Recently we took the kids, ages 16 and 19, to PF Chang’s in Denver for dinner. We arrived to find the restaurant empty with the exception of a few couples dining in what seemed to be a 10,000 open air building. As we approached the hostess stand, I counted 6 couples, and thought we will be able to sit down right away. When we asked for a table. Maureen, the hostess responded, “There is a 20-min wait for a table.” I revisited my initial survey of the massive room, in disbelief… okay, I thought, we’ll wait.
This is the norm now. The hostess asked us for our phone number explaining, “We need it in case of an outbreak.” My 16-year-old daughter automatically responded, “It’s time to level up, it’s 2021.” I laughed and noticed my daughter’s reaction was reflective of what I teach. My daughter is aware and respectful of the situation but responsible for her outlook, and how her thoughts affect her outcome. However, the tone and body language of the hostess was fear-based and uncertain, even scared. The chronic stress has taken a significant toll on our brains and our lives overall, but we need to Level Up and take responsibility for our thoughts and our actions!
This experience shed light on the topic for this article.
The current Covid pandemic has caused a sort of PTSD that has hardwired our brains, literally diminishing brain structure and function.
This has affected our mental, emotional and physical health leaving many of us unconsciously living in a fear-based mindset. I firmly believe that when we combine eastern philosophy (and tools) with western neuroscience (an understanding of how the brain functions), we have the power to rewire our behaviors, natural tendencies and live a more meaningful, healthy and prosperous life, even in the midst of chronic stress – like a pandemic, loss of a job, or a health concern. I have rewired myself while enduring major obstacles, including overcoming 50+ food allergies. (Now I have none!) I have fostered permanent change in my life, changed my relationship with stress, and I offer this advice on how to begin the process.
The Amazing Brain
The brain possesses approximately 100 billion neurons and is the most complex and powerful organ in our body. But what is even more amazing is that scientists have revealed that we have the ability to rewire this amazing organ in ways that can enhance our happiness, health, and our success. What we understand is that both internal and external experiences have the ability to alter our brain circuitry, changing the tendencies and traits over time. This rewiring that I’m talking about is actually happening whether we know it or not, every minute of the day. The rewiring of our brain circuitry is called neuroplasticity.
Although scientists have shown that there are several different frameworks that positively influence and transform brain circuitry, I will explore only one in this article: the integration and application of contemplative practice into everyday life (otherwise known as yoga in the East, or mindfulness in the West). Throughout my 10-year immersion with my guru from India, I have explored first-hand the power of thought and the impact it has on our ability to adapt and overcome overwhelming obstacles, shift our perspectives, improve outcomes, and experience indivisible happiness. This is just the tool, for overcoming the unconscious impacts of Covid-related stress.
Studies by scientists world-wide have proven the impact thought has on our mental, emotional and physical state. We can look at the power of a placebo on mental health and positive outlook,1 the power of focused attention and visualization on performance of Olympic athletes,2 or even using an executive coach (a trusted thought partner) on personal and organizational success.3
All these examples illustrate 3 things:
Thoughts have power.
Thoughts are positive or negative.
You create and are responsible for your thoughts.
By understanding how thoughts affect brain function and understanding how changing your thoughts affects your outcome, we come to recognize that taking responsibility for our thoughts is necessary to living a more stable, blissful, and meaningful life.
The tools I will outline have been passed down to me by one of the most revered Saints from India. I have adapted these tools to modern American life and found important interconnects of western science with eastern philosophy. Colorado University Denver researchers have tested and studied the application of these tools for years, repeatedly finding in many studies that 100% of the participants feel their stress is reduced and that they have tools to mitigate and manage stress after a short 2 day to 8 week program.4,5 Some of the outcomes include; leaders leveling up and leading from within, overcoming overwhelming relationship struggles, finding a new fulfilling dream job, flying through a contentious divorce effortlessly, and more. All you need to know, is that you have the ability to change your relationship with stress permanently.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN
Understanding how “your” body responds to stressors is critical to rewiring your brain’s wiring and your relationship with stress.
The Automatic Stress Response
The stress response (Fight, Flight or Freeze) is our body’s way, or more specifically our autonomic nervous system’s way, of ensuring we actually survive danger. The stress response is universal to all of us and is a very basic instinctual response. Let’s put this into perspective: if you see someone break into a car, hear someone scream in pain, or even think fearful thoughts about the possible implications of catching Covid-19, your brain perceives and reacts automatically to these thoughts or inputs.
Here’s what happens: when we perceive a threat or when we perceive demands exceed our capacity to handle them (another threat to our survival), the amygdala, a small area in the center of the brain, sends a message to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command center. The hypothalamus then triggers the release of hormones that cue the body to defend/survive the threat. This is when the physical symptoms start to kick in, at approximately around 0.8ms. (It’s important to note that the stress response happens prior to any conscious thought!) And the brain’s intuitive response happens even faster, at around 0.2ms. The physical effects are unconscious and include; a faster heartbeat (meant to maximize oxygen supply to keep us on alert in danger), increased sweating (believed to make us slippery so predators cannot catch us), tingling in our extremities, etc.
