Category Archives: Brain 101

Brain + Body = Connected

Within us there is most definitely a brain-body connection. To quote Mary Richards, emotions – thoughts – beliefs live in our bodies, not just in our brains. Mary is one of two yoga teachers (the other being Lizzie Lasater) leading Deep Rest, a four week deep dive into how to nourish our bodies through exhaustion.

Our bodies and our brains have an intimate relationship, not just due to sharing the inner space of our outer shell, but also because our emotions and thoughts manifest within our bodies. Ever get a nervous stomach, that sensation of butterflies in your belly, before speaking in public or going on the stage or taking a test for which you might or might not have sufficiently prepared? Ever feel a loop-de-loop in your heart or belly when you see someone you love or have a crush on? Ever have your heart feel heavy or your body feel deeply tired when you are overwhelmed with sadness? Ever hear an unsettling story and have the hair on your arms stand on end? Ever find your body physically experiencing something being described to you by someone else?

This first of four exploratory weeks focused on “somatosensory processing” or sensing what is happening in the body. I have been practicing yoga for 16 years and leading yoga for almost five years, and one of my mantras is “let your breath be your guide.” By focusing on the breath it becomes possible to tune in to the sensations of the body and that, in turn, makes space to notice what we feel and how we feel.

Deploy our intention to pay attention to the barely susceptible sensations of the body and connecting them to perceptions, beliefs, judgements in the brain and welcoming them as messengers. From those messengers, we can learn.

Mary Richards channeling Richard Miller of iRest

In the practices I guide there are always multiple pauses with the cue to go inside and listen to what the body has to share, notice the sensations, and respond accordingly. As Mary noted in her brief lecture, in asana (asana being poses) we are learning to concentrate on sensory experience, and by noticing the sensory feedback we are then able to make choices based on that feedback, often different choices than might have been made if we weren’t paying attention to our sensory experience. The ultimate result is we can start to change the rote patterning of our brains that responds based on past experience and begin to rewire our brains to respond based on current experience.

Lead with the present tense of the body

Mary Richards

So how does all this fit in with the topic of the course, dealing with exhaustion. Mary and Lizzie provided one way to think of immense tiredness: it results from either hanging on or pushing away rather than accepting and acknowledging. (See the first quote.)

Using the currently free app Pocket Brain to display colorful, clear visuals, Mary discussed the various areas of the brain that are related to planning and executing movement. Most of what follows comes directly from my notes, which in most instances is verbatim.

Pre-frontal cortex Focuses on the “where” of movement, such as where to place the feet.

Pre-motor cortex Sustains our attention for movement that takes place over time, such as in building, cooking, putting something together or sustaining a headstand.

Primary motor cortex This area is a major contributor for yoga students and teachers as it informs movement choices based on auditory and visual cues.

Primary somatosensory cortex Sensations are processed from pain, touch, vibration, temperature and, interestingly, the smaller the input (such as fingers), the more space allocated in this area.

Somatosensory association cortex Information is interpreted, and objects can be recognized without seeing them, such as feeling something in the dark or behind some other object and knowing what it is. Mary likened this to connecting the dots.

Primary visual cortex This is where we process what we see. Mary suggested trying to practice with eyes closed, if that is accessible. When we practice with eyes closed, other areas of the cortex are lit up that increases our accuracy in regulating balance.

Anterior lobe of cerebellum (The cerebellum has long been my “favorite” part of the brain as it deals with novelty and movement.) Movement is refined in this area and gross (large) body movement is coordinated.

Posterior lobe of cerebellum Coordinates fine-motor skills, such as fingers.

At this point in the lecture time was fast approaching for the physical, experiential portion of the live webinar. Mary provided a brief overview of the Pons (bridge between the cerebellum and the cerebrum) and Medulla (information highway between brain and spinal cord, and regulation of respiratory and cardiovascular systems), which sit at the base of the brain above the brainstem. In particular, she mentioned sensory nerves (sight, sound, touch), which send information from the body to the brain, and motor nerves (movement instructions to contract muscles), which move information form the brain to the body. She noted that there is a lot more movement in the sensory nerves than in the motor nerves, upon which Lizzie questioned whether schools are designed adequately given what we know about movement and how children spend so much time sitting.

