The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘neocortex’

Celebrating Stress

Celebrations and stress are not usually words we see together. However today they are. Because today, we made it!

It is officially November 30, 2014. Which means that this is the final day of the NaBloPoMo challenge, and our series on stress.

And the National Blog Posting Month has definitely been a challenge! Probably not in the way most people would think, though. I had no trouble at all coming up with the post ideas and writing the material. Stress is such a huge topic that we could easily go for another month without too much trouble!

Instead, the challenge for me was finding the time to get it all done with the other responsibilities in my life. But I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it. The experience has stretched me to think about some things (including my own stress) in a different way.

It has drawn lots of new readers to our small corner of the internet and as they share their stories I find my passion for The Mindset Effect renewed. It’s people like you guys who keep me doing what I do. I love sharing my knowledge with the aim of supporting all of you to make positive, healthy changes in your life. At the end of this post, as a special something for all of you who have stuck with me throughout the month, I have a very special treat. I won’t tell you what it is right now (and no cheating by scrolling!); it will be waiting for you when you get to the end. 🙂

After such an intense month and 29 different articles on stress, I’d like to revisit some of the main concepts and bring it all together for you. I know that sometimes receiving so much information can be a little overwhelming and difficult to understand. So let’s see what we can do …

managing stress

We began the month with a few simple definitions of the different types of stress before we discussed the pretty grim impacts it has on our mind, body and emotions. With any type of force, strain or pressure, and the possibility of conditions such as weight gain, heart issues, diabetes and blood pressure, it becomes really important to be aware of your stress and to learn to manage it effectively.

I believe it’s equally important to understand how stress works. If you understand it, you’ll be armed with heaps of knowledge that supports you to implement the simple management strategies that we know really work. You’ll have the science behind why you do things like reach for the chocolate bar, cry for seemingly no reason or snap at your partner. And you’ll also have the reasons behind why you feel some pretty mean neck and shoulder tension or why you crash at the end of the day or week and can’t bring yourself to even get out of the chair.

The neurobiology behind stress is extremely complex. I won’t go into that here but you can go back and read any of those earlier posts on the Triune brain, trauma, hormones and the amygdala. Between them, they explain the workings of our inbuilt survival mechanism and why many of our reactions occur.

The stress response, or our fight/flight mechanism, is activated easily and frequently by all manner of life events, from watching someone you love draw their last breath, to dealing with screaming kids or seeing the bills pile up when you have a limited income. And with the buildup of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, managing the fallout from these events becomes even more important.

Children are also impacted by stress in the same way we are, but their experience is different due to the development of their brains being incomplete. They need guidance in some of the same simple techniques we use.

Probably the most important and effective management strategy is the use of breathing. My friend and colleague, Linda, did a great job of explaining how to utilise belly breathing to down-regulate the stress response.

We’ve also explored sleep, movement, food and laughter and how these are all related to or impact our stress. And we learned how simple routines and small changes can make a big difference in the way we experience it.

With such a complex system and so many things feeding into the impacts we feel, it’s important that we are able to break it all down into bite size pieces and make the way we manage stress work for us in our day to day life. Learning to listen to our mind and body and understanding the meaning of the signals they give out, means we can become more aware of how we respond to stress and this assists us to figure out how to manage it.

As a special treat to you all for your support this past month I would like to provide you with a bonus. I know from first-hand experience that listening to those stress signals is not always easy. In fact, it can be a downright nightmare! Especially given how chaotic our minds can be when we are in the midst of it all. So I would like to provide for you an audio file with 2 of the simple techniques we have discussed previously. This is called guided imagery. I’ll first take you through a simple breathing strategy similar to the belly breathing Linda talked about. I’ll then extend on this and guide you through a body scan, which will help you listen to, connect with and become more aware of the signals your body gives you.

To prepare to listen, find a quiet place and make yourself comfortable, preferably lying flat on your back with your hands loosely by your sides.

calm scenery picnic point

I’d love to hear how you go with it when you try it! Please feel free to let me know below.

