By Miranda Massie on October 25, 2017
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
On some days, why do we feel more fiery or more defeated than other days? Through a combination of our brains, our memories and our stressors, we arrive at our current mood.
Mood is like memory, imperfect and incomplete — a faint fragrance, trails of a tune, a sliver of a glance, a shadow, a twang of voice. Something we sense triggers a place deep in the brain to say, “This is what ‘that’ feels like, remember?” Your mood is shaped by fragments of your previous moods. Depending on your stress level at any given time, the mood memories that arise to influence you will vary. Stress and mood are inextricably connected.
The Three-Eyed Brain
One metaphor for the brain is what I call, “three-eyed seeing”: three distinct ways in which we view our experiences. By understanding these views, we can draw the link between how our stressors can impact different parts of our “brain vision.”
Although I describe the brain in three parts below, different parts of the brain are never isolated or single-tasked in their functions. The key to understanding mood, memory and stress is to see how and when the brain prioritizes certain input more others. That understanding requires a little separation and definition.
Way at the back of your skull – where the brain meets your spinal cord – is an area called the hindbrain. It is where our basic functions like balance, heart rate, breathing, digestion, sleeping and waking are regulated. Sometimes called the “reptilian” brain, the hindbrain is where the basic functions of survival originate. The vagus nerve passes through this area and influences whether we slip into “fight or flight” or “rest or digest” mode. It is the only nerve that wanders from brain to gut, picking up on signals from our digestion to our social connection, and all the subtle signals in our environment.
I call this the instinctual brain; we don’t know or process the “why”, but we act. It is urgent and safety-oriented. The instinctual brain is all about self-preservation and protection.
Our amygdala – two little almond-shaped portions in the middle of our brains – have the tendency to hoard the sensations of memories that trigger a stress response. The nucleus accumbens – two tiny nut-shaped portions of the brain behind the eyebrows – are mostly associated with dispersing signals of reward and safety. These memories and signals can evoke positive or negative emotions that help us make decisions.
I call this the intuitive brain. The intuitive brain is perceptive and focused on patterns.
The way we respond to our intuitive brain is a bit like jelly. A memory shakes us to respond but the impact is buffered; the exact memory is slightly hazy due to the jelly. We feel the shake, we know something is happening, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of the sensation. This is where we feel: “This doesn’t feel good” or “This feels safe”.
Depending on whether those memories were cast as positive or negative, our mood in the present moment can sway. Through time and space we travel from back then to now and carry our mood souvenirs with us.
The front and outer covering of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and is mostly associated with cognition, the complex reasoning and logical part of our brain. It is from here that we look at risks and consequences, value patience and reward, and lay out positive and negatives. This is where we think. Focused on the present situation, our PFC is our headlamp: it shines light for detail and clarity in the direction we are pointed toward.
I call this the intellectual brain. Though clear-headed, it can miss some subtle, abstract, or hidden information that our other “i’s” can see. The intellectual brain is focused on detail and reason in the present moment.
We need to see with all three eyes to be present, perceptive and protective.
Whether acute or chronic, stress impacts this brain trio; rising cortisol impacts the PFC. Stress breaks down our thinking. It can impact concentration and leave us short-sighted. When stress hits, we are less capable of accurately assessing a situation for risk or gain. We start reaching for encoded memories of our own or others we know. These memories from our intuitive brain influence our current state and how we feel about our situation.
The intellectual brain fails to keep the intuitive and instinctual brain in balance. Memories can begin to override our reasoned thought, and we can begin to perceive our environment as a true threat. An experience that triggers our stress response is in fact our intuitive and instinctual brain playing table tennis with our situation. This scenario sets up our brains for a negative bias – to see our environment/situation as intentionally or destined to be harmful.
Our moody blues may in fact be a combination of stress leaving our intuitive brain vulnerable to seeing things through a negative bias.
Three tips to beat the blues:
1. Long, deep exhales. Breathing deeply is a signal to your vagus nerve and your hindbrain that the environment is safe. It allows your body to disarm and reassess. Once you have defused your fight or flight mechanism, you can turn your three-eyed seeing back on and engage with more clarity. When we breathe shallow breaths we can unknowingly put ourselves into hindbrain dominance – self-preservation rather than present and perceptive. If you notice you’ve put a negative bent on your day, take a few long, deep exhales; you might open your eyes to a different day.
2. Stress Inventory. De-stressing is not so simple as breathing deeply. The next step is to recognize what your stressors are. Take a moment and ask yourself, “What are the pressure points for me today?” “How was my sleep?” “How have I eaten?” “What is my environment like right now?” “Is anything overwhelming me?” Start there and see what you can change before chalking it up to the blues.
3. Reconnect. A valuable tool for beating the blues from a brain and body perspective is to find time to be with others. Social connection signals the vagus nerve and releases hormones to decrease cortisol. When you feel the blues beginning to take hold, find an environment where you can be face-to-face with someone you feel safe with.
