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Everyone has stress in their lives. And the sources are many.

It can be the seemingly endless nights of crying babies; the increased job workload in which you think you’ll never get your head above water for the foreseeable future; or the anxiety of upcoming SATs or final exams.

But regardless of where it is coming from, stress can easily beget more stress — unless you take the time to slow down, figure out why your heart and mind are racing, and take constructive action.

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, explains that the increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other common symptoms of anxiety, are related to the region of the brain that responds to stress.

“The limbic system – which is a primal and very old part of the brain — interprets stimuli using your five senses to determine whether you are in danger,” Zack says.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.
Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Even though not getting your report finished on time or being 10 minutes late for your next appointment is unlikely to result in bodily harm or terrible consequences, these kinds of episodes can trigger the primitive part of the brain to trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

“This part of the brain has been conditioned to interpret everyday interactions in much the same way a caveman would respond to life or death situations with a saber-tooth tiger,” Zack says. “The amygdala (a part of the brain) determines that a situation is stressful or dangerous and releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones into your system. That automatically sets off a cascading series of physical and emotional responses that can be very distressing.

“This can occur periodically or chronically and leave an individual feeling overwhelmed. Aside from the immediate results of these hormones raging through our blood and increasing tension, the long-term effects can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being.”

Zack says that over time, a patterned way of responding to similar stimuli or situations can develop. “The neurons that begin to fire together are now wired together, and an individual may feel powerless to change it.”

She notes that when the limbic part of the brain is stimulated, it makes it much more difficult for a person to engage in logical or rational thought. But by taking a deep breath and thinking about what is happening, people can access the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for rational, logical thought.

To access the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, Zack recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • Is this an old pattern (of physiological or psychological response)?
  • What is my emotional reaction beckoning me to work on?
  • Given my insight, what are my options in addressing the stressful situation?

She says this type of thinking can begin to “rewire” the brain.

“When the pre-frontal cortex is being used, more blood flow is sent to that region and by default, less blood flow is sent to the limbic region of the brain,” Zack says. “In addition, new neural pathways are formed because the individual is now thinking about their response, as opposed to simply having a reaction.”

It’s that time of year again — the weather turns warmer, the grass is green and the birds are chirping in the morning. But if you’re a student, these picturesque spring days can be accompanied by a knot in your stomach as you work to finish term papers and prepare for final exams.

For most college students, early May is crunch time. High school students generally get a reprieve until after Memorial Day, when the reality of June finals really starts to hit home.

High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.
High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.

Everyone approaches finals week a little differently. Let’s face it – some people are just better at handling stress than others. But it is very easy to get caught up in the moment – studying, writing and fretting for hours at a time with little or no down time. While diligence is instrumental in preparing for finals, it is also important to remember to “Take Five.”

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, points to the importance of students giving themselves periodic breathers despite the frenetic pace that often accompanies finals week. She says that it is important from time to time to take a step back and reflect upon what is actually happening and see the bigger picture.

“Getting ready for finals can be a very difficult time,” Zack says. “It usually means added stress because more time and energy is given to the task of studying, which takes time away from other activities and responsibilities. It is important to remember that you need to take time to be reflective and mindful about how you are managing the added pressure.

“You may say there aren’t enough hours in the day to take just five minutes for yourself. You manage to come up with excuses for not caring for yourself or listening to your body and your needs go unmet. But by now, you also know that your energy gets depleted and your immune system may weaken from the stress. Something must change and the change must originate from you.”

Zack explains that by getting caught up in the worry, the amygdala part of the brain releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones that can raise blood pressure, heart rate and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.

In other words, stress begets stress. And studying when your heart is racing and feelings of worry are stimulated is even more difficult and less effective.

Zack presented a paper last week on this subject at the annual conference of the National Association of Social Workers.

For additional tips on handling the stress of finals week, check out a previous post.

It’s a question that may be the ultimate brain teaser – how much of our brains do we actually use?

You’ve probably heard – even from presumably good sources – that human beings only use a small percentage of our brains. Some will say 5 percent. Others say 10, or perhaps 15 percent.

People actually use their entire brain, rather than the oft-quoted small portion of 5- to 10-percent.
People actually use their entire brain, rather than the oft-quoted small portion of 5- to 10-percent.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have heard that the human mind can be greatly enhanced and has the potential to develop ESP, or even mental telepathy? After all, if we are only using 5 percent of our minds, it could be inferred that we could improve the power of our brains to an almost unbelievable level. (Those of you who saw the 1970 film “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” might remember the telekinetic, mutant humans who were able to read minds, create mirages and inflict searing pain on their perceived enemies telepathically.)

But the truth is that none of those tiny percentages that are espoused in terms of how much of our brains we actually use are even remotely close to the truth.

“How much of your brain do you really use? All of it!” says Kelly Bordner, assistant professor of psychology at Southern.

Today, Wise Words looks at the myth that people use only a small portion of their brain. In Part I of this 2-part series, we examined the myth that opposites attract in romantic relationships, at least in the long run. Both subjects were among the psychological and behavioral myths explored in a course offered last fall at Southern.

Part II:

Just like muscle mass can be increased, so can the strength of our brain – just not to super human levels. For example, Bordner says that when we challenge ourselves with new material or learning a new skill, we create new neuronal connections.

“If we only used 10 percent in the first place, there certainly wouldn’t be the need to build new brain mass,” Bordner says. In other words, why bother challenging yourself with complex ideas if you could just tap into the “unused 90 percent of the brain.” And would stroke victims really need therapy to create new pathways in the brain to compensate for the damage sustained in the episode? At the very least, rehabilitation would seem to be a much easier process if you had all that “surplus brain” to work with in generating those new connections.

So, where did this myth originate? Bordner says no conclusive answer has yet been found. Some say it might have started with an interpretation of a quote from William James, who is often credited with being the father of American psychology.

In his book “The Energies of Men,” James wrote: “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” But he never used a percentage, and could have been talking generically about the benefits of reaching our mental and physical potential.

Others say the myth could have stemmed from taking comments from other philosophers and scientists out of context. Even Albert Einstein has been attributed with having made statements supporting the myth.

But Bordner says there is no evidence in modern science to support the myth.

So, the next time you hear someone say that people only use 10 percent of their brains, you might want to tell them that isn’t the case with anyone you know.