When you find yourself in a dark place, you’re likely aware that you’re suffering emotionally but what happens to your body? Unhappiness is not confined to your brain. It cascades throughout your body through a well-known process known as the stress response. In her book Mind over Medicine Dr. Lissa Rankin reports, “When something hurts emotionally, an alarm is sounded. The stress response is triggered, even though there is no immediate bodily threat— just anger, disappointment, frustration, pessimism, heartbreak, grief, and other upsetting emotions”. The response to this stress is the release of a stress hormone called cortisol.
In short bursts, cortisol is essential for steadying your body for a life saving event. Imagine being chased by a bear through the woods. The energy normally used for digestion and healing is directed by cortisol to the muscles so that your can either run like hell or face the beast and fight it out. The heart and lungs work faster to bring blood and oxygen to the brain and muscles. It increases all of your senses (smell, taste, sight and sound, etc.) so that you’re super sensitive to what’s going on around you to increase your chances of survival. This is called the fight or flight reaction. The only problem is that the brain doesn’t know the difference whether a bear is chasing you; your boyfriend cheated on you or your boss is riding you. Cortisol is being chronically released.
Negative emotions that result in the release of cortisol promote the production of chemicals (cytokines) that promote inflammation, which has been linked to certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, negative feelings can contribute to delayed wound healing and infection, as cortisol weakness your immune system. When negative moods like pessimism, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression prevail, the stress response turns on and stays on, leading to gastrointestinal disorders, greater vulnerability to infections and cancer, heart disease, hormonal disorders, and more. Yuck!
Almost every major illness that people acquire has been linked to chronic stress. Between 75-90% of doctor visits have stress as a major contributing factor. I can personally attest to this as I enter my 28th year of clinical practice dedicated to treating human sickness and suffering. Most of the conditions that I see are as a result of the patient’s stressful lifestyle and they are usually the last one to recognize it. The biggest problem with chronic stress is that it adversely affects the brain and your overall sense of peace and fulfillment.
If you happened to have read my blog, The enemy within, I spoke of the conscious and unconscious mind. Allow me to name the conscious mind as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the unconscious mind as the amygdala. The PFC connects to multiple areas of your brain receiving data which allows you to think and react to your world in a such a way to minimize suffering and maximize joy and happiness. It’s within the left prefrontal cortex where happiness is created.
On the other hand, the amygdala is the boss when it comes to processing and storing memories of various emotions. In fact, the amygdala experiences emotions even before the conscious PFC does. Hence you may experience a deep emotion unconsciously long before you even sense it cognitively with the conscious PFC. This may put you in a mood and you aren’t even aware of where it’s coming from. Sound familiar? The amygdala is more reactive during chronic repetitive stress and has the probability of activating old programmed behavior unconsciously so that you aren’t even aware of your volatile behavior. Don’t worry though; everyone in the room senses your struggle. Repetitive triggering of the stress response makes the amygdala more reactive to apparent threats. In essence you learn to be more fearful and anxious and develop programs to protect yourself, which in long run actually derails your emotional advance to happiness and fulfillment. Even the structure of the PFC is adversely changed as your happiness suffers. The unconscious mind, the amygdala, is not concerned with your happiness—only your survival.
When cortisol levels elevate during a stressful event, the blood from the PFC is shunted to the amgydala. Has anyone ever asked you during a stressful argument, “are you are out of your mind?” The answer may be YES as the PFC is functioning at its lowest level while the amgydala is on overdrive responding to stress with preprogrammed and often times inappropriate behavior.
Have you ever noticed when you’re stressed before a big meeting, an athletic event, or a speaking engagement that you lose your train of thought (decreased PFC) as you start to shut down. Then you begin to sweat, hyperventilate and feel nauseas, (highly active amygdala). This is a direct result of the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Stay tuned for the next installment this week when I describe how cortisol effects the chemicals in your brain (neurotransmitters). In the mean time, you’ve got to get happy fast to save your brain and body from yourself. Try these simply exercises to calm your amgydala and let the PFC dominate.
- Turn off the news. Stop perseverating over Trump politics. Your brain and body need you to refocus.
- Everyday before you get out of bed, give thanks for at least 3 blessings in your life. Gratitude jacks the PFC.
- Go for a walk outside in nature. Let your environment remind you of how beautiful and complex nature is. You are nature.
- Reach out to someone in need and offer them some warmth and friendship.
- Give a hug to someone.
- Above all else, learn to smile at perfect strangers.
Dr. Peter Percuoco is a Board Certified Chiropractic Neurologist and a Keynote Speaker. With 27 years of experience, Dr. Percuoco has stepped out of the clinic and onto the stage to share his message of hope and potential inspiring people to be the best that they can be.
We have little to no control over the shit that happens to us and around us. Our only function is to interpret the meaning of these events. How you interpret events is based upon your specific operating system that was implanted in your mind early in your life by your parents and then modified for years by everyone and everything that has entered into your subconscious mind. It is estimated that 95% of the minds energy is consumed by the subconscious mind.
It’s the subconscious mind that’s running most of the show. Your conscious mind is a reflection of your true voice making choices based upon your conscious desires. The subconscious mind dominates the second the conscious mind fatigues or loses focus. What you get is whatever the subconscious mind says you get — after all it was programmed and whatever the programming is controls how you behave.
When you get in the car and drive effortlessly to work, it’s the subconscious mind that is navigating the trip. Think of what it takes to drive a car: brakes, gas, mirrors, gauges, speed, other cars, lines on the road, road signs, traffic lights etc. You’re programmed to drive after years of practicing the same thing. It’s your conscious mind that is thinking about the meeting at work at 9:00am and the music on the radio station while the subconscious mind drives.
The power of the positive has to do with the conscious mind. You have the free will to be whatever you want but the minute you lack conscious focus, the subconscious mind takes over. This is the part of the mind that is basically your autopilot. If you grew up in a house where you were “never good enough”, “not smart enough”, “you’ll never amount to anything”, then your subconscious will reflect this and your experience here in life will be tarnished. In fact, this is likely what’s happening to you right now. If you’re a parent, be careful what you say to your kids! Conversely, if you were constantly loved and nurtured by your parents with a sense of “you can accomplish anything in life with hard work and determination” then your subconscious produces a completely different milieu of empowering circumstances.
Consider a diet. The conscious mind wants to feel healthy, sexy and energized. This diet lasts for a defined period of time (perhaps a month) before you run out of gas. Then the subconscious mind takes over and you find yourself back in the rabbit hole. The subconscious mind lays in wait like a tiger, waiting to strike when the focus of the prey (the conscious mind) is distracted.
Does this mean that you’re screwed because that which you are and the choices that you make are predicated on some ominous subconscious reality? Not necessarily. The subconscious mind can be reprogrammed with the help of the conscious mind. You will have to consistently reframe the way you think from negative to positive and keep at it lest your subconscious mind will execute what it’s programmed to EXECUTE…you!
If the subconscious mind developed as a database of your experiences promoting defined thoughts and actions, then the database must be improved. Awareness of your shortcomings and the desire to change them for good starts with the power of positive thinking. Neuroscience assures us that the positive conscious mind can reboot the subconscious mind if applied consistently. Change your thoughts consistently and you’ll change your life!
Dr. Peter Percuoco is a Board Certified Chiropractic Neurologist and a Keynote Speaker. With 25 years of experience, Dr. Percuoco has stepped out of the clinic and onto the stage to share his message of hope and potential inspiring people to be the best that they can be.