Before I close up this series, I’d like to thank a few people. Firstly to my friend and colleague Linda, for sharing her passion and skill in the articles she provided on sleep and the role of breathing. I’d like to thank my friend Libby, for helping me brainstorm for the post on listening to our bodies. I’d also like to thank Julia and Carlie who provided articles on their personal experiences with stress. Hearing personal stories can help us understand that other people feel the way we do. We aren’t alone in feeling stressed. Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who read my words and stick around to read more! Without you, there would be no point me writing and sharing all the stuff in my brain.

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Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons

Down-regulating stress

Are you getting tired of me talking about the amygdala yet? That little pea-size thing located in the limbic region (emotion centre) of the brain is responsible for our entire survival. After all, it’s the thing that makes the assessment about whether we need to be on the alert for threat. It tells us when we need to focus our entire attention on getting out of a particular situation, whether by fighting for our lives or fleeing for it. The fight/flight response, otherwise known as the stress response.

Like we’ve talked about in previous posts, the amygdala sends signals to different parts of the brain that releases neurochemicals (a fancy word for hormones) that ready our body for that fight or flight. Adrenalin and cortisol provide extra strength for our muscles, and elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. When you combine this with the lack of blood flow to the neocortex, or thinking centre, our emotions are truly activated and our ability to reason out the problem at hand becomes impaired.

stress is

As we discovered yesterday, this process is called up-regulation. It occurs every time we perceive something as a threat. I say it’s a perception because these days it’s not often that we get confronted by saber-tooth tigers outside our cave. Instead we’re confronted by all the things we discussed in the first 4 days of our focus month on stress. Everything that impacts on our bodies, mind and emotions.

Some of these are real threats to our survival, such as the trauma of abuse, but others are not. How many people have died when their kids don’t clean up their room after being asked 300 times? I’m guessing not many. But as we’ve already established, our amygdala doesn’t know the difference, so it makes the assessment regardless.

So we know how it becomes up-regulated.

Do we know how we can down-regulate it?

Don’t be overwhelmed by the terms I’m using. Up-regulation. Down-regulation. They sound technical but we can simplify them.

Up-regulation is to activate the stress response. To set it in motion and to put us on alert.

Down-regulation is the opposite. To calm us down. To ease our emotions, support the adrenalin and cortisol leaving out body, to calm our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. And to re-introduce the blood flow to the thinking centre of the brain so we can reason and problem solve again.

I know the process sounds complex, but as I hinted yesterday, it truly is simple to do. And it comes down to one word.

Breathe.

Yup, that’s it. We need to breathe.

Breathing promotes the flow of oxygen. And this in turn promotes the flow of blood. The more oxygen we take into our lungs the more we will have going through our brain. And that’s where we need it, to down-regulate the entire process.

Think about it. When we feel stressed how do we breathe? Shallowly. We breathe into our chest. And when we feel completely relaxed and chilled out, how does our breathing work then? Deeper. Complete breaths. From the diaphragm. This is the type of breathing that really supports the down-regulation.

I’d like you to try something.

While you’re reading this, I want you to either lay down or sit up straight. Place your hand on the front of your rib cage. Take a breath in and just notice what happens to your tummy. Does it rise up or sink in? observe it for a few seconds without trying to change it.

Now, try to get your tummy to rise up as you breathe in and sink down as you breathe out. Repeat, as you slow your breathing. Spend about 20 seconds simply focusing on this process.

And then check in with your body and mind about how you feel. Let us know what kind of difference you felt in the comments below.

breathe

Stress and the amygdala

Did you read yesterday’s post on the stress response? I know it was lengthy and a little technical, but if you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to go back and do it, because today’s post will make much more sense if you have.

So yesterday we learned about how the brain processes stress. We looked at the 3 parts of the Triune Brain, as shown in my very artistic diagram.

triune brain 3

And we discovered that little thing in the limbic region called the amygdala.