I picked up (or maybe was reminded of?) new vocabulary. Sensory nerves are afferent, “conducting inward or towards something” while motor nerves are efferent, “conducting outward or away from something.”

Functional areas of the brain from the app Pocket Brain

Nonviolent Communication: Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

My first yoga teacher once shared these words at the beginning of a practice.

Life is not the way it’s supposed to be – It’s the way it is –
The way you cope with it is what makes the difference

Deb Gorman

This third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), taking responsibility for your feelings, seems to me directly related to Deb’s comment.

As we go through life, each of us will hear words directed to us or about us. The words may not be what we think they should be, but nonetheless they are the words that are uttered.

How we react and respond to the words is what will make the difference. We will have control over how the words make us feel, and that, in turn, will impact how we cope and deal with the situation. This opportunity for taking responsibility for our feelings and actions is what makes all the difference.

On the face of it, this may seem logical and even manageable. However, I think that learning how to manage our emotions, how we feel, is a learned art. So how does NVC approach taking responsibility for one’s emotions.

NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.

Nonviolent Communication, page 49

NVC suggests there are four approaches we could take in dealing with a negative message or action: blame ourselves, blame others, sense our own feelings and needs, sense others’ feelings and needs. At various times I have certainly laid claim to each of those, sometimes – especially when I was younger – employing more than one to deal with a negative situation.

Over time (which I often say is a benefit of aging) I have learned to parse my reactions and feelings before ascribing any blame. Indeed, except in extreme circumstances, I have worked successfully at trying to understand where the other person is coming from to better grasp the meaning behind the words or actions. Ultimately, this leads to reflecting on my needs and on their needs.

I have just finished reading chapter 7, and so far each chapter concludes with one of the more interesting and useful methods I have encountered for checking on understanding. Ten brief one- or two-sentence statements are presented.

To determine if the reader and author are in agreement about the precept that was discussed, the reader is asked to choose which statements reflect the precept. The author, Marshall Rosenberg, then discusses his choices and why. He never says “right” or “wrong;” rather, he simply explains why, if the two of you chose the same you are in agreement, and if you chose a different response, why you two are not in agreement. I found this a positive approach to garner understanding and promote additional thought.

Nonviolent Communication: Identifying & Expressing Feelings

This is a chapter in semantics. But I get ahead of myself!

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg for communicating with others. I have been reading his book and thinking about how useful it might be for a wide ranging array of conversations as well as for garnering an understanding of oneself. My previous post was about the first of the four essential precepts of NVC; this post is about the second, identifying and expressing feelings.

On the one hand, especially for me, this might seem quite easy to accomplish. I can often sense my feelings and usually have little difficulty expressing them, though more intense feelings or feelings as a result of complex situations, often leave me a bit encumbered in trying to state how I feel.

Turns out, precept two is an exercise (and a chapter) in semantics. Semantics is all about the meaning of words, and what we may call “feelings” are not always – according to Rosenberg – feelings. For instance on page 43 there is a list of words, many of them verbs that end with “ed” and he ascribes these words to “how we interpret others, rather than how we feel.” The way I speak, any of these words could easily have been used to express a feeling.

Rosenberg makes several distinctions: “between feelings and thoughts; between what we feel and what we think we are; and between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings.”

All is not lost in the world of words! To assist with expressing feelings Rosenberg provides a two-and-a-half page list of words for describing emotions. (Refer to the image at end of this post.) As for the difference between emotions and feelings, there is a wealth of information available with a quick web search, and I leave that to you if it is of interest.

Perhaps the strongest lesson I take from this chapter is the importance of thinking before I speak in order to come up with accurate expressions of what I want to express. For me, this is not just about expressing feelings, but having conversation in general. There is such a wealth of words available to us if we give ourselves time to choose them and incorporate them into our daily language. I am not suggesting using “fancy” words when simpler ones will do; just choosing the words that most truly reflect our feelings and thoughts.

