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Swimming upstream to happiness

April 6, 2017

How neuro-science & journal writing techniques can alter our brains to beat the negative tide...

Ever feel like you’re swimming upstream to find happiness? You’re not alone. In fact, neuro scientists tell us we’ve been struggling with a negative undercurrent since childhood, often plunging our way forward, only to slip backwards in exhaustion from fighting what seems like an overpowering tide.

This does not mean we are negative people. What it means is that we all have exquisitely developed fight-fright centres. Otherwise know as the amygdala, the ancient remnant of the fight-fight mechanism I call “Amy.” Amy makes its' initial appearance in the first trimester of our lives, sensing our mother’s stress hormones, especially threat based stimulus. With instructions from our ancient reptilian brains (Excuse this tiny oversimplification) Amy then goes on automatic pilot. It senses even the slightest threat and acts before we can think. This goes on for 25 years before our higher thinking/reasoning abilities—Frontal C—can fully kick in. It’s like entering a race where highly-trained Amy’s have a 25-year head-start on Frontal C’s that are just getting their shoes on.

At the 2017 Neuro Science Summit Lisa Wimberger, founder of the Neurosculpting® Institute, contended that the first 25 years of our lives should be chock full of rich, nurturing, wonderment, emotional connection, good sleep-nutrition and uber experiences to enable us to balance Amy and Frontal C[1]. To balance our nervous systems and have the option of choosing happiness. Chances are there are not very many of us that make it to our mid-20s without some issues, which means we are under equipped to shoe up with Amy.

Of course, it’s important that we have the amygdala, or I wouldn’t be here to write this blog, and you wouldn’t be here to read it. Amy keeps us out of harm’s way. The growing problem is that overprotective Amy still thinks she’s the boss. Even though most of us in developed nations are “normally” free of threats to life and limb, Amy wants to be on ALL THE TIME. So even if we receive something as innocuous as a nasty email we do one of three things. So says "Distinguished University Scientist" at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University Bloomington and psychiatry professor Stephen Porges PhD. He claims we stand and fight, or run away. If our fight-flight reflex doesn’t work we reach back to our reptilian origins and freeze[2]. Think of your pet turtle and what it does when it senses a threat.

Used to be neuro scientists thought adults could not be saved. That we are forever condemned to swimming upstream with nothing but a constant threat in our goggles. But now they’re telling us we can change our brains and swap our goggles for a healthier outlook if we can calm Amy and feed Frontal C. Because there is no way we're going to achieve happiness as long as we view life as a threat.

If you’re thinking this sounds way to complicated you’d be surprised to learn how easy it is to start a regular routine to override decades of negativity, fear and anxiety and even heal chronic physical conditions. Neuro scientists say we can literally change our minds using various meditative and therapeutic practices. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonagall emphasizes the importance of stepping back from our struggle and recognizing the players. Watch for what pushes you towards a wiser self (Frontal C), or impulsive (Amy) self,[3] she advises.

Joe Dispenza, author of Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself claims we can make changes on a biological level and will our nervous systems to chemically instruct our minds and bodies to work together.[4] If you don’t want to smack the face in the mirror every morning you might want to consider trying neuro science’s ideas for your physical health. In a recent New York Times article Jane E. Brody admits there is no longer any doubt about the brain’s influence on the body. She writes: “…Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels[5].”

Of course, the best news is how some new journal techniques can alter our brains to help us swim upstream to calm Amy and feed Frontal C without too much slippage. It makes sense when you think about journaling as a way of reaching deep into ourselves for resources we often don’t realize we have, and using that data to instruct our minds and bodies to work together

Expressive writing pioneer, author and founder of the Centre for Journal Therapy Kathleen Adams, and psychotherapist and writer Deborah Ross published their ground breaking book Your Brain on Ink about a year ago. The workbook offers insights into neuroplasticity and journal techniques, tools and writing prompts that can help us write our way into a more positive state of desire.

[1] Based on her presentation “Using Neuroscience to Find Healing and Happiness,” the week of March 20-29/17 aired by Sounds True.

[2] Based on a talk Dr. Porges gave to the Neuro Science Summit entitled, “Connectedness as a Biological Imperative” the week of March 20—29/17 aired by Sounds True.

[3] Based on her presentation to the 2017 Neuro Science Summit entitled, “The Neuroscience of Change,” aired by Sounds True the week of March 20-29/17.

[4] Based on his talk at the 2017 Neuro Science Summit entitled, “Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon” the week of March 20-29/17 aired by Sounds True.

[5] Brody, Jane E. “A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health.” New York Times, March 27/17.

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