Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wiring Our Brains For The Joy Of Excelling

An article in the Wall Street Journal tells of a doctor who counsels a patient in extreme physical pain, "I think your real problem is stress." When the patient complains that the muscle injections the doctor has been giving him hasn't relieved his neck and shoulder pain, the doctor says, "You can't blame me for everything that's hard in your life." The patient bursts into tears, which only confirms his doctor’s diagnosis. The doctor suggests exercise as a means of mitigating his patient's level of stress. (for the Wall Street Journal article, go to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123724722718848829.html )

The Amygdala: Wired for Stress, Wired for Fear

The reason someone becomes as chronically debilitated by stress as the person in the news article is because his brain is wired for stress. His brain is repeatedly hijacked by the amygdala, the brain's fear center that engineers fight or flight. The primary trigger for most of our 21st century stress reactions is not real and present danger, such as a wild animal; it is fearful thinking. Fearful thinking stirs up anxious, negative emotions, which in turn generates a perception of threat, often where no real threat exists. The problem is the amygdala can't decipher between a real and mind-made danger. It sets off a reaction in either case.Emotional Memory: Trapped in the PastThe amygdala also is the storehouse for emotional memory. Emotional memory is video clips of all the bad things that have happened to us. A brain under stress is prone to project these painful images from the past onto the screen of the present, exciting visions of a future that looks even worse. The frightening picture it paints seem real enough that it has us walking the floor late at night -- night after night -- ruminating over problems for which we see no solution. During the day, our sleep-deprived mind can erupt suddenly or withdraw precipitously, either of which can damage relationships.

When the amygdala is triggered, it takes charge of our physiology. In some situations, it freezes the body, which explains the tight neck and shoulders of the person in the article. Other times, it sends body and emotions into an uproar, which over the long haul can lead to a massive heart attack. Many heart attacks can be traced back to a long run of thought attacks. Surveys by Gallup and the American Psychological Association reveal that eight in ten American struggle with stress, half of whom are stymied by extreme levels of stress. Lower brain function is running these people's lives, making a mess of things. Sending our stressed-out brain to the gym for a good workout is a good thing. It can flush out stress hormones and relieve symptoms for a while. But it isn’t a cure. It won't fix the way we’re wired.

Rewiring Ourselves for the Joy of Excelling
Take heart. There is a cure. Neuroscience has discovered that we can literally rewire a brain that genetics and a painful past wires for stress. In the absence of chronic stress reactions, a flow of intelligence gradually emerges and takes hold. Higher order neural circuits light-up, stimulating the joy of excelling. The process of rewiring is accomplished through a fundamental shift in attitude that takes us from fear and stress to a dynamic quality of inner peace. There is no greater gain in brain function that the shift from fear to peace. Mercifully, this essential shift in attitude is something anyone can make. Positive change comes in a matter of weeks.

I wrote a book on the subject, called Mystic Cool, which Simon & Schuster/Beyond Words is releasing April 14, 2009.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is Your On-Line Social Network Providing Support or Increasing Your Fear?

What is the typical reaction we see in a worsening economy with rising unemployment? The answer is fear. Biologically, fear triggers stress. The greater part of the stress we experience is caused by psychological fear. Stress represents the way fearful thoughts generate negative emotions, producing a constant sense of threat that at times sends our body into an uproar. As stress amplifies, it debilitates brain function, leading to fatigue, poor decision-making, overwhelm, declining self-confidence, and emotional upsets that can damage relationships. Obviously, this is not the package that is likely to succeed in this bad economy.

There are proven approaches that can help people master their fear and transcend stress. But these days, most people are not spending money on that. Instead, many people are turning to Social Networking to vent, bond and find emotional support for their fears and frustrations. While it is widely recognized that interpersonal connection is a powerful antidote to stress, it is also true that social networking can backfire, when most of what is shared is gloom and doom. Other people’s anxiety can raise our own level of fear and pessimism. When the brain’s fear center is excited, it can run wild with anxiety that increases our stress level exponentially. Spending time with highly fearful people can trigger our own tendency to think negatively and lose confidence.

