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.