Life is stressful enough. It seems that there is always too much to do and not enough time. But have you ever noticed that when you even think about that meeting you are dreading with the “higher-up”, or that call you keep putting off, or the difficult co-worker that you have to work with, that your heart beats faster, your palms start sweating, and your mouth goes dry like cotton? Adrenaline is flooding your system and you feel anxious just thinking about it!
So why is that, and what can you do about it? To explain, let me tell you about Michelle. I was introduced to her in Norman Doidge’s excellent book, The Brain that Changes Itself. Like many of us, Michelle loves good conversation, reading, and watching movies. Although Michelle has a few disabilities, she has a job, and in many ways her life is rather ordinary.
What is not ordinary about Michelle is that she only has half a brain. She’s missing the entire left hemisphere because it never developed when she was in the womb. So how is she able to function with only half a brain?
As you probably know, until recently, scientists believed that your brain was “fixed” after early childhood. In other words, whatever you’ve got is what you are stuck with for life. If that had been the case, Michelle’s prognosis for a “normal” life would not have been good. But now we know that far from being fixed, your brain has amazing capabilities of changing its very structure.
It was also previously thought that different sections of the brain were allocated different functions, and if part of the brain was damaged, the corresponding function would be permanently lost. Not so! Not only can the brain grow new cells, but Michelle’s right hemisphere rewired itself to take over the functions that her left hemisphere would normally control.
The implications are profound. But what does that mean to you? If your actions and thoughts can actually change the physical structure of your brain, which in turn influences how you think and feel, that means you have a lot more control over your mental and emotional states than was ever thought possible.
For example, every time you worry or awfulize, (to imagine something to be as bad as it can possibly be) it’s as if you just hit an internal panic button, and your body will prepare itself for fight or flight. And every time you do that, you add another layer of stress to your system.
Soon you may not recognize how much stress you are carrying! Numerous research studies show that specific physical responses to negative emotions and unresolved stress can completely deplete us of energy and vitality. No wonder we sometimes feel so tired!
In an ideal world you would realize that thinking about something that has not actually happened, or is unlikely to ever happen, is a false alarm. Then your brain would send a message to your body, which would quickly relax back to normal. But with our busy lifestyles and the constant stream of noises, interruptions, and stressors (both real and imagined), our bodies have forgotten what it means to really relax.
To make matters worse, what we now know about the brain is that over time, if you keep hitting the panic button, it will actually learn to be stressed. Then it will start hitting the panic button for you, even when there is nothing to panic about.
But the opposite is also true. If your brain has learned to be stressed, there are things you can do to rewire your brain so you can experience more joy, enthusiasm, and satisfaction in life, even during challenging situations. (I will cover this in detail in another article.)
So remember, your brain is greatly influenced by the day-to-day thoughts that you have, and you can wire it for success, enjoyment and happiness or for failure, stress and misery – it’s up to you.
Edited from Full Wattage! A Practical Guide to Living an Engaging and Purposeful Life Worth Celebrating by Liz Fletcher Brown