Instead of cheering up or dismissing our blues, perhaps our path to mental wellness is through mindfulness and stress awareness. Take a few breaths, notice what you can do about your situation, and connect to others. You brain and body will thank you.
Thara Vayali is a naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher in Vancouver, as well as a UBC alumna. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones and pain-free bodies. She is also the creator of Change Natural Medicine, which offers budget-conscious, membership-based health consulting.
Posted in A Thoughtful Mind, Guest Contributor, Mindful Moments | Tagged brain health, Dr. Thara Vayali, instinct, intellect, intuition, memory, mindful moments, Mindfulness, mood, the brain | Leave a response
By Miranda Massie on February 2, 2017
- Who’s there?
A broken pencil.
- A broken pencil who?
Never mind. It’s pointless.
Cue the groans. Perhaps a knock-knock joke is not the best way to illustrate the helpful and healing power of humour.
At some point, you have probably heard that laughter is the best medicine. While it may not be among the most cutting-edge treatments on the market, it might actually be one of the oldest and most cost-effective health boosters available.
Since February is host to Valentine’s Day, it seems like a fitting time to think about ways we might soften our hearts (emotionally) while strengthening our heart health (physically).
10 Ways Humour Can Benefit Your Heart
- Laughter activates and increases blood flow to the part of the brain involved in pleasurable feelings, which can lead to elevated mood and increased happiness.
- Both sides of the brain are stimulated during laughter, which can create more focus and clarity, as well as creativity.
- Positive emotions and laughter enhance social connections and generate intimacy through positive interactions.
- Laughter reduces at least four of the known hormones associated with stress in the body, including cortisol and dopamine.
- Laughter eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which help us to relax.
- Chemicals released in the brain during laughter bind to nervous system receptors to naturally reduce feelings of pain.
- Laughter causes blood vessels in the body to expand, increasing blood flow, leading to improved cardiovascular health.
- Laughter produces deep diaphragm breathing, which serves as a pump for the lymph nodes. Increased lymphatic function leads to antibody production and overall better immunity.
- Deep belly laughing helps exercise the lungs. The more air that you take in, the more oxygen that flows to your brain and body.
- Repeated laughter helps tone and condition muscles in the face, core and back.
This month, I invite you to look out for ways to add more laughter into your life. Watch a funny movie or attend a comedy show. Spend time with friends and family who make you laugh. Strive to find humour during stressful or trying times. Make sure you are always laughing with someone, not at the expense of others.
Though everyone’s sense of humour will differ, here are a few clips and sound effects to get you started. Remember, laughter is contagious – do your part to spread heart health around!
Baby laughing soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaQiSOAQOhg
Laughter yoga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGNOF8DVIPQ
All my best,
Posted in Editorial, Mental Health, Miranda Massie, Physical Health | Tagged Benefits, blood pressure, editorial, emotions, Exercise, fun, funny, humour, jokes, Laughter, mood, oxygen, pain, relationships, stress management, stress relief, UBC | 1 Response
By Colin Hearne on October 29, 2014
“If clouds are blocking the sun, there will always be a silver lining that reminds me to keep on trying.”
― Matthew Quick, the Silver Linings Playbook
The phrase silver lining has become the go-to cliché for any hopeful or comforting prospect in the midst of difficulty. When something bad happens, it can seem like the end of the world. Every setback is a disaster, every mistake catastrophic, and it’s tempting to focus on difficulties and make them bigger than they really are. It is easy to imagine the worst and to despair because things seem impossible in our minds.
With November being the month of the inspirational Thrive for students, staff and faculty at UBC, here are eight ways to get in the spirit to find your silver lining and to roll with life’s punches.
- Meditate: An abundance of recent research reveals that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. In one particular study by Fredrickson et al., it was found that people who meditated daily display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
- Be You: How boring would it be if we were all the same? Trying to live up to or exceed someone else’s personal best is a losing game. Focus on being the best you that you can be.
- Take an Online Course: Click hereto sign up for a range of self-paced, private, and personalized learning e-courses, from UBC’s EFAP provider Homewood Health, designed to improve personal health and well-being. Choose topics such as Responsible Optimism, Resilience, Taking Control of Stress, and more.
- Remember the Great Times: A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses.
- Exercise consistently: At least 30 minutes of exercise several times a week, to strengthen muscles and to burn calories. Improve your physical strength, and you may feel a sense of empowerment that can dramatically enhance your self-esteem.
- Mood and Food: Pay attention to your food choices and nourish your body. Buy healthier foods and prepare well-balanced meals to help give you energy and feel like your best self – not sluggish and lethargic. Click here for some inspiration.
- Explore a passion: Whether it’s a side job, hobby, or a volunteer activity, pursuing your passion in even a small way can lead to a sense of purpose and significantly improve your overall happiness and quality of life.
- Seek professional help if you need it: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor.
