Recently I had to take a driver’s refresher course for people over 55. The class met at a Community Center that is located in an odd corner of the city on a small road that goes beneath the highway.
I had a good idea how to get there but wasn’t positive so I set my GPS. The GPS took me to a hilly neighborhood just above the community center, but left me with no road to get to the building below. I reset the GPS and tried again. I ended up winding down streets far away from where I wanted to go. I watched the clock tick away.
After about 20 minutes, I concluded that it was hopeless and took the journey back towards the highway to go the way I thought was right all along. By the time I got to the driving class I was more than 40 minutes late. The teacher was rude and acted like I was an intruder. He wouldn’t let me into the class and said I was being unfair to those who were already there.
When I walked outside to my car I realized how badly I felt. I sat down on a bench in front of the building. There was a group of young boys playing soccer in the field in front of me and I began to watch them. I noticed that the woods surrounding the field and the hilly neighborhood where I had gotten lost was just beyond them.
Because I work with stress regularly I knew the signs. My body was tense, the muscles in my arms were contracted. I was so angry and frustrated I wanted only to sit, stew, and feel like a victim. These are clues that stress hormones had flooded my system. Employing self-discipline was difficult, but then I began to appreciate the moment. It took a while to calm down.
Sitting on the bench I watched the boys play soccer, and I noticed for the first time that it was a beautiful day. Using my tools, I slowly calmed down. This enabled me to return to peace.
Discovering when we are stressed and shifting to a place of calm is really important to our health. People can become numb to their stress. We learn to adapt to daily pressures, irritations and annoyances of life and that starts to seem normal. Stress then, shows up as a bad decision, or an overreaction. The effects of unmanaged stress can eventually result in an unwanted diagnosis at the doctor’s office.
For those who appreciate science, an article by Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman, reveals that feelings of stress activate the right prefrontal cortex of the brain where energy depletes us. Non-stressful reactions, like calm and peacefulness activate a left prefrontal cortex of the brain where energy renews us.
The amygdala is part of the brain’s emotional center. When triggered, the amygdala activates the brain’s left or right prefrontal cortex. When MRI images show more activity in the right prefrontal cortex people are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. By contrast, when the MRI shows increased left prefrontal cortex activity people experience greater feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, and energy.
We each have an emotional set point our brain defaults to. Continued unmanaged stress creates an active, well-worn path to the right prefrontal cortex. This then becomes our, emotional“set point.” We can consciously change that. Managed emotions will, over time, move our set point towards activating the left prefrontal cortex. This means, with practice we can default back to calm more and more quickly.
The Goleman article* quoted a study involving a group of Tibetan Lamas. Their consistent internal work gave them far greater activity in left frontal cortex than anyone else in the study group of 175. This means they were consistently able to active the right frontal cortex. Their internal set point naturally defaults to peace.
Like the Lamas, you too can learn to change your brain activity, thus increasing your happiness and energized possibilities. In a short time, while sitting outside the community center, I was able to shift my brain from the right prefrontal cortex activity to the left. Depleting emotions of anger and frustration shifted and I experienced calm. Now I could plan the next steps for my day.
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*BEHAVIOR; Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left
By DANIEL GOLEMAN, New York Times, FEB. 4, 2003