Nonviolent Communication: Observing Without Evaluating

Not too long ago I heard of a new three-session workshop, Difficult Conversations: Using Nonviolent Communication in Our Relationships, hosted by a yoga teacher whom I have studied with multiple times online. The required reading is the book What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authored by the teacher and her former husband. Ultimately, I decided to pass on the workshop to conserve funds that have been too readily spent during the pandemic!

In the meantime, during a conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned the workshop, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!”

All this by way of explaining how, thanks to our local library, I have come to read Rosenberg’s book.

In general, I tend not to have patience for reading self-help books, which is what this book initially felt like. However, I was determined to give it a try and so pushed on to chapter two and then chapter three, by which point I was hooked.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is grounded in four essential precepts, the first being observation without evaluation. Immediately this idea hit home. As a teacher and a parent, I can recall too many instances where adults made value judgments based on what they saw rather than simply stating what they noticed. A typical example: This child is lazy because she does not turn in her homework on time. The observation would be: This child does not turn in her homework on time. The judgement is: This child is lazy.

This type of thinking is not unusual for us humans, as assumptions about the reasons behind what is seen or heard helps to give meaning to actions. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for those assumptions to be made without benefit of knowledge or understanding of the actual conditions behind the action. The result is inaccurate evaluation; evaluation that is incorrect.

Our older son and his wife are both trained Montessori Guides and as such had to studiously learn how to observe children without evaluating them. After one of her training days, Sandra returned home and described spending hours at the Central Park Zoo diligently recording regularly paced observations in a journal. Each observation was of the same animal throughout the day. Even while it was sleeping she remained attuned to how it positioned itself, whether it moved, if it made noise, and anything else it did.

This may sound tedious, and at times she said it was, but it brought home to her the importance of simply observing. The exercise helped to fine-tune her sense of looking, watching, noting, heightening her awareness that observation takes focus. And, as I learned in a nature journaling class this past fall, only by truly focusing on an object can you begin to see it. Often, this focus leads to questions, which should be duly noted for future research, yet the questions are not the actual observation; they are two distinct entities.

Liz, the nature journaling instructor, shared the Curiosity Cycle. As this is a cycle, the Further Questions would lead to additional Observations, and so on. Drawing is from my Nature Journal.

While this is not a one-to-one equivalency with NVC, the observation component meshes them together. Simply put, an observation can only ever be a neutral statement of what is seen. The way to know the meaning behind what we see is to then ask questions to find out the “why”.

…I noticed close to one hundred ducks swimming in the Mill Pond, almost all of them moving in the same direction. Gradually, a bunch would turn 180 degrees and ascend in flight. Maybe they were swimming with the tide, or preparing for flight by swimming in one direction to give themselves enough of a runway for taking off in the other direction. And that had me wondering if there is any intentional synchronicity to floating en masse? Knowing that they do not ride the currents as other water fowl do, does wind direction impact how ducks prepare for flight? What is the relationship of this large group of ducks to one another? What is the deal with duck families?

From my Fall 2019 Nature Journal

Serendipity with Carol Dweck

I have not read the New York Times online in many months, and only receive the print edition on Sundays. However, it is mid-August, I am up quite early this morning, Joe Biden has just announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, it is still dark outside, and I decided it was time to return to checking in with the world what with the election a little less than three months from now.

(Not that I have been absent from the news; my husband keeps me up-to-date and I receive daily ‘breaking news’ emails from the Times. I just haven’t felt there was anything to be learned by bombarding myself with the negativity of the news. Fixed mindset, growth mindset or sanity mindset?)

This by way of explaining how it is I serendipitously came upon an article about Carol Dweck, someone I first wrote about in December 2007. At the time, Dweck’s theory of Fixed and Growth Mindsets made a big impression on me. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to believe that they are born with whatever intelligence they have, the brain is what it is, and that’s all there is, whereas someone with a growth mindset tends to believe that their brain is malleable, meaning it can change. Which mindset would you think is more conducive to learning?

As an individual, a parent and a teacher I found much to appreciate in the theory for myself, my children and my students. At the same time, I also felt thwarted by an educational system that may have wanted teachers to inculcate their students to the theory, but was unwilling to alter the checks and balances and methods of assessment that still sent home messages about individual learning not totally in concert with the idea that failing can promote learning.