Interestingly, stress affects everyone differently. I may feel on the edge when I sit in the doctor’s office waiting for a test result, but my daughter may be unaffected by the same situation. Sally may react strongly to driving in heavy traffic at rush hour but have no reaction to having dinner with her in-laws, and so on. Our stress response is partly determined by our genetic disposition and partly by our experiences. For instance, a first responder, generally speaking, has a quicker reaction to seeing someone hurt or in pain, than say a bank teller.
Now that we understand a few basics of the brain’s response to stress, let’s learn how to begin changing our relationship with stress. (Note: research shows rewiring happens over time, and is dose based.6 Think of this more like a dimmer switch, rather than a light switch.)
Leveling Up in 2021
Checklist for Change
By slowing down, we cultivate an awareness of how we are interacting with the world, the people, places and situations in front of us. Slowing down allows us to see our typical, hard-wired (and many times self-destructive) responses. What’s interesting is that when we begin slowing down, we notice that this creates a space (of awareness) in which we begin to feel a physical shift in the body — this is the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. In this space we recognize that we have a conscious choice of what to do or what feels right. The best thing about slowing down is that it can make the choice of how to respond less emotional, because our body is in a less defensive/fight or flight mode. Over time, this lessens our tendency for automatic, and not necessarily helpful reactions!
As my teacher, Swami Kripalu said, if you want to change your outcome, you need to slow down and recognize what you are doing in the first place that isn’t working. The practice of slowing down facilitates this recognition or awareness. We can use the example, if you want to get to New York from Denver, and you are driving west as fast as you can, it will take a long time to get there. If you slow down, you begin to see more clearly (increased clarity is another positive effect) and find an action that is more aligned with what you want to achieve. I think of the stress response as the body’s way of letting me know when I am out of integrity with my intention or inner goal. The answer: turn around and go the other way! In order to create a new way of being, first you need to slow down.
This sounds simple but is a critical step to rewiring. By choosing to start now, we literally choose to be in alignment (in the midst of chaos or an emotional reaction) by aligning our thoughts and actions with our intention. Remember, repeated thoughts and actions create repeat neural activity. Repeated neural activity creates neural structure. So, in order to create new outcomes, we need to start now and create new thoughts and actions. This creates new neural pathways, and over time has the ability to change your relationship to stress permanently. It took me 2-3 months to see the initial change in my life. I found myself to be less reactive to stressors or my hot buttons, sometimes becoming aware that I had no reaction at all to a family member pushing my button. I found this to be jaw dropping. After 4-10 months I became aware of new tendencies in my thoughts, increased positivity, and lessening food allergies. At approximately 18 months, my relationships with my family had deepened — my kids even commented! And my food allergies were completely gone!
Living in the Covid era has cultivated an ever-increasing tendency for hyper-vigilance to threats, and over-reaction to even small stimuli. This long-lasting, chronic stress has reduced our resilience, affected our mental, emotional and physical well-being, including our sleep, focus, and vitality. We need to level up, in the midst of stress, rewiring our automatic stress response from an emotional response from our limbic system to a conscious goal-oriented behavior directed by our prefrontal cortex. Again, this strengthens the neural pathways and rewires the brain to understand there is another way: when something stressful happens, you can make a conscious choice toward a goal or your desired intention.
Use the Breath
The breath is a fundamental tool we can use to get into the present moment.
Many times, we don’t notice the fact that we are even breathing. Over the years, I have experimented with nuances of using the breath to gain perspective, reduce fear and move to a higher-level consciousness or perspective (which is much more insightful than being in reaction or fear). Here is what I suggest:
First, just notice the fact that you are breathing. Just simply notice. Don’t try to change the breath or hold the breath, just simply notice the chest rising and falling. Watch the breath with 100% of your attention. Allow or give yourself permission to become absorbed in the breath.
Second, imagine (visualize) the breath coming in, as if you are filling a water bottle from the bottom to the top. The lower belly fills, the mid-chest, and then upper lungs. With the exhalation, imagine the breath going out and the water bottle emptying from the top to the bottom. Allowing or giving permission to the body to relax or let go with each progressive exhalation. Continue this for 2-3 minutes.
Third, notice the pause at the top of the inhalation and the bottom of the exhalation before the breath reverses direction. Just notice. Now the breathing pattern is breathing in, pause, breathing out, pause.
Lastly, notice the unique stillness when the breath is suspended at the top of the inhalation or bottom of the exhalation. Just notice. We are using the breath to stimulate the relaxation response.
Note, the more often we practice using the breath, the more we dis-identify with the stress or trigger and the quicker we can move from stress into relaxation state. Over time our ability to sustain this relaxation state increases, increasing our resilience, calm, and stability in the face of stress.
