Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mindfulness and the Stress Proofed Brain

"Dream"  Collage by Lani and textures from FlyPaper
Continuing to work on the training of the elephant mind, and thinking about stress (you may remember the Stress and Krispy Kreme post?) and it's negative effects on our poor elephants,  I thought I would explore some of Rick Hanson's work.   It dove tails so well with what I've been learning from Kelly McGonigal and from Christine Carter's eCourse "Breaking the Habit Code."

In  Stress-Proof Your Brain Hanson explains our responses to stress.   We are biologically wired to respond to things we perceive as a challenge to our survival in certain predictable ways.  Hanson says that that we have developed three systems (approach, avoid, and affiliate or socialize) that have their own way of handling a perceived challenge to our survival.   The first system (approach) will become quite grasping when stressed.  It will feel that there's a scarcity of what ever it needs and grab as much as possible.  The second system (avoid) will create feelings of fear and anger, the desire to flee or fight.  The third system (affiliate) will react to stress by feeling loss and separation, feeling unloved, becoming very self-involved.  It tends to look for love "in all the wrong places" under these conditions.

Traditionally these responses were fine in stressful situations, because traditionally stress was produced by a single event of shortish duration, and we could depend on our various systems to get us through the event.   The trouble with this is that today, with our high speed, noisy, cluttered, over-crowded lives, stress is no longer an event of shortish duration, it is chronic, on-going, for ever and ever.  We get up in the morning, rushing to work, there's never enough time, traffic is always horrendous, and when we get to work there are always too many deadlines, we continually disappoint the boss who threatens to make us redundant, and of course there's the demands of the family when we get home at night.  We have a physical response to stress, our heart beats faster,  our breath gets shallow, blood pressure rises.  These physical sensations can lead to further self absorption, a heightened sensitivity about internal and external stimulus, and of course lots of negative emotions.

Chronic stress disturbs our digestion, suppresses our immune system, irritates the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system, and the nervous system.  Cortisol is produced, stimulates the amygdala which creates more cortisol, and weakens the hippocampus' ability to quiet the amygdala.  It's as if our inner alarm bells get louder and louder while our ability to handle everything, or to put everything in perspective gets weaker.  Our resilience strategies go out the window, we become fearful towards others, they respond and we are further stressed.  What a mess!

To tell you the truth, I had been thinking that when I get through this or that deadline, I'll be able to calm down, and then I will be able to be more mindful, meditate better and be more focused.  You get the sense of this, it's sort of "if only this or that" thinking.  I'm beginning to realize, though, that there is no way that this fast paced culture is going to change so that I can live more mindfully, lol.

Thankfully Hanson suggested a different approach.  He looked at the three systems (approach, avoid, and affiliate or socialize) in a state of well being.  The "approach" system, when in a state of well being, feels contentment, satisfaction, and a sense of "enoughness".  If the "avoid" system is in a state of well being we tend to have a feeling of safety.  We have compassion and restraint and the ability to fix what we perceive as "wrong".  If the "affiliate" system is in a state of well being then there is a feeling of already being connected to others and our actions will be of compassion and kindness towards all.

Clearly finding ways to boost our feelings of well being right now are in order (not tomorrow, or even the nebulous "if only")!  We can't really wait for that happy day when the culture changes, the world slows down, and our bosses stop creating deadlines.  If we want to live a long and happy life, train our elephants well, we need to protect our brains from chronic stress.  Hanson suggests we need to train our brains to respond to events from a place of well being instead of stress!  Yes!  He suggests mindfulness training is a wonderful route to developing that place of well being.  Of course being an art therapist, I would want to find ways to use art in my daily well-being practices.  What kinds of practices would you employ to stress proof your brain?

Want to read some research that backs up Hanson's ideas?  Phillippe R. Goldin has a whole page of papers on mindfulness here for the downloading, bless him!

Here's a great interview with Rick Hanson in which he goes into more detail about MRI's, our anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex, the insula, and dialing down negative states of mind while increasing positive states of mind.

Also, tangentially related, for those in education, here's an interesting video interview with Michael Posner, talking about cognitive neuroscience or the brain and education. 


Anonymous said...

Oh Lani, Thanks for summarizing Rick Hanson so well. I think I'll share this post with some of my clients, not to mention friends and family, if you don't mind. I think a lot of the internet awkward communication (and I mean that in a not so good way) is rooted in this. We feel so disconnected and then it is easy to feel threatened. And then too, not everyone has some kind of release ... such as art or one of the arts like music, dance, writing etc. Great post!

Gena Lumbroso said...

Love all you have said here Lani! I totally support the mindfulness path! Wow, the times they are a changing... brings much hope and yes, art needs to be a part of a daily practice; or some type of creativity... It keeps our joy levels up. Thanks for this great and nourishing read!

Laura said...

very interesting. I want to thank you for the ATC card that I received from you as part of the Pocket Change exchange. I LOVE it:-)

Lani Gerity said...

Oh, you are most welcome, Laura!