If you are willing to take risks you will sometimes fail at what you try, but the very act of failing will give you the learning experience that sets the ground upon which the next learning risk will take place. This cycle of trying and making mistakes is what learning is all about. If you have a growth mindset then the mistake-making is not the end of the world but rather a jumping off point to decipher what went wrong and how it can be changed for improvement. That process is actually what learning is all about. Someone with a fixed mindset will likely give up and, as a result, not make any progress.

For years, until I retired from teaching this past June, I would share the following simple statements that actually have much meaning behind them:

Try it and see!

You made a mistake. How fascinating! (This came from a talk I watched by Ben Zander.)

Flop with fanfare, revise with relish! (I picked this up from an education listserv.)

So here I am this morning, browsing today’s articles in the Times, when an image captioned by “Feel Like You’re Going Out of Your Mind? Consider Your Mind-Set” comes into view. Over the years criticism has been lobbed at Dweck regarding this theory of mindsets, and perhaps what was most satisfying is that she took in the criticism and then used it as a springboard to fine tune the theory and further her research.

In any case, I appreciated stumbling upon this brief article. It was both a reminder of ideas I used to think about, as well satisfying to serendipitously revisit a person who had made educational news and was still out there doing her thing.

Catching Up With Life & Death

Last year at this time, I had recently finished reading Frank Ostaseski’s book The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, and written a post about it here. Around that time I also subscribed to the Metta Institute‘s newsletter, which seems to come infrequently. The “Institute was established to provide education on spirituality in dying” and it grew out of the Zen Hospice Project, founded by Frank Ostaseski.

The most recent newsletter arrived about a week ago, and from it I learned that Ostaseski had experienced several strokes. Since my Mom also had a stroke, I was a curious to know how the experience impacted Ostaseski, and relieved to see that the newsletter also included a link to a recent interview of him at the EndWell conference, where he spoke about The Paradox of Vulnerability. (The video is also embedded at the end of this post.)

I was stuck by the pacing of his speech, which may or may not be his typical way of speaking, and by the sound of his breath, which may or may not be related to having had several strokes. But there were two comments that most impacted me. One was his reply to Courtney’s question about what he now thinks is bullshit as opposed to prior to his strokes he saw as “okay” bedside approaches to people on the journey of dying.

His response was to tell a story of a man who was dying from AIDS. Frank was sitting by the man’s bedside as the man reached for something, in the process knocking over a glass of milk. Frank told the man it was no big deal, that it could be cleaned up. The man, incensed, angrily retorted that it was a big deal. In stopping to think about this, to that man it was a very big deal to lose control of one’s body and of one’s abilities.

This, in turn, had me thinking in general terms of how often I have said to someone “it’s no big deal” in my attempts to ameliorate their discomfort. Yet, maybe I should reconsider this comment and think more intentionally about validating what the person may be feeling by at least acknowledging the way they are feeling. Much to ponder about this.

The other comment of Frank’s that still has me thinking is his story about conversations doctors and therapists have been having with him. They keep talking to him about recovery, which just now I looked up online in order to see the specific definition: Recovery is a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.

To Frank, it is not a matter of recovery. Rather, and to my mind profoundly, to him it is about discovery – what he is learning about himself and the world in each moment. Perhaps it is akin to seeing the world through a new lens, and it is definitely about accepting what he is discovering rather than fighting against it. Another online search yielded several clarifying definitions for the word discover: Find something or someone unexpectedly, become aware of, be the first to find or observe, perceive the attractions of an activity or subject for the first time. 

Perhaps this feeling of discovery is a practice of self-compassion, of accepting oneself for who you are at that very moment, of going inside and not turning away from what you find. In my yoga practice and my yoga teaching this approach surfaces in meditation and in practicing loving-kindness towards oneself. I suspect it is something with which Frank Ostaseski is quite familiar as a Buddhist.

Negativity Bias in the Brain

I previously blogged about Rick Hanson here in November 2017, and recently came across him again in an interview as part of the Mindfulness & Compassion at Work online summit. A friend sent me the link to MCW and I wound up watching two of the Day 1 interviews.

Hanson’s talk began with a review of brain development, which he likened to floors.