Silver Linings Playbook – Robson Square Thrive Movie Screening
Celebrate Thrive 2014 with a FREE movie screening at Robson Square on November 7th at 6pm, with FREE POPCORN from Lazy Gourmet. Thrive is a week-long series of events focused on building positive mental health for UBC students, faculty, and staff. Thrive is also a mindset. We all have mental health, and we can each strengthen our mental health by learning about it, thinking about it, talking about it, and discovering new skills and resources to help us Thrive all year long. Click here for more information or to register.
About Silver Linings Playbook: Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Pat Solitano has lost everything – his house, his job, and his wife. He now finds himself living back with his mother and father after spending eight months in a state institution on a plea bargain. Pat is determined to rebuild his life, remain positive and reunite with his wife, despite the challenging circumstances of their separation. All Pat’s parents want is for him to get back on his feet. When Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own, things get complicated. Tiffany offers to help Pat reconnect with his wife, but only if he’ll do something very important for her in return. As their deal plays out, an unexpected bond begins to form between them.
By Miranda Massie on October 1, 2014
I am a person who likes options. I savour the enjoyment that comes from sampling a variety of dishes when eating out with friends. I have a cupboard at home filled with more variations of green tea than most people know exist. I keep more than three thousand songs on my phone at any given time, just in case I’m in the mood to listen to something specific.
Perhaps this comes from a childhood spent pouring over “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, or more likely it stems from a fear of missing out on something exciting. Regardless of the reason, I like to explore my options and ultimately select the meal, item, situation or path that is the best choice for me at the time.
The more work that I do at UBC around mental health and wellbeing, the more I think about the concept of community. What defines communities? Are they created with intention, or do they happen organically? What can we as individuals do to connect with the people around us and the environment in which we live and work?
5 ideas for building community at UBC
1) Schedule a social meeting. Far too often we meet with colleagues, discuss the issues at hand then hurriedly part ways without leaving ourselves time to connect on a social or personal level. Try adding 10 minutes to the end of your next meeting to chat with your colleagues about their most recent vacation, their family or their latest work project.
2) Join in. Join a class, leisure activity or committee that interests you. This will provide a new group of people with whom to interact and you are sure to already have interests in common.
3) Use children or pets as a way to connect. I know a number of new parents who have created wonderful and supportive communities as a result of chatting with other parents at the park, daycare or classes. You can try the same thing at the dog park or the beach with your pets.
4) Get friendly with your surroundings. Research shows that exposure and familiarity with our surroundings leads to increased feelings of safety and social connection. Knowing the ins and outs of the campus a bit more can help us feel connected to our physical space. (Zajonc, 2001)
5) Reach out when in need. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable or asking for assistance can be daunting, yet we all know how great it feels to help others. Next time you need support, express that to someone else and it might bring you closer to those around you.
Check out UBC’s Community Engagement Initiative for more ideas.
This month, I invite you to build your own community on campus and to choose the path that suits you the best; whether through involvement, learning, wellbeing, leisure, or a smorgasbord of other options.
We work together at UBC and some of us also live within these gates, and we will be better served and able to better serve others if we start to reimagine ourselves as being part of a supportive and caring set of communities.
Zajonc, R.B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 224–228.
By Miranda Massie on June 3, 2014
The following article has been provided by Dr. Joti Samra, a local clinical psychologist and this is adapted from an article Dr. Samra wrote in the Vancouver Sun on May 30, 2013.
Get eight hours of sleep.
Eat your fruits and vegetables.
Drink lots of water.
These key messages have been ingrained into most of our heads since childhood, through a combination of lectures from our parents, plastering of glossy food-group charts in our elementary schools, and public campaigns such Particip-action. The media and our family doctors alike drill these messages into our heads again and again – ‘this is what you need to do to live a happy, healthy, balanced, long life. Most of us know we should adopt these as basic rules in our lives’. However, for most of us even in the best of times, it’s hard to stick to all of these behaviours consistently, and for extended periods of time. In fact, data tell us that only about 5% of North American adults do so. In our technologically driven, not-enough-hours-in-the-day society, prioritization of time and effort is a must. So, if you have to choose, what do you move to the top of the list? The answer is a no-brainer: exercise.
A burgeoning body of literature underscores the beneficial impact that exercise has on our mood: releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain that operate as the body’s ‘natural antidepressants’; elevating body temperature (which can have calming effects on the mind and body); and reducing the release of harmful immune chemicals that can worsen depression.
In addition to these mood-enhancing benefits, exercise has a number of secondary impacts that also positively enhance mood: providing an outlet for socialization and interaction (we are social creatures and we not only survive but thrive when we have good, solid social supports around us); boosting our self-esteem and self-confidence; providing distraction from our day-to-day troubles and worries; and, enhancing our physical health. We know that our physical health is intimately tied to our emotional health, and that improvements in one area lead to improvements in the other.
For a detailed breakdown of all the above recommendations, and for many more interesting articles, visit www.drjotisamra.com or follow her on Twitter (@drjotisamra).
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational and media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Million Dollar Neighbourhood” and was the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s “The Bachelor Canada”. She has also served as a psychological consultant and expert to a number of other TV shows and news outlets. Dr. Samra maintains a clinical practice in Vancouver. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra