Having taught journal writing workshops for decades it’s apparent to me that very few people are avid journal keepers, including myself. Most of us, however, can do periodic writing to relieve stress, resolve problems and most of all give our brains get an objective view point.
In psychological jargon the “objective observer” actually helps us “reprogram” painful, hurtful, stressful, difficult memories. There are lots of ways to access our “objective observer” – meditation, guided imagery, the arts – and writing is one of the quickest.
Write on! by Peggy
Research have shown that writing about negative events or emotions is emotionally therapeutic and can even benefit the immune system. Interestingly other studies have shown that writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.
Here’s a particularly interesting study:
How Writing About Past Failures May Help You Succeed In The Present
by Alice G. Walton
“They say failure is a necessary part of success, but it doesn’t always feel that way. A new study in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience not only supports this connection but adds an interesting twist, finding that reflecting on past failures—by writing about them—may help us stay calm in the face of new stressors. The team found this in the lab, but based on past evidence, it likely applies to real life, too.”
“The researchers, from Rutgers University, University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, had people come into the lab and write for 10 minutes about either a time they’d made mistakes or failed at something in the past, or about an unrelated topic (a movie they’d recently seen). The team predicted that writing about a past failure would actually reduce a person’s stress level during a stressful situation in the present, whereas writing about the random topic wouldn’t have any effect.”
“To stress the participants, they subjected them to a well-known Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants have just a few minutes to prepare a five-minute speech, which they have to deliver in front of the researchers, or in this case a researcher posing as a “speech expert.” If that weren’t enough, the participants then had to count backwards by 13 from 2063. Finally, participants carried out a straightforward test of attention and reaction time.”
“As the team predicted, people who’d written about a past failure didn’t show the typical stress response (measured by the stress hormone cortisol) to the stress test, compared to the control group, who’d written about movie plots. They also did better on the tests of attention, making fewer mistakes, and ending with higher scores on average.”
“Because the control group still wrote, but about an unemotional topic, the authors conclude that it’s not just the writing, but the reflecting on earlier failure, that seems to have the stress-reducing effects.”
“We didn’t find that writing itself had a direct relationship on the body’s stress responses,” says study author Brynne DiMenichi in a statement. “Instead, our results suggest that, in a future stressful situation, having previously written about a past failure causes the body’s stress response to look more similar to someone who isn’t exposed to stress at all.”
Check out an easy tutorial on writing. Click HERE
Mind races. Unsettling worry or concern repeats itself over and over. No solution. No relief. Can’t sleep. Can’t concentrate on anything other than your SUPER WORRY
It doesn’t feel like it but your brain is doing this for your benefit – Relentlessly focus your attention on a potential (albeit imagined) threat to help you stay safe. Three parts of you brain start firing in lockstep:
- The orbital frontal cortex gives you the feeling you made a mistake or there is danger.
- It signals the cingulate gurus which generates the neurochemistry of anxiety.
- The caudate nucleus usually allows thoughts to flow from one to another, but it stops doing this.
- These 3 parts together keep person locked into worry, an obsession with something thy fear.
You may even realize that the worry is not rational, or the fear is not imminent. It’s your brain locked into a feed-back loop and won’t let you escape from the worrying thoughts.
Mousey Worry by Peggy
You can rewire your SuperWorry into SuperRelief
Talk to your brain – silently or outloud:
- Thank your brain for doing what it was created to do. Don’t be mad or upset with your brain. It’s a good brain.
- However, relabel the problem as a brain problem, not an imminent threat. The real problem is not what you fear, it is the brain is getting locked into a position and isn’t moving on.
- Pick something positive or neutral to focus on instead. Ideally something pleasurable.
- Repeat this as often as necessary. It takes time for your brain to understand it doesn’t have to protect you in this way.
Here’s an example: Thank you brain. You don’t need to keep reminding me that (an earthquake will happen, someone will break into the house, I will get fired). I’m safe right this minute.
When brain focuses on something over and over, it strengthens the brain neuro-connections. When you stop the thinking the connections are weakened. Think of it like a wilderness trail – The more the trail is traveled the path gets wider and the dirt gets more and more compacted. Stop walking on the trail and it becomes overgrown, impassable and no longer used.
Use it or lose it
Any deviation from the neuro-connection path weakens it. Every time you interrupt and then stop the thought about the fear and redirect your thoughts it gets easier. The more you practice the more the neural links to the worry weaken and new positive neutral pathways are generated.
PET scans have shown that the brain pathways actually change when you perform the four steps.
Use this process for small worries, not just big ones.
Norman Dodgie, “The Brain that Changes Itself”
Jeffrey M Schwartz, “Brain Lock”
I’ve barely made a dent in the editing down of this article. Why? It’s a big article, I don’t know where to start and I am blaming it on my brain.