  • Floor 1 is the Reptilian brain – the brainstem and cerebellum located at the top of the spinal cord. This floor deals with safety.
  • Floor 2 is the Mammalian brain containing our limbic system – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Floor two deals with satisfaction.
  • Floor 3 is the Neo-cortex – the cerebral hemispheres, and deals with connection.

Hanson’s pithy analogy, which sums up his interview and also explains how these floors interact and function as a whole is:

The body (hardware) makes the mind (software).

What most interested me was Hanson’s discussion of the brain’s negativity bias. (For more detail you can read his article Confronting the Negativity Bias.) In the MCW interview he describes our brain as being like “velcro for the bad; teflon for the good” which was a necessary survival mechanism back in the days of living in the wild. Back then there was an over focus on safety because otherwise a person might become another animal’s dinner.

Over focusing on safety meant continually scanning for anything that could be detrimental to one’s life, thus the tendency to attend more to the negative factors (velcro for the bad) and less to the positive factors (teflon for the good). Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, our brains have not forgotten how to self-protect; however, in our modern world we have far fewer heavy duty stimuli to protect against.

Instead, because the self-protection apparatus still resides within us, the system kicks in to protect us against the stressors of daily living instead of from becoming a lion’s next meal. This can become a problem if we do not learn how to ameliorate our limbic system’s natural tendencies to release cortisol whenever stressful situations are encountered. When cortisol (aka the stress hormone) is released, it sensitizes the amygdala to be on the alert. This, in turn, weakens the hippocampus, which would normally calm the amygdala and signal the hypothalamus to reduce the signals for the stress hormone. Not learning how or being unable to control our limbic system’s responses can result in living with chronic stress.

Hanson, who is the author of numerous books including Resilient, and Hardwiring Happiness, talked about the benefits of building self-reliance and “positive neuroplasticity.” According to him, just 10 minutes a day is all it takes to bring all three floors of the brain into a more positive, cohesive system. To quote him:

  • During the day look for about half-a-dozen little opportunities to feel a nice experience and notice that experience.
  • Acknowledge one thing in particular that you want to grow inside yourself and look for pathways to grow it.
  • Reset yourself by re-centering to drop into a safe, content, connected sense where all three levels of the brain are working in unison.

This resilience practice can help us manage with a strength that is calm, confident, contented, and coping rather than reactive. Via a deep breath or sigh establish a feeling of stability and move forward from there. For a slew of “simple practices” to hep build this resilience check out Hanson’s resources here.

Book Review – The Body Keeps the Score

I just finished reading Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is a powerful, at times quite difficult body of work to read. Being confronted by stories of other people’s trauma was at times shocking and at times cringe-worthy. I had to focus my eyes to stay on the stories yet disassociate myself from the actions behind the words.

With that said, this is a work of major importance for anyone interested in beginning to understand what trauma is and how it impacts people. In January of this year I participated in a trauma-informed training with the idea of teaching yoga in prisons. What brought me to the training was my brief experience co-leading a yoga class at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York where I felt woefully unprepared. However, the training did not begin to adequately address my questions. In search of more information, I was introduced to a woman who offered to meet with me and share experiences and information. As both a lawyer and a yoga teacher in prisons, she  highly recommended Van Der Kolk’s book, and her suggestion was spot on.

There is so much information that this first read felt more of an overview. However, the book is quite in-depth, providing an overview of how the human brain functions and processes trauma, exploring how children’s brains develop and are impacted by trauma, explaining traumatic memory, and concluding with descriptions of multiple different paths to recovery. I have no idea if I will ever reread the book, but if I were to pursue the field of teaching yoga to populations impacted by trauma then this book would be on my book shelf and wind up with sticky notes coming off numerous pages.

It took me awhile to read and it is one week overdue at my library! Each chapter deserved attention and time to process. I found myself jotting down a quote or comment here and there as something caught my interest, beginning with the idea that trauma is held in all the cells of the body. I began to better understand the meaning of interoception, which is to feel and experience our body and visceral sensations. This ability can be deeply impacted by the experience of trauma. Furthermore, memories of somatic trauma are implicit, within body sensations, not explicit as narrative. In other words, memory of a trauma is held within the body, not within the frontal lobe where story telling would originate.

