Psych Services: Nature heals stress – and other advice for the New Year

Lisa Garmezy

Since the lifespan of a New Year’s resolution is about eight days, by now you could be wondering if your vices will ever be tamed. Probably not, unless you lower the stress that trashes your self-control and sends you running for short-term comfort.

Fortunately, adopting a new brain science approach can help.

Imagine that your brain is a grassy mall at the center of a large college campus. As crowds of students trample across, paths emerge. Once a clear path can be seen, more students walk it. The more well-worn the path becomes, the more use it gets.

In our brains, billions of specialized cells called neurons can connect to one another firmly—or not. New pathways are constantly being established while unused connections wither and weaken.

Neurons that fire together wire together, as the saying goes. That’s why everything gets easier with experience, whether it’s baking a cake or murder. Recent understanding of the brain’s capacity to change, outlined in The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg, gives us the power to rewire our brains. We can let the grass grow back over unwanted paths.

 

Your Brain on Stress

 

To begin, picture the brain more realistically. It’s sort of a three-dimensional rounded pork chop shape, with the bulge next to the bony, thinner part representing the bottom of the brain as it connects to the spinal cord. The back of the brain controls breathing, heart rate and other basic functions. On the opposite side, in your forehead, at the front of the frontal lobes, is the prefrontal cortex. It controls planning, evaluating, and so on—it’s the CEO that can think about thinking.

Somewhere in between lies the villain of Dr. Greenberg’s story, in the form of two small structures resembling almonds called the amygdala. It controls anxiety and fear, plus other emotions. Your amygdala lies closer to the parts of the brain getting information from your senses than the prefrontal cortex does, so you respond emotionally to a trigger before you can think about it.

If something unexpected stretches across a trail, it’s your amygdala that shouts “Snake!”  Glands, hearing the news, dump adrenaline into your bloodstream. Now you’re primed for “fight or flight.” You have an elevated heart rate, a panicky feeling, and so on.

But when your prefrontal cortex checks the data, it finds a false alarm. “Just a branch,” it announces, signaling the amygdala to stand down. You relax.

Actually, Dr. Greenberg says our danger response isn’t “fight or flight,” but “fight, flee, or freeze.” Severe stress makes people act like a deer in headlights, have an “I’m not really here” experience, or pass out. We evolved to freeze in extreme peril, she says, because if you’re going to get eaten, you really don’t want to feel it.

 

The Alarm Is Set

 

Unfortunately, the amygdala today still functions like a fire alarm, or maybe a saber-tooth tiger alarm. It’s off or on, with no ability to send out mid-sized signals that would better suit contemporary problems such as debt. Constantly gearing up our bodies to deal with nonexistent emergencies ages us prematurely (think high blood pressure) and makes us crabby.

Then our goal becomes shrinking our amygdala—and the research says it really can become smaller and less prone to kicking off crisis responses in nonemergency situations—while growing our prefrontal cortex. A denser web of neurons connecting the two will allow you to more readily “calm down your stress response through logical thinking.”

Since these are complicated concepts for a short column, let me outline some key points:

  1. Research clearly shows that breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness lower perceived stress, boost the immune system, and have other benefits.
  2. What we’ve learned recently is that these skills also reduce the reactivity of your amygdala, giving the prefrontal cortex a chance to kick in. That gives you time to realize, “I should shut up,” before things go wrong. A diminished amygdala, with fewer connections to the brain’s memory centers, may also allow letting go of traumatic memories.
  3. Dr. Greenberg wrote a successful book by substituting the concept of shrinking your amygdala for controlling your emotional response, because knowing brain anatomy sounds cool.

 

Brush Your Brain

 

To be fair, thinking “I should relax” won’t physically change your brain. Regular use of one of the techniques mentioned above will. Frequent practice – “brushing your brain,” like brushing your teeth – will allow you to reliably soothe yourself.

Try mindfulness. Quoting Dr. Greenberg, it’s simply “a way of paying attention purposefully and with nonjudgmental acceptance to your present-moment experience.” Being mindful in relationships allows you to feel concerned about an angry partner, instead of fighting or criticizing. Being mindful with food means concentrating on the smell and taste and texture of every bite, and it curbs overeating. Mindfulness techniques are helping stressed soldiers after deployment learn to pay attention and concentrate again.

Open-minded police officers, perhaps, can be mindful with nature. Research scientists and anyone who ever visited a deer lease or tended a garden know that nature heals. One experiment found just seeing pictures of trees helped stressed people’s heart rates return to normal.

So find a spot, somewhere in your beat, where something’s growing. It could be flowers planted outside a bank, or an oddly tangled weed in a vacant lot. Assuming you can safely tune out the world for five minutes, you can use that greenery for some brain renovation.

 

Start Small

 

The following mindfulness practice is condensed from Dr. Greenberg’s book. Start by really noticing what’s growing. Focus on just one plant and see how it emerges from the earth, noting colors that are bright or muted, and surfaces that are sharp or rounded. Then notice everything you can about what you hear, and what you smell. Are sounds and odors faint or intense, consistent or variable? Notice what you feel—is the air warm or cool, breezy or still?

Last, focus on your body. See if any part of you is letting go of tension. Most people gain a sense of calm.

Whether you give it a try or not, recognize that you have the tools for re-engineering your brain. They might be as close as a set of weights under your desk, since exercise fosters brain health. Or, they could be seven-tenths of a mile away—which happens to be the distance between 1200 Travis and Discovery Green.

For more, check out the app Headspace, or see the June 12, 2014 guest blog at blogs.scientificamerican.com, What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?