Cluttered Closet by Peggy
“Closets bulging with clothes and shoes. Plastic bins of stuff shoved under the bed. Stacks of mail covering the dining table. Has anyone seen the car keys?”
“It’s spring, time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Time to throw open the windows and do some spring cleaning. But the magnitude of the project is daunting. How to begin?”
“If you want to know why it’s so difficult to tackle a big project like spring cleaning, blame your brain, said Randall O’Reilly, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at CU Boulder.”
“The brain is wired to be very cautious and conservative in starting big projects, because once you do start, it takes over your brain,” he said. “The brain, researchers think, is wired to track progress towards whatever it is you’ve decided to do, like spring cleaning, which is hard work. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions and the outcome is uncertain. Your brain recognizes that and says, ‘Maybe I won’t start on that project after all.’ It’s an adaptive property of the brain.”
“Once we get over the initial stalling and begin the project, the brain rewards us with small hits of dopamine as we make progress. This provides an incentive to stick with the task.”
“Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells and plays a major role in both mood and reward-motivated behavior.”
“So, you’ve tackled cleaning and decluttering and you’re making progress. And then you notice the teapot that belonged to your grandmother stored in the back of the cupboard. It’s sweet and dainty and evokes fond memories of your grandmother, but it’s not your style at all. Now you’re confronted with a dilemma: Keeping a teapot you never use is taking up much-needed space, but getting rid of it would feel disrespectful to your grandmother.”
“Things with an emotional attachment take on meaning,” O’Reilly said. “The teapot is not just a teapot. It has a personal history, so it’s unique in that sense. If you get rid of the teapot, it feels sacrilegious. It’s valuable to you because it carries that authenticity and history with it, so it feels like you’re disrespecting that value.”
“So, why do we accumulate clutter? The answer is found in the dopamine system, which is based on expectations. When we accumulate something or have a pleasurable experience, the brain releases dopamine and we feel good. As soon as our wants and desires are satisfied, however, the brain discounts that feel-good moment.”
“You can see mathematically that the brain is constantly comparing what we have versus what we expected to get,” he said. “Every moment of our lives, that’s what our brain is doing. How much better is that movie versus what you thought it would be? How much better was that cookie than you remembered? Every single thing is being compared to a baseline of what your expectation is.”
It needs to be better than what you expected
“Attachments to things are like those expectations. We want them and feel that we need them. This is where it gets diabolical, O’Reilly said. If something we like is meeting our expectations, we no longer get a dopamine burst. Our brains are constantly trying to up the ante, so we continue to acquire more stuff to feel better.”
“To get the dopamine surge, the experience needs to be better than what you expected. If it just meets expectations, guess what? No dopamine for you! The flip to the reward of dopamine is a downer.”
“If the experience was less than you expected, there’s actually a reduction in the firing of dopamine neurons, leaving you feeling disappointed,” O’Reilly said. “Then the brain tries to come up with new ways to get the dopamine. It needs to be better than what you expected.”
“The expectation system is what drives learning,” he said. “This system in our brains drives us forward, to learning more and more. You’re changing your expectation level, your sense of self. Don’t have attachments. Have ambition.”
I’m a passionate but fairly even-tempered person. Times when I’ve felt stressed were very few and far between until I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and consciously being on over-load and “wigged-out” became greater and more obvious.
It also became obvious that stress exacerbated my symptoms.
There’s a saying that the stress of one person ‘rubs off’ on another. Having “sat with” thousands of stressed- out clients for 30 years I’ve often wondered if there was any connection to my developing fibromyalgia.
Now there’s scientific evidence that stress can more than just ‘rub off’ – it can mess with my brain as badly as it can mess with people in my life (and vice versa) . . . even if I’m not a mouse.
Contagious by Peggy
A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience has found that stress may be contagious and even its effects on the brain may be transferred to people around. The research was conducted by Jaideep Bains, PhD, and his team at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), at the University of Calgary and his team.
“The study that was conducted on mice, also showed that the effects of stress were reversed in female mice, following a social interaction, but the same was not true for male mice. “Brain changes associated with stress underpin many mental illnesses including PTSD, anxiety disorders and depression”, said Dr. Bains
“Recent studies indicate that stress and emotions can be ‘contagious’. Whether this has lasting consequences for the brain is not known.”
The research team studied the effects of stress in pairs of male and female mice. They removed one mouse from each pair and exposed them to mild stress and then returned them to their respective partners to test the results. The researchers monitored the response of a specific group of cells that control the brain’s response to stress. This showed that the cells of both the stressed mice and their partners were affected in the same way.
The most remarkable result of the experiment was that the neurons of the mice who were not themselves exposed to stress had been altered in a way that was identical to that of the exposed ones. The mirror effects were caused due to the release of a chemical from the activated neurons called the ‘alarm pheromone’. This chemical alerts the partner mouse who can then transfer the same signals to others in the group.