As humans, our bodies are wired for negativity, in that our tendency is to focus more on negative events, feelings, emotions than on pleasant or joyful ones. In our nervous system, our bias is toward identifying danger and being able to mount the physical resources to fight or flee from danger. The uncertainty, lockdowns and daily news of the pandemic over the past 14 months have added another layer of ongoing stress for most people. The tools we were using pre-pandemic to keep our stress levels down and to alleviate our natural negativity bias haven’t been enough, for many people, to keep them in balance both mentally and emotionally. We all need to be drawing more on the same tools or adding tools to our toolbox. And, we need to be using those tools even more often than before.
Neurofeedback is all about calming the nervous system and bringing it into balance in a time efficient way. Because the system is reading the electrical activity in the brain 256 times/second and can interrupt the pattern of imbalance hundreds of times during a session, it’s sometimes called meditation on steroids. Many people, when they start doing sessions, say that they know the many tools that can help them be less stressed, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, journaling, breathing to name a few, and, it’s like those tools are over on an island and they have no transportation to get there. I believe that NeurOptimal® provides a bridge, or the transportation, to get to the island. Once there’s access to and more capacity to use the tools on the island there’s a lot more choices available to help people cope more easily with everyday stresses. Neurofeedback will bring settle our system down and then the ongoing work becomes keeping it settled and in balance.
Now, more than ever, it’s essential to practice, practice, practice using whatever combination of tools helps us to cope more easily. So, what are some simple tools that everyone has access to and can use?
Tools on the Island
Let’s start with breathing!
Breathing is something that our bodies do automatically, and, sometimes our breathing contributes to keeping our system on high alert. When we’re stressed, the stress hormone cortisol flows through our nervous system, giving the alert that danger is present. Our breathing becomes shallower and irregular. If we focus on our breathing, take a shorter breath in and then a long, slow breath out, we can actually bring down our cortisol levels and feel less revved up in our body or mind. Do that for a minute or two several times a day and, over time, this practice starts to bring down your overall response to stress. You can also add some variations to change up this exercise that further enhance the effect:
- Touch also helps to settle our systems by releasing oxytocin that reduces the cortisol storm. Putting your hand on your heart during the breathing exercise provides a second way of settling.
- Changing your posture is another adaptation you can add in, particularly shifting to posture that is the opposite of how you’re feeling. If you’re feeling nervous or scared, put your hands in the air above your head as you do your deep breathing or if that feels like too much, put your hands on your hips and hold your head high. Experiment and have fun with it and remember to keep tuning into your deep breathing at the same time! Doing this over time can help us feel that we have more capacity to tune into our bodies and to shift our response to external stresses.
Bring on the music!
Music can also have a powerful effect on our mood, emotions and senses. I’m not saying it’s easy to remember when we’re in the thick of stress, it’s not. When we’re a little more separated from our emotions, however, turning on some music that we love, singing to it if that feels good, or doing some dance moves, drumming to the music on the counter or table, all help to shift our nervous energy, and move it through our bodies in a positive way. Perhaps the music will stir up some emotions and result in some tears. That also releases some of the stress hormones and energy, a positive outcome in the longer term. Remember we always have the choice to stop if it feels like too much. The goal is to move the nervous energy out of our bodies, shifting our nervous system back towards balance again.
Doing whatever kind of physical activity appeals to you also helps to shift nervous energy. Exercise reduces fatigue, improves alertness and concentration, and enhances overall cognitive function. Keep it simple so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming to do it. During lockdown we can walk in our neighbourhoods. Early in the morning or in the evening there generally aren’t a lot of people out so the risk is very low. If that doesn’t feel comfortable, do a circuit of walking in your home or apartment, climb stairs if you have them and give yourself a goal of how many flights you want to do in a day. If your apartment is small, try walking the halls at times you know it’s not busy and do some flights between floor if that feels comfortable. Schedule in doing some yoga or exercise on-line. There are lots of free videos on YouTube. Or, go back to the music idea, turn on your favourite tunes and dance!
If you’re having trouble doing any of the practices above, and you’ve already done NeurOptimal® sessions, it means the tools have temporarily shifted to the island again. Doing one or two sessions of NeurOptimal® will quickly bring the nervous system back into balance and bring the bridge to the island back into place. For those who have never experienced NeurOptimal®, a series of 10 sessions can get you well on your way to building that bridge.