When engaging in social networking, if you find your feelings of stress and anxiety are increasing, exit immediately. Neurologically, we can’t afford the luxury of negative, stressful thinking, especially in these times. My advice is to redirect yourself to another group, blog or forum where the dialogue is based on “non-negative thinking” and the experience strengthens your peace of mind. Neurologically, the more we break negative thought patterns by no longer believing the gloom and doom these thoughts forecast, the more we light up networks of neural circuits that make us powerful.

Science has established that the mental zone that heightens brain power is a dynamically peaceful attitude. A dynamically peaceful attitude literally strengthens the higher order brain function that makes us brilliant problem solvers. A brain unencumbered by stress naturally generates the creative intelligence that not only sees the solution inside the problem but creates the solution that works. We call this capacity “peak performance.” A brain chronically under stress, on the other hand, is incapable of sustaining peak performance.

Find a social network filled with people whose attitude is dynamically peaceful and positive. It will help you fully engage the part of your brain you need most. And remember: stress is psychological fear; peace is neurological power. There is no greater gain in brain function and brain chemistry than the psychological shift from fear to peace. Making this shift is simpler than you might think. The reward is the capacity to excel at life.

Click on to return to the Mystic Cool website.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The One Thing That Makes Everything Work

Say you are at peace; dynamically at peace. Your mind is lit up. It is open to experience and spacious. It’s clear and quiet instead of pointlessly preoccupied with stressful thinking. This dynamically peaceful mind is naturally generating a friendly attitude in you instead of one that is contentious. It makes you flexible and creative instead of rigid. Then let’s say that neuroscience slides you under an f-MRI or attaches your head to an EEG or connects your brain to some other high tech instrument. What they would find is expanded networks that generate higher order brain function.

These networks would be larger and more fully integrated than brain scans show on the average person, with increased blood flow to the region.

There would be a high level of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the seat of positive emotion. This means that, in your brain, positive emotion had swamped negative emotion. Emotional negativity wouldn’t stand a chance in your brain.

There would be greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. This indicates a loving, understanding brain. It’s the brain you want in your spouse, your best friend, your boss, and the brain you want to parent your children.

Gamma Wave activity -- signaling higher mental activity like problem solving, creativity and error detection—would also be high.

This highly developed neural circuitry would generate in you a flow of intelligence that was emotionally peaceful and positive, producing a fearlessly self-confident attitude with a clear sense of purpose, all of which would make you immune to stress.

This represents a brain operating at its absolute best. This is a person capable, not only of attaining, but sustaining peak performance. Work would not besiege and discourage such a person. For them, the research shows, work is an intrinsically rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Neuroscience has established that all these benefits are produced by a dynamically peaceful attitude. Peace is the threshold to the experience researchers in human performance call flow. Flow is the joy of excelling that we sometimes experience when we slip past stress and anxiety and enter that wonderful zone, where the full power of our skill, knowledge and ability come into play. The usual storm of demands, pressures, and doubts may have be present at the outset, but by subtle twists and turns, we manage to slip past the storm and locate the eye, where the pressure to produce becomes the challenge to excel. The only stress we feel is the desire to stretch ourselves.

As we settled in, an effortless flow of intelligence takes over, sweeping us along in its current. Time stands still. Pieces fall effortlessly into place, as if the dots are connecting themselves. At some point, our brain and mind harmonize to generate our own brand of genius that is capable of hitting a target no one else can see. Working in this way does not feel like work at all. Rather, it is a rewarding labor of love. It produces “a deep sense of enjoyment that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like,” as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the father of positive psychology, stated.

Here is a simple way of establishing this sense of flow as you approach work:

Sit calmly for a moment before beginning the task. Recall the basic fact that at a mind at peace is a brain working at its absolute best. Let go of any anxiety or tension and be at peace. Feel your brain light up with power and energy to give you everything you will need to succeed. Next, just for a moment, feel the simple joy of being alive. Feel gratitude for the creative gifts you possess, which each new challenge invites you to realize and increase. See the task before as an opportunity to stretch your creative wings. Now bring to mind your goal for the task or project. Feel how the simple sense of joy and gratitude merges with your goal to inspire you with the enthusiasm to excel. Place your faith in your peaceful, joyful attitude. Imagine it forms an arrow headed straight for the bull’s eye. As you step to the task, let go of the outcome and trust the process … completely.

Click-on here to download this tool.

Click on to return to Mystic Cool website