Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky is an expert on behaviors, and his research explains what happens to our bodies when they are under stress. The brain interprets any perceived stressful event as a threat, and produces glucocorticoids – hormones that trigger our fight or flight reaction. This survival response serves us well in bursts of activity, such as running from danger or rapidly pulling a finger away from a hot pot.
Today, our lives are filled with stressors that range from toxic relationships to Internet safety and security. In between are unpaid bills, family feuds, job loss, bullying, sexual harassment, and a host of other problems that are part of life. Our once short-term responses to stress become chronic, wreaking havoc on our health and well-being.
When our body continues to elicit survival responses, its increased heart rate, raised blood pressure and released adrenaline become toxic because all three cause our stress hormones build up over time. Sapolsky’s research has focused on parts of the brain related to learning, memory, and judgment under stress. It is not surprising that he found that the neurons in these areas don’t function as well. When our Lizard Brain gets triggered, we are unable to tell the difference between a real danger and one that causes us to eat a carton of ice cream, self-medicate, or worse. Sapolsky admits that his own packed work schedule is a stress challenge, and jokes that doing what he loves may offset his own risk of a heart attack.
In other posts we have discussed how mindfulness, contemplation, and meditation (MCM) help us exit our emotions elevators and gain control of our feelings.
Another technique that can be used, although often overlooked, is gaining scientific support. That technique is focusing on being happy.
A leader in this approach is Shawn Anchor, who conducted research on happiness for 12 years at Harvard. His TED Talk on happiness has been viewed more than 17 million times. He found that simple behaviors, repeated daily for 21 days, helped people rewire their brains and create lasting, positive change that improved energy, resilience, creativity, and productivity.
Here are activities that have been found to promote feelings of well-being and happiness:
- Writing down three gratitudes every day
- Writing down at least one positive event every day in a journal
- Doing a daily act of kindness, (e.g, saying something positive to someone)
These techniques build positive brain connections and help us rewire negative patterns of thinking and reacting. They complement Dr. Sapolsky’s research on “humans at our best and worst,” and they are another tool for re-directing our emotions and getting off the 10th floor.
By taking positive action, you are decreasing not only your own stress, but also the consequences of stress affecting others (CAO).