Stress is both a worldwide epidemic and a highly personal one. Most people are overloaded these days – depressed, anxious, and on edge, with the stress buzzer jammed on. The resulting chronic leakage of stress hormones – that drip, drip, drip – causes extremes of emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. It can impact every organ system in potentially deleterious ways and is the root cause of eighty percent of health problems and most human suffering. When you gain weight, you blame yourself for eating the extra ice cream or sitting on the couch, but it’s stress that fuels those tendencies. When you fall into depression, you imagine that it is some fault of your own; however, research points to the fundamental cause of depression as stress. When stress levels are over the top, you are apt to sprout many stress symptoms, each of which stresses you out and exacerbates the other symptoms more.
The goal of emotional brain training (EBT) is to reverse your allostatic load by using simple tools that give you the capacity to be at any level of stress and find the precise pathway through the brain back to a state of joy. The more moments you spend in well-being, the more you turn around stress-related increase in allostatic load, and the myriad of stress symptoms tend to improve. The strategy is to rewire self-regulation, the fundamental way we process daily life.
Instead of tolerating feeling stressed out, you identify your level of stress, then choose the corresponding tool to switch your brain back to a state of well-being. You do that again and again over time – for the brain only changes by repeated experience – and at some point you will download into your brain the pathways to move through stress rather than getting stuck in it. You will sense that, at long last, you have an emotional anchor, a safe haven within. You will be free to feel your strong, robust emotions, and at liberty to experience any level of stress, confident that you know just the mental practice that will switch you back to a state of well-being. Things that used to cause you to clench your teeth, raid the refrigerator, scream at your kids, or hole up in the den won’t bother you anymore. And most of those issues that you swept under the rug will have disappeared.
At that point, you have become a wizard of your own stress processing, and even though life will still be difficult and you will still find yourself stressed out some of the time; more often than not, you will feel joy regardless of circumstance. It’s a wonderful way to live, and it all starts with turning your attention away from problems and toward the elegant act of using precise mental tools to rewire your emotional brain.
Switching those wires
When I get into my car in the morning, I put the key into the ignition and turn on the engine. At least that’s what I assume I do, since I end up driving to work. But I don’t do any of it consciously – it is so automatic that I don’t have to think about it. The information that lets me do this is stored in my emotional brain, the unconscious memory storehouse. In fact, most things are stored in our unconscious memory. When humans are faced with a stimulus, we draw upon these unconscious memories of past experiences to respond effectively. These responses are stored as wires. The normal stresses of the day – the coffee spilling, a deadline looming, or a craving for sweets – arouse wires, each of which channels chemicals and electricity along a specific pathway so that we respond the same way that we have in the past.
Those wires fall into two categories. Some of those wires are highly effective – just what you need. We call these joy circuits. The coffee spills, and you say, ‘ouch’ and go about cleaning it up and feeling pretty good. You keep your cool and don’t let one spilled cup of coffee ruin your day. The other wires – the ones that are not effective – we call stress circuits. When they are triggered, that one spilled cup of coffee leads to a burning sense of resentment, having a chip on your shoulder during a meeting, soothing yourself with chocolates, and feeling bloated and grumpy. That’s an ineffective wire, arousing unnecessary stress that is prolonged.
From Wired for Joy, ©2010 by Laurel Mellin, published by Hay House.