If you’d like to read more about the neuroscience of the amygdala try this site. It’s pretty technical but it shows how the different parts of the brain feed into the amygdala and how the amygdala feeds into other parts, which then impact on our emotions.

Remember, the amygdala has just one job of making the assessment about whether a situation is life threatening.

As I explained yesterday, when the answer is yes, the stress response is activated. And the amygdala is what we call “up-regulated”. Signals are sent to the brain stem to increase heart rate, breathing, blood pressure. They’re also sent to the neocortex to shut down the non-essential ability to think, reason and problem solve (see diagram above).

And by doing this we are able to respond effectively to the risk to our survival.

But what if we aren’t really at risk? Remember me saying yesterday that the amygdala can’t tell the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and finances? There really isn’t any bill on the planet, no matter how large, that threatens our existence. Promise.

So we’ve got this up-regulation going on, where our bodies are flooded with adrenalin and cortisol. We feel out of control, like nothing is going to go right. We have emotions galore running over us and through us. And all we can think about is the thing that activated the response in the first place. In this case, the bills.

Which is the other thing I neglected to mention yesterday. Part of the stress response is the complete focus on the thing that places us under threat. Do you think it would help us survive if we took our eyes off the tiger and forgot it was sitting on the rock? No way! It would immediately take its opportunity to pounce and attack. Kind of self-explanatory, right?

When it comes to the bills the reaction is the same. Our focus is complete. We worry, we mull it over, wonder what we are going to do. And because our neocortex isn’t working due to the lack of blood flow, we aren’t thinking clearly about it. We can’t problem solve it.

So we have a body full of adrenalin and cortisol, we feel antsy and restless, out of control, we have a racing heart and lots of muscle tension, and all we can think about is the bills (or whatever activated the response).

We need to find a way to reverse the process. To re-engage the neocortex so we can think and figure a way out of the situation. To calm our emotions, our heart rate. To ease the muscle tension and release the adrenalin and cortisol.

For such a complex system it feels like the solution needs to be just as complex, right? After all, this up-regulation feels completely horrid, so it must be complicated. Right?

Wrong.

The solution is so simple it seems like it won’t have any chance of working. Surprisingly though, it does.

I find that the simplest solutions work the best.

Breathing.

That’s it. Just breathe.

The stress response and the Triune Brain

Yesterday we brought all of our definitions together and discussed the impacts that stress can have on you. While the effects can be severe, the good news is that we can minimise them by implementing some lifestyle factors. We’ll cover those things later in the month.

Today I’d like to discuss the stress response. This takes us back to the in-built survival mechanism we all have in our brains. We are biologically programmed to do everything we can to remain alive for as long as possible. Some guy named Paul McLean introduced us to something called the Triune Brain, which breaks down its complexity, dividing it into 3 parts that make it a lot easier to understand our survival instincts. If you’d like to read more about the Triune Brain you can just google the term, but here is a site to start you off.

So this post is likely to be a little lengthy and technical, so read it at your own pace. Feel free to put it aside and come back to it later. I’ll include diagrams and subheadings to break it into manageable parts. If there is anything you don’t understand, please ask. It’s important that you are able to process and understand this information, because it will help you to implement strategies that work for you.

The Triune Brain

Ok. So as I said, the Triune brain is divided into 3 parts and together they explain our evolutionary processes.

Brain Stem

This part of the brain is the only part that is fully developed at birth. It’s located at the bottom of the brain and runs down into the top of the spine. It’s responsible for our basic human survival. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and so on. It also has part responsibility for the stress response, otherwise known as the fight/flight response (which I’ll explain soon).

To paint a picture for you, if you hold your arm up in front of you, your forearm between your wrist and elbow would be the brain stem.

Limbic Region

This is generally fully developed between the ages of 3-5. It sits on top of the brain stem and is responsible for our emotions and plays a big part in our stress response (fight/flight). It also plays a part in anxiety, depression and trauma.

