognitive system (brain or processing unit) are surprisingly stronger and more in number, than those flowing from the brain to our emotional systems.
This provides a scientific basis for our common experience of emotional arousal suddenly taking over our awareness - and for the difficulty we often experience when it comes to “turning off” strong emotions using thought alone.
This is perhaps why “positive thinking” and traditional talk therapies, without also mindfully and consciously engaging in a positive feeling, more often than not, fail.
Without addressing our feelings, emotional reactions and body sensations.. we tend to leave our underlying (and often harmful) emotional patterns intact.
Traditional relaxation techniques can temporarily cut off our stress response, quieting our thoughts and giving us a brief respite. But very rarely does simply relaxing actually break the cycle as it fails to address unmanaged (or unrecognized) emotional holding patterns that are the root cause of much chronic stress and suffering.
Knowing all this can pull us towards a logical conclusion; intervening at the level of the emotional system itself would seem like a more effective way to transform long term patterns underlying unhealthy stress responses, essentially, by tackling stress at its source.
Thankfully psychologists have moved on from the hypotheses that emotions are purely mental expressions generated by the brain alone.
It is now understood that our emotional experience results from the ongoing interaction between the brain, the heart, gut, gut biome, nervous system, hormonal system, immune system and the external environment.
Our brains behave like complex pattern matching systems, where inputs from both the external and internal environments contribute to the maintenance of patterns.
Repeated experiences, and the emotions and thoughts arising from these repeated experiences become our comfortable patterns and our definition of “normal” over time.
Recurring input patterns from our previous experiences end up forming our reference points or our baseline.
Input patterns from ‘present moments’ are then compared to the known baseline.
Current patterns that match the reference pattern are then perceived as “familiar,” “normal” or “comfortable” and tend not to produce a change in emotional experience.
But when a new input pattern shows up a “mismatch” can occur.
This deviation from the familiar “neural path”, so to speak, is what creates the generation of a new feeling or emotion. Because our system is wired to prefer, so called stability and security - steering clear of change (which can knock us into a pattern mismatch and a new emotion), is what many of us do, even when a current pattern is causing disharmony and suffering.
Even “stress” can become familiar, and therefore, a “comfortable” baseline reference, the system then automatically strives to maintain a match.
I’m pretty sure we all know people who complain endlessly about their life.. their love drama, family, friends, work (and seem to search for things to be offended about)?
This pattern matching tendency should explain some of it… and knowing that it exists, should help us to become compassionate to these people in our lives.
Importantly, this knowledge can also allow us to become compassionate to ourselves, especially when we notice how we are sabotaging our own happiness for the sake of an illusion of security.
The more that we can learn to become comfortable ‘being temporarily uncomfortable’, become present and find inner stability, calm and inner ‘okayness’ in the midst of a new stimulus, the more confident we become in handling and managing our emotions and embracing change.
In our world where emotions are often seen as ‘fluffy or weak’, and the body is viewed as a machine to control and tame.. it’s little wonder that stress management techniques have bypassed looking at interventions on an emotional or sensory level - it’s time to change that.
SO HOW do we intercept the stress cycle at the level of our emotions and sensations?
Monks, sharmans and sages throughout the ages have been masters at emotional self regulation.
By training themselves not to crave pleasure or flee at the first moment of discomfort, by calmly sitting with an inner voice that says; ‘this too shall pass’, an inner balance is cultivated and the winds of change can shake their leaves but never break their flexible branches.
Many successful stress management interventions combine a shift in focus with an intentional, sincere and self created positive emotional state such as appreciation.
Notice and acknowledge. When we become aware of a situation, internal, external environment or memory that creates a sense of tension we can take a moment to press pause.
When we press an inner pause button we can acknowledge what exists as part of our experience - but not who we are
Redirect awareness. After seeing what exists we can consciously disengage from the stressor.
Rather than applying energy to the stressor we can learn to shift attention and intention towards the breath and the physical area around the heart.
Actively create a new emotion and sensation.
Once we have our attention placed upon the heart we need to focus upon creating a sincere positive feeling, that aligns with our values - this might be appreciation, love, calm etc.
Sustain focus, attention and intention. The thinking brain may wander off towards “old comfortably uncomfortable patterns”.
Gently re-direct focus and breath towards the heart with the new emotion you wish to re-wire into your upgraded neural architecture.
Once the new reference pattern is stabilized, the system then strives to maintain a match with inputs that characterize this new baseline.
In summary - A number of teachers suggest that attention should be placed around the area of the heart, (the heart is where many people subjectively feel positive emotions).
While attention is placed around the heart, a slow breath through the nose can be taken..
While breathing long and slow, it is then important to create a feeling of appreciation or gratitude (perhaps simply for the breath and for the life that is circulating around the body)
A few minutes of calm, intentional breathing focusing on the heart and the creation of positive emotions can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (and shift us back into growth, repair, calm and creative mode).
Research has also shown that appreciation is one of the easiest of the positive emotions for individuals to self-create and sustain for longer periods.
Gratitude and appreciation are pretty much super powers - fake it til you make it if you have to..
For a deeper dive into Wellbeing and Stress management click here :)