brain articleHave you ever pondered what the science is behind the barely tangible, but extremely familiar daily experience of feeling emotions? Sometimes we feel these formless waves of inner communication so strongly that they seem to run the show. As a therapist I’m fascinated by the science of emotions.
 
In a recent article by Rick Hanson PhD, he shares some interesting information on the major brain regions that support our processing and experience of emotions. I’m going to give you a whistle stop tour of your brain, and the areas within it which influence our moods and feelings.
 
Our conscious experience of emotion is just the top layer of icing on a much bigger cake. It rests on many layers of neurological activity such as the firing of very complex and intertwining neural circuits and the tidal flows of neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
 
So let’s look at the brain regions and their role in our emotional experience.
 

  • Hippocampus – This region helps store the contexts, especially visual-spatial ones, for important experiences, such as the smell of a predator or the look of an angry expression. It is necessary for forming personal memories of events, and is unfortunately damaged over time by the cortisol released by chronic stress, especially, high or even traumatic levels of stress. If you needed another good reason to resolve your stresses, and to take up meditation, then here you have it.
  • Amygdala – Connected to the hippocampus by the neural equivalent of a four-lane superhighway, this small, almond shaped region is particularly involved in the processing of information about threats. The subjective awareness of threat comes from the feeling of the experience when it is unpleasant. When the amygdala perceives a threat – whether an external stimulus like a car hurtling towards us at speed, or an internal one, such as suddenly remembering we are on a tight project deadline – the amygdala sends a jolt of alarm to the hypothalamus and other brain regions. It also triggers the ventral tegmentum, in the brain stem, to send dopamine to other areas of the brain, in order to sensitize them to the “red flag” information streaming through.
  • Hypothalamus – This is the major switchboard of the brain, involved in the regulation of basic bodily drives such as thirst and hunger. When it gets a “red flag” signal from the amygdala, it communicates to the pituitary gland to kick start the adrenals to release epinephrine and other stress hormones, to get the body ready for immediate Fight or Flight action, known as the Fight or Flight Response or the Stress Response. This very same activation of the Stress Response occurs not just when a wild tiger chases us through the woods, but also in a chronic and ongoing way to our ‘imagined’ threats and everyday stresses, like when our boss reprimands us, our deadlines get tight, or when we respond to internal mental events such as pain or anger etc.
  • Prefrontal Cortex This region is involved in anticipating the future, making plans, organizing action, monitoring results, changing plans, and settling conflicts between different goals. These are called the Executive Functions. Where emotion is concerned, the Prefrontal Cortex helps us to foresee the emotional rewards (or penalties) of different courses of action. It also inhibits emotional reactions. Many more nerve fibers head down from the Prefrontal Cortex to the Limbic System circuitry than in the other direction. The left side of the Prefrontal Cortex plays a special role in controlling negative emotion and aggression. For example, stroke victims whose left Prefrontal Cortex is damaged tend to become more irritable, distraught, and hostile. Activation of the left Prefrontal Cortex is associated with positive emotions, which, has been proven to be stimulated by long term meditation practice. Once again, just in case you needed any further motivation to meditate, you have it right here!
  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex – This sits in the middle of the brain, centrally located for communication with the Prefrontal Cortex and the Limbic System. It monitors conflicts between different potential objects of attention, for example ‘Should I notice the flowers in these bushes or that snake slithering toward me?’,  ‘Should I listen to my wife’s story or focus on this TV show?’. It flags these conflicts for resolution by the frontal lobes. Therefore, it lights up when we attend to emotionally relevant stimuli, or sustain our attention to important feelings – inside ourselves and other people – in the face of competing stimuli. In action, this would help us to read and sense emotions in others, instead of perhaps getting lured off track by their words which might attempt to contradict their true emotion.
  • Nucleus Accumbens – In conditions of emotional arousal, especially fear-related, the accumbens receives a major wake-up call of dopamine, which primes it to receive information coming from the amygdala and other regions. Consequently, the accumbens sends more intense signals to the brain relay station for the motor systems, which results in heightened behavioral activity. This system works for both negative and positive feelings. For example, the accumbens would light up if an addict were to see their drug or drink of choice.
  • Insula – The insula is involved in picking up the inner sensations of the body, the changes which come with different emotional states. It is the brain region which unlocks the deeper layers of your emotional life, and it is also key to empathy, to being able to sense the primary emotions in others, such as fear, pain, or disgust.

