The brain is both the source of stress and the key to managing it.
Stress is a biological response to a challenging physical or emotional situation. Studies have shown that stress is dependent on the amount of control a person feels she or he has over a situation. People who feel powerless, confused, or overwhelmed have much higher than average levels of stress.
From the brain’s perspective, everything can be perceived as stress. From walking down the street to handing in a difficult report on time, it is all a question of the degree of stimulation.
We all know that our brain is responsible for the control of our physiology, our movements, our thoughts, and our emotions. During a stressful incident, the brain responds with the biological reactions necessary to put the individual experiencing stress on alert, engaging the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system.
Depending on the level of stimulation from the stressing factor, the degree of response from the fight-or-flight mechanism varies. The part of the brain called the hippocampus has the ability to recognize high levels of stress hormones in our system and send signals to stop their production, putting things back into balance.
Your modern lifestyles involve constant stimulation of the fight-or-flight response, keeping our systems on high alert. This has detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. Continuous high levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream damage the hippocampus, the very part of the brain we use to control stress. A damaged hippocampus has trouble regulating these hormones, leading to a downward spiral of chronic stress.
Using Your Brain to Counteract The Effects Of Stress
The brain has the ability to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls what we can refer to as the “rest and digest” response. Meditation, yoga, exercise, and relaxation are among the many methods individuals can use to lower stress hormone levels. “Brain Education,” which I practice and teach, is a program based on the principle that we can learn to control our brain intentionally, much like we can control the muscles in our body.
Engaging the brain in the rest-and-digest response is an important first stage in recreating the balance our brains require. We have the power to teach our brains to do this intentionally. Once the overstimulated fight-or-flight response becomes under our control, it’s possible to engage the true potential of our brains.
A healthy brain is an essential part of a positive and healthy lifestyle in which stress is well managed. Studies have shown that all of the following benefit the brain:
- Physical exercise
- Proper diet and nutrition
- Mind-body training
- Meditation and relaxation
- Spiritual awakening
Basic Exercises To Counteract Your Brain’s Stress-Response Mechanisms
The easiest method to engage the rest-and-digest response of your brain is through appropriate vibrations that can harmonize our brain and body. Using vibration is a very natural way to regulate our brain activity. Mothers instinctively rock their young ones to generate a vibration that will calm their child’s brain.
Every morning, before the stimulation of stress comes your way, practice these two techniques for a few minutes.
Stand comfortably, with your feet apart at shoulder width. Bend your knees slightly so you do not exert too much pressure on your lower spine. Join the fingers of your hands together, with the knuckles of your thumbs facing your body. Bending your knees slightly, bounce with a comfortable rhythm, and tap the knuckles of your thumbs repetitively on the center of your sternum, exhaling deeply. Each time you breathe out, try to empty your chest of all tension while bouncing on your knees. Continue for three to five minutes, emptying your mind of all worries and thoughts as you breathe out. Keep your eyes closed while you focus your attention on the physical sensations around the center of your chest. Imagine any discomfort or pain released with every outward breath. Finish by taking a deep breath and sweeping your hands down the center of your upper body as you exhale.
2. Create A “Happy” Brain Wave
After finishing the first exercise, sit down comfortably, without leaning against the back of your chair. Keep your spine straight. Prepare yourself for “brain wave vibration” training by taking a deep breath and exhaling any tension of your body out. Focus your attention on the back of your head, at the point of pivot between your head and neck. Gently start nodding your head back and forth with a comfortable rhythm. Focus on the rhythm and let it grow as your head becomes free to shake in any direction it wants. Keep visualizing yourself bright and relaxed. Keep following the rhythm, which can now travel down your spine, engaging your shoulders and upper body as well as your head and neck. It helps to maintain a light smile while practicing. Keep going for as long as you wish. Finish by slowing the rhythm down and bringing your focus on the center of your body. Breathe comfortably, focusing on the center of your abdomen while feeling the clear and peaceful sensation in your brain.
At night, if you have had too much stimulation during the day, you can use a vibration exercise to bring your brain waves down and encourage a sound, deep sleep. As you lay on your back in your bed, leave some space between your legs and rest your hands on your abdomen. Focusing on your breathing, gently turn your feet in and out in a steady rhythm, engaging the whole length of your legs so that even your hips move. As the rhythm develops, it will feel like you are simply shaking your legs. This exercise, if done for just three minutes at night, releases accumulated tension before sleep. When you finish, relax your whole body completely. Focus on comfortable abdominal breathing and let yourself drift off to sleep.
Claire Gaudry, Ph.D. teaches brain education in Hammersmith, London. She can be contacted at info [at] hspholistic.com for more information.
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.