Emotional Brain Health and Happiness
Emotional health has a lot to do with the chemistry and wiring of the brain, but the reverse is also true. Perceptions, feelings, and beliefs have a huge effect on the brain. Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describes four characters of the brain and how they function in her book Whole-Brain Living, thus we need not be stuck in only one way to experience reality.
When we feel unsafe, the amygdala, part of our primitive brain, is triggered, and we go into fight-or-flight survival mode as blood rushes from the brain to our arms and legs. Hasty decisions made at this time are often regretted because of decreased oxygen in the brain. Because all parts of the brain can have a relationship and influence each other, Taylor suggests that we have a four-character “brain huddle” to help ourselves out of survival mode. These are the four characters, each occupying a physical position in the brain.
Left Brain Thinking. I am, the ego, self-awareness. It is in control. Loves order and being the boss. Gets things done. Defines boundaries, social norms, right/wrong, good/bad. Thinks methodically and consciously. Thinks in language. Is time conscious and linear thinking. Loves detail and comparisons. A critical thinker, it judges and is judgmental.
Left Brain Emotional. Fight/flight. Projects past into the future. Pushes away and says no. Self-sabotage. Guilt, shame, trauma, pain from the past. “I’m going to keep myself small and constricted.” The place of reactive emotions of fear, anxiety, paralysis, hopelessness and shame. It compares the past to the present, always asking, ‘Am I safe?” Addictions and cravings are located here. Character two has to be on board in addiction recovery.
Right Brain Emotion. In the present moment. There is no judgment. It is experiential and notices how the body feels. Here, we notice the environment and are aware of ourselves as energy. This is our creative, messy selves and the innovative genius. The more we do something, the better we get at it. Feels joyful, adventurous, happy, kind, playful and collaborative. The circuit to character three can be established. We can create new habits.
Right Brain Thinking. In the present moment. Right here, right now. It is the observer. It is loving, grateful, nurturing, compassionate and one with all. Our mystical god self that experiences the cosmic consciousness, the one. Here we are grateful for being alive. This part of our brain brings the healing energy of the universe into our body. Because there is no “I” in this space, character four gives into character three for creative expression of this experience in poetry, song, dance, story, paintings and other expressions.
Once we are aware that we are in the fight-or-flight mode of Character number 2, we are not stuck there. We can ask the other parts of our brain to assist us by calling a Brain Huddle and getting help from Characters 1, 3 and 4. The more we do this, the better the connections between these characters will become and the less “stuck” in the fight-or-flight reaction we will feel.
We can also make it a practice to take a deep breath and ask ourselves, “What am I feeling right now? Where is this feeling in my body?” This will bring us out of fight or flight and back into our body, which is always in the present moment. The present moment is love.
Visualizations and Affirmations Work. A recent publication by David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., titled “Why Woo Woo Works” gives scientific evidence that repeated affirmations produce physical changes in specific areas of the brain associated with self-processing. “Repeating affirmations didn’t just make the volunteers feel a little better or more positive in the moment, it actually altered brain networks that essentially wired in the feeling. And those brain changes were found to account for a subsequent change in the volunteers’ behavior.” The author notes that it is important to feel what we affirm or visualize to produce the change in the brain.
One reason visualizations and affirmations work is because our brain and body do not know the difference between what actually happened and what we imagine. This is why we can re-imagine a bad dream or painful life experience by giving ourselves more pleasant feelings to associate with the experience and taking the negative charge out of the event.
The Kindness Hormones. Hamilton writes, “The main kindness hormone is oxytocin. Well known for its importance in reproduction, breastfeeding and even social bonding. Oxytocin protects the cardiovascular system, and just as stress hormones increase blood pressure, this kindness hormone lowers it. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helps with digestion and wound healing, and is even involved in the construction of heart muscle and many other cell types from stem cells.“ Hamilton notes, “Your brain will produce kindness hormones when you’re being kind, witnessing an act of kindness, imagining one or even recalling one.”
Spending time in day dream visualizations, loving yourself and others and repeating affirmations are powerful paths to an emotionally healthy brain and a fulfilling life.