A meticulous analysis of national health data has shown startling rises in death rates for middle-aged white Americans. Surprisingly, these deaths are not from infectious or chronic diseases, but from emotional diseases. Clearly, it is time for a focal shift related to our health; it is time for our emotional health needs to take center stage.
Luckily, there is a very specific part of our brain that controls our emotional responses. By targeting this emotional center, we can learn to improve our emotional state, decrease our stress levels, and improve our health.
The emotional center of our brain dictates how we process the experiences of daily life, and over time it develops habitual responses to stress. If the brain’s response to stress is ineffective, it can lead to stress-related conditions such as anxiety, depression, overeating, PTSD, sleep disturbances, digestive problems and headaches. In fact, the emotional brain in stress is the root cause of 80 percent of health problems.
Training the Emotional Brain
Discoveries in the last five years have shown that emotional circuits within the brain are highly plastic, or amenable to change; and research shows that, when we use specific emotional tools to activate and change them, we can train the brain to process stress more effectively.
Over the last 30 years, I have developed a neuroscience-based program called Emotional Brain Training (EBT) that gives us the tools to make positive changes in the emotional brain. The method is rather simple. We use tools that switch our brain out of stress and into feeling good. This intentional, proactive switching of our emotional state I call “spiraling up.”
How Do We Spiral Up?
The tools used in EBT mimic the tools that authoritative parents use to help their children bounce back from moments of stress, and turn negative moods into positive ones.
Parents with this style of parenting — high expectations and high levels of nurturing — emotionally connect with their children, read their stress level, and use the most appropriate intervention to return their child to a state of well-being.
When we use the EBT tools, we mimic this healthy parental intervention, and learn to maintain reasonable expectations, while nurturing ourselves through change. By emotionally connecting with ourselves, assessing our stress level, and using the tool that mirrors what the effective parent does, we naturally spiral up and feel better.
Strengthening Our Core
Over time, the brain becomes resilient and spiraling up becomes second nature. But in the beginning, tapping into our stress can trigger negative experiences from the past that have encoded in our circuitry. Therefore, an important part of spiraling up is to clear away or ‘rewire’ the brain circuits that bog us down.
The circuits that cause us to get stuck, or triggered, are called ‘core circuits,’ and were encoded early in life or later, during stressful experiences. They show up in our thoughts as unreasonable expectations such as, “I am bad,” “I don’t matter,” or “I have no power.” Left unchecked, these core circuits can live in our emotional brain for decades; getting activated by daily life and causing us to feel lost, confused, overwhelmed, or bad.
Rewiring Survival Circuits
These core circuits pave the way for the encoding of another kind of circuit: a ‘survival circuit.’ When life is stressful, it activates one of these core circuits, which triggers one or more of our unreasonable expectations. These triggers can result in a cascade of negative emotions, causing even more stress, and leading to a full-blown stress response.
Once stress overload hits, brain defaults to extremes, such as overeating, drinking, overspending, going numb, but also extremes of thoughts, emotions and relationship patterns. These excesses help us to escape the pain in the moment; but the price we pay is the encoding of a circuit that falsely associates survival (safety, love or comfort) with whatever we used to escape.
When we are stressed again, these survival circuits are activated and replay the same response. Often we focus on changing our responses — the overeating, the numbing out, the merging in relationship, but we often can’t, because these powerful survival circuits are ruling us.
“My emotional eating problem started when my parents divorced. I was overwhelmed with stress and must have encoded a survival circuit to get my comfort from carbohydrates.”
“When I was in seventh grade and the kids at school shunned me, I escaped by not feeling. I went numb. My survival circuit is to get my safety from shutting down my feelings.”
Breakthroughs in Neuroplasticity
In the past, our healthcare has primarily focused on fixing the emotional and behavioral symptoms caused by these circuits. However, a new strategy in health care is on the rise that emphasizes getting to the root cause of our issues by rewiring the circuits that drive them. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, MD, states that, “If the brain is really cured of any condition, really cured, normalized, it will be by brain training, not by chemical manipulation.” Thomas Insel, MD, who directed The National Institute for Mental Health for 13 years agrees that, “Mental disorders appear to be disorders of brain circuits.”
This new direction does not negate the need for traditional healthcare. We need to continue to use counseling and medications when needed; but can also focus on targeting the faulty circuits within our brains that amplify stress and make change so challenging.
The tools of EBT give us a practical way to use the power of neuroplasticity. By using the tools that help us to spiral up, we rewire the offending circuits and extinguish the drive to engage in excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The tools are simple and easily learned, and we can use them on our own, with peer support, or in small groups facilitated by a certified EBT coach.
Using the EBT ‘Brain Map’
The first step in creating permanent emotional change is to use a tool called the EBT Brain Map. The Brain Map helps us to identify our excesses and unreasonable expectations that are connected to the circuits we need to rewire. Just identifying these circuits can boost our sense of power and hopefulness; short-circuiting the toxic shame that often stalls our efforts to heal.
“I used to blame myself that I was an anxious stressed person and defective in some way. When it’s a wiring issue, the blame stops.”
“I had been on some many diets, and always regained the weight. How depressing! Now I know that it was so hard to change because survival drives for overeating were driving it. It’s not all my fault!”
Spiraling Up in Daily Life
Once we’ve identified the circuits we want to rewire, we use the EBT tools to change them; and as we clear away the circuits that are left over from the past, we emotionally spiral up.
Clearing away negative circuits can give us a fresh sense of freedom in our lives and a new pathway out of emotional stress. Besides, who doesn’t like to spiral up?