We all know that phenomenon. We are stuck in a life crisis; our partner is too chummy with his or her ex causing a myriad of “bad feelings”; our favorite sports team loses an important match, our work situation is tense, deadlines need to be met, our children choose that first perfect spring day when you just want to sit in the sun and read a book in peace to invite a bunch of kids over to play keeping the noise at a steady “annoying to unbearable”. All of a sudden, we start feeling physically weird. Yes, negative emotions affect health. But how?
All day, every day, our bodies and minds deal with a varying multitude of emotions. More often than not we don’t understand what exactly they are, where they are coming from, and certainly not how to deal with them. So instead of blindly following down that path of destruction those “negative” emotions can cause, why not try to understand what they are in the first place? Emotions are, in their base, chemical signals pinged back and forth between the brain and the “heart” – I am using that term as a sort of understandable place in the human body where feelings take up residence. Our emotions are translated into according chemicals, which means that there are different chemicals for both negative and positive emotions. At moments when we experience what we would typically call negative emotions like anger,hate, jealousy, and rage, annoyance or fear, those emotions are by definition irregular and chaotic, and this is precisely what the signals they send to the brain look like. Compare it to the stock market on a volatile day with a lot of movement. Our minds and thus our bodies experience those signals just as they are – chaotic, and stressful, and begin to put in motion coping mechanisms that will help us deal.
Figure 4.1. A comparison of the signals between the heart and the brain in two extremes of emotion: the “negative” emotion of frustration and the “positive” emotion of appreciation. Source: The Institute of HeartMath.
On a purely physiological level, that means that stress causes both the levels of cortisol and adrenaline to rise in our bloodstreams, which is why they are often referred to as, indeed, the “stress hormones“. Those hormones are designed to prepare us to react to the stress with action, quick and powerful, as our forefathers would have had to do when being faced with a bear or a mammoth would have caused stress. Our bodies redistribute their resources. Blood that is needed in the periphery – muscles and limbs , hands, feet etc – in order to make us ready to fight the bear (or strangle the screaming kids on the trampoline in our back yards ….) is pulled out of the organs in our depth. The key here lies in understanding that those responses and the according chemicals and physical changes are supposed to be brief and temporary. In our daily life experiences, however, they have become more of a constant occurance, meaning the levels of stress hormones just doesn’t return back to normal anymore. We can’t kill our bear (for example work situation/ our bosses), and we can’t run away from them either. So we respond almost ALL THE TIME. Hormones that are supposed to make us almost superhuman in life threatening situations now drain us of all energy.
Stress Hormones – Superhuman Powers or SuperSuckerPunch?
The benefits of our bodies releasing the stress hormones mentioned above, cortisol and adrenaline, can be not only helpful but necessary and life-saving at times. But, lets not forget this: the stress that triggers the surge effectively shuts down the release of other chemicals that support important functions in our bodies. The release of vital chemicals that support functions of growth, immunity, and anti-aging is dramatically reduced during highly stressful periods. Our bodies are designed for only one Game Mode: stress / fight/ react OR relax/chill/heal. Both cannot exist at the same time because the chemicals that are released in those game modes are vital enemies. The idea of life was never to be exposed to constant stress day in, day out and even at nighttime when we are supposed to rest. Yet, this is the reality for most people living today. We, the children of the 21st century, live in a world filled with technological blessings and curses. Our brains are battered almost constantly with information – news, blogs, headlines, pings, tweets, alerts from our social media platforms, dating websites etc. We have forgotten what it was like to live without our cell phones as a means of both a permanent informtaion source and our lifeline, our umbilical cord to the world. Be honest with yourself – how many times during a regular hour does your cell phone give alerts and / or do you check it? Measure it for one hour. And be prepared to be shocked. Additionally, we feed ourselves boosters for those stress chemicals with multiple consecutive espresso shots, double cappucinos, tall blacks, nutmeg latés and the occassional energy drink that promises to give us wings and make us fly but in reality only lets us leap for a second before we crash and burn in its aftermath. In short, we are adapting to the ever gaining speed of the world around us with releasing stress hormones into our bloodstreams constantly in order to keep up and boost those hormones with Starbucks and Red Bulls . If you can’t protect yourself from this kind of stress you will get stuck in Game mode 1. Don’t forget though: the higher you rank here, the lower is the level of your health. Its pretty much like any computer game you know with one major difference: if you run our of life energy in the real world, no amount of “coins” will be able to buy you new energy to start over. Here, its a one time shot. Here, after you are depleted of all your energy, its GAME OVER. We just have to look around us to see the consequences of what I have described. Heart disease, stroke, eating disorders, immune deficiencies, even some forms of cancer are undoubtedly correlated with stress. In the recent 10 to 15 years we have seen a steady increase in those diseases everywhere in the modern world. So how can we fight this development? How can we counteract it?
The answer is actually simpler than you may think.
Positive Emotions – The Real Superheroes
So, it really isn’t all that complicated. The same mechanisms that work with our response to stress can also help regulate that response. That means that even when all around us the world is clearly in Game Mode 1, we can find ways for ourselves to be in Game Mode 2 and relieve stress in a healthy way. Better yet, we can do so quickly, intentionally, and it doesn’t cost us a dime. Remember the pings our negative emotions send between the heart and the brain? Well, positive emotions do the same. When we experience positive feelings such as appreciation, gratitude, compassion, caring, love, happiness we send signals to our brains that are regular, rhythmic and orderly. No more volatile stock market stress. In turn, the brain releases different chemicals, different hormones. In essence what happens is that the levels of the stress hormones go down and normalize and the life-affirming chemistry of a powerful immune system with anti-aging properties increases. The shift between the stress response and a feeling of well-being can happen quickly – its all up to you. Like I said at some other point on this webpage, I am not a Guru or a priest. I won’t preach to you about meditation techniques or prayer or anything else, even though I am not saying that those things can’t be exactly right for you. They can of course. I am simply saying this: look at yourself. Take a good long look at your life, and your history, and remember moments when you were relaxed, remember things that used to make you happy. Figure out what makes you tick. For some it can be as simple as sitting on a bench for 5 minutes and watching ducks in a pond fighting over bread crumbs. For others it may be a half hour walk in the woods or at the beach, or uninterrupted time to listen to their favorite music or indeed read that book; to lay in the bathtub, exercise, play with your dog, garden or whatever else it is that fills you with a sense of peace and rest (without e.g. feeling guilty that you are not at the constant disposal of your children or co-workers or even friends). And please, don’t Facebook or tweet it. Do it JUST FOR YOURSELF! I, for instance, like to put on my music player and dive into my own world, effectively shutting out everything and everyone for the time being. I do that in times of rest, or while I workout. I have been lucky to find one device that allows me to do all that. You can check out my review if you’d like: Awesome MP3 Music Player for Chilling and Sports . I can almost hear those brain wheels turning now. You wonder: but how can I relax when: my boss, my deadline, my mortgage, my marriage, my this, my that…. Simple. Look, the funny thing is, and thats a promise, once you have taken that half hour or hour for yorself to actually breathe and be and thus have actively reduced your stress hormone levels, all the factors that stress you will STILL BE THERE – only you will be able to deal with them a lot better. They won’t kill you anymore; instead your superhero positive emotions get to kick some stress hormone villain ass.
Face it: you are the creator of your health. And its not just in what you eat and whether or not you smoke etc. Your emotions are the key to personal resilience in life. The quality of our emotions determines the instructions our hearts send to our brains. My advice? Don’t let negative emotions affect your health anymore. Kick ass. You know you can!
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