In order to have a sense of agencythe feeling of being in charge of your life, there needs to be interoception, attachment and attunement, these latter two a crucial part of healthy childhood development where the child develops a sense of self. Attachment is the act of developing a bond with a primary caregiver, usually a mother or father. Attunement is the synching of emotions and physical actions with another person, again usually the primary caregiver. This relies on mirror neurons, which Van der Kolk aptly describes as neural WiFi allowing one to pick up the movement, emotional state and intention of someone else.

I worked to understand what Van der Kolk referred to as the essence of trauma: Dissociation. 

Dissociation [happens when] the overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed. (pg 66)

If the first two hundred pages are all about the brain and an explanation of trauma, told via other people’s stories, the last hundred and fifty are about recovery.

Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership…The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. (pg 203)

Alas, while I wanted to leave this book with a sense of hopefulness, I found myself as discouraged as Van der Kolk when he noted in his conclusion that our western society does not seem compelled to visit the causes of trauma. Currently in the United States our various civic and political structures often undermine the very approaches that research tells us would help ameliorate the base causes of trauma. As he concludes: The choice is ours to act on what we know.

 

The Physiology of Stress

Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers hooked me from the title. At first read the title may sound irreverent but it actually is a true statement. I took copious notes based on his explanation of the science of stress and his suggestions, at the end, for managing stress. I’ve written about the nervous system in prior blog posts, but this is the first time the physiology has made its way front and center in my blogging and understanding.

As Sapolsky notes, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition to one another. The sympathetic system turns on with excitement or alarm, causing the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal glands and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) from all other glands. This, in turn, speeds up the heart and sends blood to the muscles, allowing for a fast and efficient response to whatever caused the initial response. When the mellow parasympathetic system is activated via the vagus nerve, it slows down the heart and diverts blood from the muscles, making it possible to calm, slow down, or sleep. Each of these nervous system responses causes different, opposing reactions within the body. What intrigued me, and to the best of my recollection I have not written about, is the actual science of what happens in the body when it undergoes a stress response.

The Physiologic Details, in other words, the chemical flow
Within 15 seconds of being triggered by a stressor, the Hypothalamus releases CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) which turns on the sympathetic nervous system and also suppresses appetite. CRH signals the Pituitary to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone or, simply, corticotropin). The pituitary regulates peripheral glands, and within a few minutes ACTH reaches the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland, in turn, releases glucocorticoid, which also stimulates appetite for starch, sugar and fat, those being energy sources which would be necessary if you needed to move your muscles and get out of a situation quickly! The adrenal glands also release the epinephrine and norepinephrine noted in the paragraph above.

The adrenals hand off to the pancreas, which releases glucagon, causing increases in the levels of glucose (glucose being sugar). The pituitary and brain release endorphins and enkephalins to blunt pain perception. The pituitary also releases vasopressin, which impacts cardiovascular response.

You might begin to see a cascading chemical soup that, depending upon the magnitude of the stressor, can begin to saturate the body. You might also wonder why the body might both suppress or stimulate appetite from the same series of signals. Turns out that the type of stressor, its duration and the time it takes to recover from the stressor all determine if appetite is suppressed or stimulated.  According to Sapolsky, two-thirds of people eat more when under stress (hyperphagic) and one-third eat less (hypophagic). (I am of the first type and my husband is of the second. The good news is, once you know your tendencies you can work to adjust accordingly.)

Stress and the Heart
The heart’s sole job is to pump blood thru the “hoses” – the veins and arteries snaking thru the body. Blood pressure is the force with which the blood flows thru these “hoses.” If you’ve had your blood pressure measured in a doctor’s office, you likely know there are two numbers generated. Systolic pressure is the upper number and is the force with which blood leaves the heart thru the arteries. Diastolic pressure is the lower number and is the force with which blood returns to the heart thru the veins.

Ideally, to keep a healthy heart, the hoses need to be free of obstructions and the blood pressure needs to be able to return to a healthy level after engaging in a stress response. What makes the difference is whether the body is undergoing an acute response to stress (quick and over soon) or a chronic response (ongoing, which provides insufficient opportunity to recalibrate at healthy levels).

