The Science Behind That Hippie Dippie Woo Woo Bullshit.
You have heard it a hundred times. “Just breathe” or “get into the present moment.” I can feel the eye rolls from here. As it turns out though, there is some neuroscience and biochemistry of the brain at work with these statements. This week, I am going to briefly talk about two “hippie dippie” concepts and the neuroscience that actually might make them more accessible and digestible for those of us that like a little science with our woo woo.
We have two nervous systems in our bodies: one is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that activates, arouses and gets you moving. When the sympathetic nervous system gets too activated, we go into flight, fight or freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is the system that helps you rest and relax. When the parasympathetic nervous system gets too activated, we go into dissociation or we check out. As we evolved as humans, we needed both of these. If you were being chased by a tiger, your brain would automatically prepare you to fight, or run like hell, or maybe go with the freeze response and play dead (go Opossum style). All of these could potentially save your life if you were in a life or death situation. If the tiger catches you and eats you, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and numbs you out so you don’t feel your head being tiger candy. When things are in balance, we are awake and activated enough to have energy, but we are relaxed enough to respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting. Some people call that flow, or the window of tolerance. Some people’s windows are very small. On a scale of 1-10 on an anxiety or reactive scale, they operate at an 8 so the smallest, stressful thing will set them off, send them out of the window and their flight or fight response kicks in. Small windows can be a result of trauma or insecure attachment or being raised in an environment that is fear based, overly controlling or over-stimulating.
The problem is, we live in a culture that over-activates our sympathetic nervous system. Every time we see something on Facebook that is disturbing or even exciting, our activating nervous system is stimulated. Every time we get upset by the news or feel like there is a danger or threat, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Our windows of tolerance and ability to create balance are getting smaller and we feel like we are in flight, fight or freeze too often. The flight or fight response feels like our reactions are not a choice. There is a sense of urgency and reactivity that feels like our thinking brains are completely turned off because they are. If you think about it though, usually, nothing dangerous is happening to you RIGHT NOW. Unless you are incredibly skilled James Bond type and like reading blogs in the middle of a violent riot or in a fist fight, there is nothing physically dangerous or emotionally dangerous happening to you right now.
One of my favorite breathing techniques that I show my clients and want to share with you is taking a slow, deep breath, they kind that fills up your belly like a balloon, perhaps counting to four and then an elongated exhale for a count of six or eight tells your brain that there is no danger right now. It turns of the stress chemicals in your brain and tells your parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxing one) to turn on. So the next time your friend tell your to “just breathe” on their way to yoga class, perhaps you won’t want to smack them in their blissed out face.
The second hippie dippie woo woo topic I want to explore with you today is the topic of mindfulness. Perhaps you have heard of the benefits of mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation, but there is actually an opportunity to practice mindfulness at every moment of the day. We now know that the frontal lobes of the brain are in charge of things like emotion regulation, attuned communication making moral decisions, body regulation, and slowing the reactivity down so you can make a wise response rather than a knee jerk reaction to things. Not so coincidentally, the practice of mindfulness also increases these functions because you are literally strengthening the neurological connections in the frontal lobes. The limbic system, which is at the base of the brain (also associated with the flight, fight freeze response” will try to keep you alive. It is only capable of processing very simple information. It likes simple stories like “I am the good guy, he’s the bad guy. REACT!” The frontal lobes can process the much more nuanced and complicated stories that are often needed to have empathy and understanding for ourselves and for other people. So when we practice mindfulness, we are strengthening our frontal lobes and strengthening our ability to have attuned communication, empathy and calmer, more thoughtful responses to stressful situations. Practicing these things when the waters are calm, when we are calm strengthens those connections so when stressful situations happen, we have better access to calming responses , rather than reactive ones.
One simple way of practicing mindfulness is to check in with your five senses. Notice what you see, smell, taste, touch and hear. Just notice, without judgement if you can. Just this simple practice can increase the connectivity in your frontal lobes. And if you add the deep breathing to it- well that’s just a formula for creating some badass balance right there.