How your body re­sponds to your emo­tions

Prevention (Australia) - - Emotional Health -


Your brain re­acts to how safe or un­safe you per­ceive a sit­u­a­tion to be. For ex­am­ple, if you fear pub­lic speak­ing and say ‘This will be a dis­as­ter’, your brain per­ceives the sit­u­a­tion as un­safe and the stress re­sponse is ac­ti­vated. In this state, the hor­mones cor­ti­sol and adrenalin are re­leased, cre­at­ing the fol­low­ing ef­fects:

Phys­i­cal: tun­nel vi­sion; shal­low breath­ing; stopped or slow di­ges­tion; in­creased blood pres­sure and blood sugar; in­creased heart rate; sup­pressed immune sys­tem; tensed mus­cles.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal: judge­men­tal and black-and­white think­ing; feel­ing stressed; nar­row or fixed point of view; un­kind man­ner; dis­con­nec­tion from oth­ers; loss of abil­ity to think cre­atively, be flex­i­ble and see other per­spec­tives.

It isn’t hard to see stress ben­e­fits us when we need speed and strength to deal with prob­lems but it is not help­ful at all when our prob­lem is a messy house or a dif­fi­cult conversation. The red-brain state doesn’t have to be elim­i­nated but should be re­served for emer­gen­cies only.


The green brain state or, as I like to call it, the ‘ev­ery­day brain’, is on the op­po­site end of the spectrum. In this brain state the stress hor­mones cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line are re­duced and the ‘re­la­tion­ship’ hor­mone oxy­tocin is re­leased stim­u­lat­ing the fol­low­ing ef­fects:

Phys­i­cal: wide vi­sion and flex­i­ble at­ten­tion; deep and slow breath­ing; op­ti­mal di­ges­tion; re­duced blood pres­sure and blood sugar; re­duced heart rate; op­ti­mal immune sys­tem; re­laxed mus­cles.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal: non-judge­men­tal think­ing; feel­ing calm and in control; see­ing the big pic­ture; in­creased kind­ness and em­pa­thy; feel­ing connected to oth­ers; men­tal flex­i­bil­ity and per­spec­tive-tak­ing.

In this state you can make good de­ci­sions and be truly ef­fec­tive and pro­duc­tive. You will also be able to re­lax and process events and emo­tions. On top of that, the re­lease of oxy­tocin im­me­di­ately in­creases com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy and the de­sire to con­nect with oth­ers.

Judg­men­tal think­ing: It is so rude and un­pro­fes­sional of them to ignore my email. Argggghh, this is so an­noy­ing, it shows a com­plete lack of re­spect!

Mind­ful think­ing: They are not re­spond­ing to my email. It is what it is. How do I want to re­spond to this sit­u­a­tion?

Train your brain

There are sev­eral ways you can train your mind to have fewer and fewer thoughts that trig­ger red brain and more thoughts that pro­mote green brain and pro­tect your hap­pi­ness. An im­por­tant step is to put a new fil­ter on your in­ner di­a­logue. The first step in do­ing this is to be­come more aware of your thoughts and un­der­stand that they make per­fect sense but are not nec­es­sar­ily true or use­ful or even ac­cept­able ac­cord­ing to your own stan­dards.

Imag­ine your thoughts be­ing broad­cast out loud. What would that be like? Or take a moment to think about some of the things you say to your­self on a reg­u­lar ba­sis when you are stressed or un­der pres­sure. Now say th­ese things out loud, pre­tend­ing you are talk­ing to a friend. What do your thoughts sound like now? If your self-talk is any­thing like my self-talk was be­fore I started train­ing my thoughts, your thoughts are neg­a­tive, harsh, crit­i­cal and un­true. It’s likely that you sound like a real bully when you speak out loud the self-talk that is so nor­mal to you in the pri­vacy of your own mind. The truth is that many peo­ple are self-bul­ly­ing all the time but you wouldn’t have a clue based on their out­ward ap­pear­ance. The first step to chang­ing this is in­creased aware­ness of the thoughts and how un­help­ful they are.

The sec­ond step is to be­gin to fil­ter out the un­help­ful thoughts. One way to do this is to make a con­scious de­ci­sion to only give ra­dio time to joy­ful or help­ful thoughts and kindly si­lence the stress­ful and un­help­ful thoughts. Yes, this is hard but it can be done. You don’t ac­cept that kind of lan­guage from oth­ers, so don’t ac­cept it from your­self ei­ther. Sim­ply tell your mind to stop it and re­place it with a joy­ful or help­ful thought. It might feel im­pos­si­ble in the be­gin­ning but if you stick to it after only a week of re­sist­ing un­help­ful thoughts and re­plac­ing them with help­ful thoughts, you will think and feel very dif­fer­ently. For ex­am­ple:

The thought ‘My fam­ily is on the other side of the world’ is a thought that only brings me sad­ness, and it is a use­less thought be­cause it doesn’t make my fam­ily move closer to me. ‘My fam­ily is only a plane ride away’ is much more help­ful.

The thought ‘ I need to get this done’ trig­gers stress. ‘I would like to get this done and will do my very best to fin­ish it on time but if I can’t I will find a so­lu­tion’ is much more help­ful.

The thought ‘ I have lost an im­por­tant client’ brings neg­a­tive emo­tions plus it is a use­less thought be­cause it doesn’t bring the client back. ‘There will be plenty of other op­por­tu­ni­ties’ is much more help­ful.

The thought ‘I am ex­hausted’ only makes me feel more tired. The thought ‘I will make it through the day and get an early night’ is much more help­ful.


When your thoughts be­come kinder and less judg­men­tal some­thing in­ter­est­ing hap­pens: the way you re­late to your­self changes. You grow in self-com­pas­sion and kind­ness to­wards your­self. Many peo­ple are in­cred­i­bly harsh on them­selves, con­stantly beat­ing them­selves up. This in­ter­nal di­a­logue is a huge source of stress, but when you learn to be kind and non-judg­men­tal to­wards your­self, you are re­shap­ing your in­ner world and turn­ing it from an un­safe place into a safe place.

When your self-talk pro­motes green-brain ac­tiv­ity in­stead of red-brain ac­tiv­ity, you are do­ing your mind a huge favour by erad­i­cat­ing what might be the big­gest source of stress you will ever have in your life. You will be bet­ter able to reach your goals if you can keep your brain in the green zone or bring it back to a green-brain state be­fore you re­spond. It may feel counter-in­tu­itive, but when you prac­tise present-moment aware­ness and kind and non-judg­men­tal thoughts, you are in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of suc­cess­fully mak­ing the changes you want to make.

Chan­tal Hof­s­tee is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, ex­ec­u­tive coach and mind­ful­ness ex­pert. This is an edited ex­tract from her new book Re­new Your Mind (Ex­isle Pub­lish­ing, $29.99)

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