Our breathing has an effect on our heart. Generally, inhaling turns on the sympathetic nervous system, allowing it to energize, and exhaling turns on the parasympathetic, sending the signal to calm. The interplay of the inhales and exhales is what can stimulate the relaxation response (more about the response here and here).

The length of time between heartbeats is HRV (heart rate variability). A higher HRV signifies short interbeat intervals during inhale and long interbeat intervals during exhale. A minimal HRV means it is difficult to turn on the parasympathetic and turn off the sympathetic. To quote what I wrote about HRV in a prior post:

Typically, during an INhale the message is to speed up the heart rate, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system. This automatically kicks in when we feel stress. During an EXhale the heart rate slows and that, in turn, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The other piece of this process is HRV (heart rate variability). Whereas heart rate refers to the number of beats per minute, and can be measured by taking a pulse, heart rate variability is the time between each heart beat and requires an EKG machine for measurement. The higher HRV, the more parasympathetic activity there is, which bodes well for long-term health. Curiously, this is a measurement that is rarely provided during an annual physical!

A Visual Summary
I have taken numerous yoga trainings with Jillian Pransky and in just about every training she has shared imagery that distills what happens in the body when the stress response is activated. From Jillian’s imagery I created the graphic below, which also includes the Relaxation Response. 

Imagine a house with six rooms: reproduction, immunity, growth and repair, elimination, digestion, and a safe room. As a result of the FIGHT or FLIGHT response being activated, resources are channeled via a hormonal response to the safe room and shut off to the other rooms. In the safe room the brain is primed to isolate, build a wall, and separate and protect.

With activation of the REST and DIGEST response, resources are channeled via a hormonal response to the five main rooms and shut off to the safe room. When these other rooms are functioning the brain is primed to “tend and befriend.” The LARLAR at the upper left is Jillian’s acronym for how to manage the body’s response to stress and return to homeostasis: Land (the body internally and on the ground), Arrive (with your breath, guiding it deeper), Relax (arriving with a deeper breath will stimulate relaxation), Listen to yourself, Allow space for what you hear, Repeat because “the LARLAR is never done.”

imagery

Book Review – Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

from my Goodreads Review:

In the recent yoga therapy training I took with Jillian Pransky she referenced this book multiple times. Before sitting down to read Robert Sapolsky’s book I watched this 90 minute talk he gave at The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science at the University of Illinois in June 2017. Sapolsky is an entertaining speaker and makes his points with a wonderful blend of humor, anecdotes and science.

zebrasHis book is written in that same voice, making it immensely easy to read, absorb and digest. Sapolsky starts off by explaining what stress is and how the body responds to stress. With the physiology as a foundation, he then tackles a multitude of diseases, each receiving their own chapter. Some of these I skimmed, some I skipped and others I devoured. He concludes by culling from previous chapters some of the strategies that can be useful for managing stress, along the way reminding us that even the strategies require a balance between too much and not enough.

Science has found many connections between stress and illness, both biological and psychological, and perhaps the most daunting are the causes related to what Sapolsky calls in the apt named chapter 17: “The View from the Bottom.” The place a person has in society, the education of a person’s parents, the level of wealth or poverty, socioeconomic status…these all impact the role that stress can have on a child as the child grows and develops, and on the ensuing adult that child becomes.

There is much in this book that could be construed as daunting, yet Sapolsky presents a balance in almost all of his teaching (for that’s what this book is, a teaching.) I was intrigued by the biology of stress and now understand what is happening in my body when it produces a cold sore. It was interesting to learn why some people eat when stressed and others have a loss of appetite.

Ultimately, everything boils down to understanding our autonomic nervous system, which is composed of the sympathetic nervous system – those parts of our system over which we have little to no control – and our parasympathetic nervous system – those parts over which we do have some control. The biggie here is that the sympathetic nervous system is what activates our stress response, what is commonly referred to as fight, flight or feint, while our parasympathetic nervous system, when activated via the vagus nerve, is known for rest and digest.

For more on any of this, however, read Sapolsky’s book! Take in the early chapters to create a base line of understanding about stress and the body, then read those chapters that have a connection to you, and finish up with the final chapter.