As a therapist and meditation coach I love to understand a little more about the inner mechanics of neural patterns, those very patterns, connections and brain regions which we are able to change for the better with effective therapy and meditation practices.
Neural plasticity is the term which is used by neuroscientists to describe the ever changing inner structure of connections and connectivity within the brain. The good news is, that your brain is not a genetically pre-determined lump of matter. It is plastic, and with the right guidance, interventions and practice, it can change in a way which results in more positive emotions, improved resilience, less stress, better concentration and quicker learning.
Lisa Bardell is a Performance Coach, NLP Master Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Modern Meditation Coach running private clinics in the heart of the City of London ( Liverpool St ) and Cheshire, and Corporate Coaching Programmes for businesses in Manchester and London. Lisa leads regular Coaching Workshops and Retreats, tickets and details can be found in the Eventbrite link:
– LisaBardellCoachingLtd.eventbrite.co.uk
LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk
LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Meditation
LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Events
LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Retreats

Some of us wear Stress like a badge of honour

stressStress has become such an overused word in our day to day language, and this normalisation has distracted us from the inconvenient truth about its physiological, psychological and emotional toxic load. It’s time to wake up…..Ignore this at your peril!
 
I wrote this article for National Stress Awareness Day last year, 5th November 2014. It presents you my take on the modern Science of Stress – and the latest research which supports how a practice  which has been around for centuries is increasingly being seen as ‘cutting edge’  solution….
 

What is Stress?

Stress is caused by the activation of the Stress Response also known as the Fight or Flight Response, it is designed to get us out of danger – it can be thought of as a turbo boost of energy, like the body going into a different gear to prepare us to have the strength and energy to fight, or to flee from threat. Our ancestors would have used it to survive from predators or danger. It revs up the body like this:
 

  • Increases heart rate and blood pressure
  • Dilates blood vessels to muscles to pump through sugars and fats
  • Kickstarts the respiratory drive so we start to sweat to keep ourselves cool
  • Thickens the blood
  • Pumps out inflammatory chemicals to activate our immune cells ready for tissue repair if we get wounded in fight or in escape

It is a major physiological, neurological, immunological and metabolic event! It effects changes throughout our whole system.
Clearly, it is an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us respond to a clearly perceived present moment threat, to save our lives….

So what’s gone awry?

Well put simply, as modern humans we are too ‘clever’ for our own good. Now what happens on a weekly, if not daily basis, is that our cognitive function works against us. Our ability to think, to analyse, recall the past and predict the future is what causes us stress.
Our everyday thoughts cause our stress. They do so in a way that physiologically is as ‘real’ as if we were genuinely having to escape a wild, hungry tiger, an axe wielding intruder, or a high speed bus with failed breaks…

What drives or produces our stressy thoughts?

Let’s look at some Psychology. If we break the human experience down into very simple terms, we have three important ‘need systems’ which we are driven to meet.

  • 1/ Safety – This is the drive to feel safe and secure in order that we can experience peacefulness.
  • 2/ Satisfaction – This is the drive to seeking rewards in order that we can experience contentment.
  • 3/ Connection – This is the drive to seeking attachment in order that we can experience feelings of love.

These three need systems and their respective drives influence our behaviours in two ways….Firstly ‘avoiding’ behaviours so we can avoid pain, harm and danger. Secondly ‘approaching’ behaviours so we can illicit rewards and pleasure.
If one or more need system is not being met, we activate the Stress Response.
We might consider the constant activation of the response as a modern violation of the evolutionary model, where the Stress Response was designed to come in short bursts. Today, sadly it has become a chronic and ongoing reaction.

So how does this effect us?

