How your body responds to your emotions
THE RED BRAIN STATE
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
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)