In a way this tool seems complex, but it’s really not. What we are doing with deliberately directing your attention away from thinking and toward feeling. We can piggyback this tool with the breath if you’d like. For example, when breathing in, feel the breath expand the chest, the rib cage expands, feel the sensations of the skin, the muscles the stretching with the inhalation. Then feel the body relaxing with each outgoing breath. Allow your body to be consumed with the sensations. The brain is not able to think and feel at the same time. Notice, that the more absorbed in feeling you are the less thinking is going on. Thus, we are forcing the brain to let go of thought, worry, and tension, and move to the present moment. This has a tremendous power to reset the brain to a calm, relaxed, and stable center. Don’t underestimate your ability to change your thoughts with this tool!
Another way to describe concentration is focused attention. What I am referring to is focusing your attention on one thing over time, a common definition of meditation. As I mentioned earlier, studies of Olympic athletes show concentration reflecting increased success and higher performance.7 Sustaining attention shifts our mental inertia. Concentrating our attention gives us the power to hold a continuous nonreactive awareness of whatever arises in our thoughts and that directly affects our experience.
Concentration is correlated with an open-monitoring receptivity to all that occurs in the mind, a non-judgmental state of mind. Cognitive scientists have noticed huge shifts in as short as 3 months of practice.8 This is correlated with a drop in reactions and increased immune function. The thoughts in the mind stay calm with this kind of practice! Concentration gives us cognitive control to focus on a specific task and resist distraction (one of the many effects of Covid related stress).
When used over time, these evidence-based tools have a tremendous power to help us rewire our fear-based thinking and actions to a positive growth mindset. Science has proven that when we learn to monitor thoughts without getting swept away, we are more successful, and this improves our overall well-being. Application of these tools into your daily life will introduce a crucial choice point and responsibility. Your thoughts are powerful — either positive or negative — and you are in control of your thoughts.
I invite you to accept this invitation to slow down, increase your awareness, your clarity, and recognize you are in control. When your thoughts have wandered off, apply a tool; don’t get swept away. When you are stressed you are good for nothing, when you are relaxed you are good for everything!
Eichenfield, L.F., Miller, B.H. & Cultivate Lotion Study Group. (2006). Two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of fluticasone propionate lotion 0.05% for the treatment of atopic dermatitis in subjects from 3 months of age. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 54(4), 715-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2005.10.063
Phillips, J.J. & Phillips, P.P. (2005) Measuring ROI in executive coaching. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 3(1), 53-62.
Brown K.L., A Pilot Study Evaluating a Mindful-Based Stress Reduction Workplace Intervention for Employees of The United States Forest Service, 2018
Brown K.L. A Pilot Study Evaluating a Transformational Neuro-based Training Intervention for Employees of The United States Forest Service Roadless Team held in Juneau Alaska 2019.
Strohmaier, S. The Relationship Between Doses of Mindfulness-Based Programs and Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Mindfulness: a Dose-Response Meta-Regression of Randomized Controlled Trials. Mindfulness, 11, 1315–1335 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01319-4
Grandjean B.D., Taylor P.A., Weiner J., Confidence, Concentration, and Competitive Performance of Elite Athletes: A Natural Experiment in Olympic Gymnastics. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24 (3) 2020
Goleman D., Davidson R.J., (2017) Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Mediation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body. (pp 123-45). Penguin Random House
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Anne, PCC, DAIS education is in Neuroscience & Leadership from Harvard University, she is a Diplomat at The American Institute of Stress and an ICF Certified Master Executive Neuro Coach. Michelle is a Virtual First Responder for the Harvard Medical School, coaching front liners to manage the impacts of COVID-19. Michelle has a 10-year background in Eastern philosophy and is honored to have been bestowed the esteemed title of Acharya (one who teaches by how they live) by Shri Amritji and by Swami Chidanand Saraswati. She brings a depth of experience, wisdom and science to everything she does.
“Throughout my 31-year career as a 3x entrepreneur, I have learned how necessary trust, support and personal growth are when leading and running my advertising, training and leadership development firms. Overcoming overwhelming business and personal challenges has helped me master stress, lead with authenticity and be inclusive (I feel, a building block of innovation and success in today’s landscape). I am routinely labeled a thought leader in leadership development, because I introduce refreshingly new approaches to improving performance and bottom-line. My purpose is crystal clear – Teach from experience, model what I teach, and help you to create a sustainable thriving work environment!”
The dictionary defines “content” as being in a state of peaceful happiness. The AIS magazine is called Contentment because we want all of our guests and members to find contentment in their lives by learning about stress management and finding what works best for each them. Stress is unavoidable, and comes in many shapes and sizes that makes being in a state of peaceful happiness seem like a very lofty goal. But happiness is easy to find once you are able to find ways to manage your stress and keep a healthy perspective when going though difficult times in life. You will always have stress, but stress does not always have you!
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