Well the emotional and psychological effects are broad ranging, any of the below might be what you would notice in yourself or others:

  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor decision making
  • Creative blocks
  • Worrying
  • Negative thinking
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of motivation
  • Frustration and irritability
  • Tearfulness

We have all been there!
Physically there’s a whole other batch of symptoms, due to what science terms the Allostatic Load, this is the bodily wear and tear that becomes a burden on our physical as well as mental health due to our natural ‘Adaptive Responses’ to external perceived stressors getting worn out, and simply shutting off.

  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension and teeth grinding
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Allergies and skin irritations
  • IBS
  • Weight gain
  • Indigestion and heartburn
  • Dizziness and palpitations
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss due to shrinkage of the Hippocampus
  • High blood pressure

All in all it’s rather unpleasant, but more importantly in the long term this toxic load causes inflammation in our internal environment, and taxes the immune system very heavily meaning we succumb to illness and chronic disease as the body’s self healing mechanism gets switched off.

Please say there’s some good news!

Indeed there is….What science has now shown us, is that once we learn how to switch off the Stress Response, when it is not necessary, we can reverse all of the effects of stress right through the body, at a cellular level, and throughout the brain as well.
The major breakthrough in this understanding came from Herbert Benson MD, who discovered that the body has a capacity for an opposite response to the Stress Response, which works as an antidote to it, it is called the Relaxation Response.

Ok, how do we do it?

There’s a really simple solution which will only take 15-20 minutes of your day, and it has been around for over 2000 years! Meditation is the answer
Scientific research into people who meditate discovered there were dramatic physiological changes versus non-meditators:

  • Decreased metabolism
  • Quieting of the body
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Slower breathing rate
  • Slower brainwaves

All of the above are integral to the Relaxation Response, and these studies allowed it to became recognized by science, it was measurable, predictable and reproducible.
MRI scanning has allowed science to look at the brain in a way which was not possible previously. Modern research has looked at how meditation changes the structure of the brain, something which it has always done since it’s origins, but which had not been measured until the last decade.

What goes on in the brain?

The amygdala is the part of the brain which produces the Stress Response. Recent research by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and associate researcher in Psychiatry at Massachusetts Genera Hospital, has shown that with regular meditation, the amygdala gets ‘turned down’ and shrinks, it gets quieter in a way which is consistent with decreased arousal and greater feelings of peace.
What’s interesting is that in the study the external life of the participants had not changed at all, it was simply their response to their external ‘stressors’ which changed. Reducing stress is not about changing your life, it is about changing your relationship to your life. Simple!

Mind Calm Meditation

If you would like to learn Mind Calm Meditation with me, get in touch. It is a simple, modern and highly effective technique created by best selling author, acclaimed meditation teacher and award winning trainer Sandy C. Newbigging. I have been trained personally by Sandy to teach this method and I offer it as One to One coaching or in Group Workshops.
Take a look at these pages of my website for all of the information you will need. Or book on to one of my UK Mind Calm Workshops which take place most Saturdays all over the country:
Workshops – LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Events
Retreats – LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Retreats
Mind Calm Information and Testimonials – LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Meditation
Corporate Coaching Programmes – LisaBardellCoaching.co.uk/Corporate
Lisa Bardell is a Performance Coach, NLP Master Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Modern Meditation Coach running private clinics in the heart of the City of London ( Liverpool St ) and Cheshire, and Corporate Coaching Programmes for businesses in Manchester and London. Lisa leads regular Coaching Workshops and Retreats, tickets and details can be found in the Eventbrite link:
– LisaBardellCoachingLtd.eventbrite.co.uk
 

Meditation is getting more and more coverage for personal development, stress reduction, managing emotions and even for peak performance in business. The evidence base for how it works to actually change the brain has been established for a while now, but research and interest is continuing.
Mind Calm
The US are leading the way in incorporating Meditation practices into the office environment. Google have a designated ‘Head of Mindfulness’ role, filled currently by Chade-Meng Tan, to help guide their personnel on their journeys to inner peace whilst helping them to show up for work and bring their most resourceful, dynamic and creative selves to the party.
As with lots of science, the growing evidence base in support of Meditation, is merely catching up with ancient wisdom. Meditation practices have been around for thousands of years, and in terms of the brain, physical health and emotional wellbeing, Meditation has always worked the same way.