Within the limbic region are 2 key parts that you need to be aware of. The first is a pea-size thing (very technical term) called the amygdala. Its sole job is to make an assessment, which I’ll explain further soon. The other part is the hippocampus, which forms part of our memory systems. I’ll explain this soon too.

As an aside, when a child is abused at a young age, their amygdala becomes enlarged and is activated much more easily.

If you’re still holding your arm up, make a fist. Your fist is the limbic region of the brain.

Neocortex

The neocortex is the last part of the brain to develop. While it starts to grown when you’re young, it really kicks in when you hit your teenage years and doesn’t fully develop until around age 25 (which is why teenagers are so impulsive and don’t think things through. Their limbic regions are fully developed, enabling them to act on their emotions, but their thinking brain doesn’t yet have the capacity to keep up and balance it with the ability to reason things out).

The neocortex is commonly called the thinking brain. It’s responsible for exactly that. Thinking. Which includes reasoning and problem solving.

Going back to your arm, keep your fist clenched, and wrap your other hand over your fist. This hand is the neocortex.

Take a look at this first picture. Hope you like my super artistic ability! It shows the Triune Brain as I’ve described. Hope it makes sense with the colour coding.

triune brain 3

Let’s go back to caveman times for a second

I want you to take on the role of caveman for a moment. You’re coming out of your cave to do the hunter-gatherer thing. You’re too far out to get back inside quickly, and you suddenly notice a saber-toothed tiger sitting on a rock to your right. And this tiger is look at you like you are its next meal.

saber toothed tiger

What do you do?

Here is where the amygdala comes into play.

You see the tiger, you hear it, and you may feel vibrations under your feet, smell it and so on. Your brain takes in this information and sends it to the amygdala.

Your amygdala’s sole job is to answer 1 question – is this tiger a threat to my survival?

If the answer is yes, your stress response, or fight/fight response, is immediately activated:

  1. The amygdala sends a signal to the brain stem to say, ok, I need all of my resources available to get me out of this situation alive. Your brain releases adrenalin and cortisol (the 2 main stress hormones) to prepare you for either fight or flight. It increases your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure to ready your body to respond.
  2. At the same time signals are sent to the neocortex (thinking centre) that says “I don’t need you right now, time to shut down”. Think about it. Will the tiger sit around waiting for you to think about things and decide which way to go in case it moves to the left 4 inches or closer to you? Let me tell you, it won’t wait. You need to be able to react immediately. If you take time to problem solve your life could very well be terminated! So, the blood flow to your thinking center gets shut down so you can immediately react.
  3. Additionally, you need to be aware that once the crisis has passed, if it happens again you need to be ready to act very quickly. So the memory device I mentioned earlier, called the hippocampus, lays down memories so that next time you see a tiger, the information is processed much quicker. The amygdala does its thing and the stress response is activated.

triune brain 4

We can come back to modern times now

So now we’ve explained the stress response, we need to understand that with the really quick advances we’ve had since our caveman times, we’re no longer confronted by saber-tooth tigers. Generally, our lives are rarely threatened. Evolution hasn’t kept up with those developments and unfortunately, the amygdala can’t tell the difference between tigers and finances.

Or any number of other things we have to deal with in our modern society. Families, kids, work responsibilities, traffic and so on.

And because our lives are so fast these days, it’s likely that our stress response is activated over and over again in very quick succession.

But here’s the thing. The stress response is there for a specific purpose. To keep us alive in a crisis. And after the crisis has passed it is supposed to ease. Blood flow is returned to those non-essential systems like our thinking brain. The stress hormones dissipate and leave the body (which is when you feel shaky and fall to bits). And at this point we are supposed to rest and recover and recoup our energy.

I hope all that makes sense. It’s a complex process and can be difficult to understand. We’ll leave things there for now and pick it up again tomorrow, when we’ll talk more about that pea size thing called the amygdala.

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