Reason 1/ ………The Science What’s changed?

What has changed is that neuroscience researchers became interested in studying the effects of Meditation, and neural imaging technology became advanced enough to actually measure the changes in the brain. SO suddenly the ears of the rational science types ( a bit like me! ) were pricking up left right and centre, as Meditation made the transition from ‘New Age’ and ‘Woo Woo’ to a serious and credible intervention to help people change or ‘re-wire’ the human brain for success, improved emotional wellbeing and a deeper sense of contentment. Of course all of these outcomes have a huge impact on our overall health.

Reason 2/ ………Resolving Stress

The biggest ‘win’ if you are to put it in broad terms, is that Meditation is a highly effective ‘de-stressor’. Stress, as you probably know causes illness, and disease through creating an inflammatory and toxic environment at a cellular level. It’s pretty much impossible to remain sustainably well with a toxic physiological state which science calls the Allostatic Load. And on the other hand it is perfectly possible to remain in a state of vitality and wellness if these inner ‘toxic’ conditions for the cells of our body are transformed. Bruce Lipton PhD, Professor of Anatomy, researcher at Stanford University Medical Center, author of ‘The Biology of Belief’ and leader in the emerging science field of Epigenetics, left one of his teaching posts in the 1960’s when his research proved that the medical establishment had been getting it wrong. He discovered that it is the cellular environment, which creates either dis-ease or wellness in the human body, NOT the genes. He believes that stress, negative emotions and limiting beliefs create a toxic environment for cells and cause illness and dis-ease. This truth is all the more empowering for us as individuals, as we can play with the possibility that WE actually have a guiding hand in creating an optimal cellular environment – rather than believing we are passive ‘victims’ to the genetic round of cards we have been dealt!……We have a CHOICE. And Meditation is one of those practices which helps us make this choice through resolving stress.
The amygdala is the part of the brain which produces the Stress Response. Recent research by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and associate researcher in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, has shown that with regular meditation, the amygdala gets ‘turned down’ and shrinks, it gets quieter in a way which is consistent with decreased arousal and greater feelings of peace.
What’s interesting is that in the study the external life of the participants had not changed at all, it was simply their response to their external ‘stressors’ which changed. Reducing stress is not about changing your life, it is about changing your relationship to your life. Simple!

Reason 3/…….Thoughts ARE Allowed!!!

Contrary to popular misconception, Mind Calm Meditation does NOT require you to have to stop all your thoughts. Having thoughts does not mean you have failed. Granted there are many forms of meditation, and I will admit that from what I have heard from a bunch of experienced meditators, some forms are rather more ‘regimented’ than others in the practice of actually trying to stop thoughts. Mind Calm Meditation allows thoughts, emotions and sensations without trying to stop them. Peace or calm, which is often one of the desired outcomes from Meditation, is not about the absence of thoughts or emotions – rather it is experiencing ‘peace with thoughts and emotions’. Many people I have taught Mind Calm to had previously struggled to meditate, they felt frustrated or fidgety and experienced what seemed like millions of thoughts after attempting to ‘stop’ their thoughts. The good news is, you don’t have to!

Reason 4/……It prevents brain draining energy

Whilst thoughts are allowed, of course ‘stillness’ of mind is ultimately the point of learning Meditation. But what’s the point of stillness I hear you ask, and what’s so bad about having a busy mind in the first place, isn’t it just normal in today’s busy world?
Well, yes indeed it has become ‘normal’, but that’s not to say that it is helpful in any way. If we think of the brain as a electrical appliance ( it is constantly creating electrical brain wave activity after all ), we can explore what happens with the busy mind and how it affects the body. In our normal waking state we will be primarily in a Beta brainwave state, which is associated with a heightened state of alertness and focused concentration ranging from 12Hz to 40Hz. The higher up this frequency range we go, the busier our minds become and this leads to intrusive thoughts, over-thinking, stress and anxiety. Of course as if that is not unpleasant enough, it is also draining our brains and our bodily systems of precious energy, rather like having the electric heater on at the height of summer with all the windows open.
It’s fine to waste energy every now and again, but when this level of energy draining becomes routine, it depletes energy levels and we can feel physically and mentally fatigued, but that is still only half the story. The effects of that, mean that the active process of healing, which our body is designed to do perfectly well to keep us healthy and vital, becomes totally neglected. Our immune systems get bogged down and we get ill, and begin setting ourselves up for ‘dis-ease’ in the long term.
Meditation gets us into the lower brainwave states of Alpha  and Theta. Alpha brainwaves are slower in frequency and represent a state of relaxed mental awareness or reflection. They are typically associated with contemplation, visualization, problem solving and accessing deeper levels of creativity. The Alpha brainwave state corresponds to frequencies ranging from 8 Hz to 12 Hz.
Theta brainwaves are even slower in frequency and represent a state of deep relaxation, enhanced creativity, stress relief, light sleep and dreaming. Theta brainwave states have been used in meditation for centuries. Research has proven thirty minutes a day of Theta meditation can dramatically improve a person’s overall health and wellbeing. Theta meditation has also been known to cause the need for less sleep. The Theta brainwave state corresponds to frequencies ranging from 4Hz to 8 Hz.

Reason 5/……It is the gateway to our ‘subconscious programming’ allowing us to make changes that stick!

All of our conditioning, our early programming, our limiting beliefs and our habits live in our subconscious minds. We don’t really have a gateway into our subconscious minds until we get down into a Theta brainwave state. This explains why some of you might have tried ‘positive thinking’ or affirmations whilst wide awake in a Beta wave state – often it doesn’t stick! Without a strategy which opens the gates to the subconscious programming and the home of our ‘life limiting beliefs’ ( Hypnotherapy, EFT /Tapping or Meditation ) we may find our attempts to install any new, positive programming a little futile. The odds are stacked against our efforts if we hold some opposing ‘beliefs’ deep in our ‘subconscious mind’. The subconscious mind is in charge, it is the MUCH larger and more powerful processing system compared to the ‘conscious mind’. The subconscious runs 95-99% of the show, and the conscious is always running about half a second behind, making a best guess as to what is actually going on ( and often making a logical and analytical ‘story’ to make rational sense of what might be going on, which does not reflect the deep, subconscious reality ).
When we adopt a regular Meditation practice, if it includes setting positive ‘intentions or affirmations’, we are doing so whilst in a lower brainwave state, with the subconscious mind as well as the conscious mind. This combined effect, coupled with the regularity of the new ‘idea’ or intention, can become infinitely more likely to manifest in our daily experience.

Mind CALM…..

Mind Calm is the Meditation technique that I practice. I also teach it in Workshops and One to Ones.
I have personally found Mind Calm to be the easiest and most enjoyable technique. This has also been reflected back in client feedback and testimonials ( read these on my website pages listed below ). The easier and more enjoyable the technique, of course the longer we spend doing it to reap the wonderful rewards.
Mind Calm requires…..No jargon, no rituals, no strict rules, no uncomfortable sitting positions AND absolutely NO judgement as to where you’re at. Just a simple, easy to learn and fun way to enjoy more serenity and success in daily life.
Mind Calm Meditation provides practical techniques that allow you to let go of the constant chatter happening in your mind. In doing so, Mind Calm Meditation can help you:

  • Worry less
  • Sleep better
  • Improve your Relationships
  • Live more fully in the Present Moment
  • Reach your Full Potential in your career
  • Sharpen your Focus & Memory
  • Flourish Creatively
  • Feel more CALM
  • Boost inner Confidence
  • Experience deep Contentment & Satisfaction

 
Take a look at these pages of my website for all of the information you will need. Or book onto one of my UK Mind Calm Workshops which take place most Saturdays all over the country. One to One bespoke Mind Calm Coaching can also be arranged in London, Cheshire, or via Skype.
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