Feel Better and Live Longer
Emotional well-being is achieved by meeting three universal human needs;
1) To be an autonomous self-determining agent who can choose what they do freely & without coercive threats - threats can come from within as the internalised voice of critical parent figures;
2) To have a sense of control over ones personal world starting with ones own impulses and feelings for which self-understanding is vital - we automatically mirror other peoples feelings and by tuning in to them we can understand our social world;
3) To connect with others, bond with them and please them.
Mind, brain and body are inextricably interwoven so that a healthy mind leads to a healthy body and a longer life. Conversely, if we feel threatened, the brain's behaviour inhibition system arouses us, stress hormones are released into the blood and the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This physiological response increases inflammation, acts like fertiliser to cancers and reduces immunity which in itself may increase the risk of cancer and life-threatening infections. These health risks can be reduced by a three-pronged approach - mindful self-awareness, deep relaxation and cultivation of positive emotion - including self-compassion.
A) Mindful self-awareness means becoming an observer of one's own thoughts and feelings, so that they become experiences in their own right; this will mean that one can create a personal narrative in the left side of the brain using these experiences, thereby calming the more emotional right side of the brain wherein reside memories of painful events. Mindfulness also strengthens one's ability to shift attention away from repetitive thoughts about bad things - there is a shift in brain balance towards the left which immunises against stress by moderating emotions. This also puts a brake on the brains behaviour activating system that energises our pursuit of rewards, thereby reducing the desire for immediate gratification.
B) Deep relaxation reduces the arousal of the body and brain in several ways -
1) Focusing attention on ones regular breathing without exerting any special effort - one naturally takes longer over the out-breath and this is when the arousal level of the brain automatically falls slightly due to the action of the brain stem so that ones arousal level falls over time;
2) Deliberately relaxing ones muscles, a skill that can be learned, given that relaxed muscles feel distinctly heavier, warmer and floppier than normal - this reduces input to the brain stem thereby reducing arousal.
3) Repeating a short phrase to oneself on the out-breath over and over again prolongs the out breath, and interrupts the internal voice that nags one to keep busy and ruminates on past mistakes; one can use autosuggestion e.g."my arms and legs are heavy warm and limp";
4) Finally one can harness the power of past memories of relaxing and healthy times in ones life by savouring them so as to evoke a calming effect that puts ones brain and body in touch with past well-being.
When practised twice daily these relaxation strategies help one live longer by switching off genes that determine stress related bodily functions and by reducing high blood pressure which is a major health problem being linked to heart disease and stroke.
C) Cultivation of positive emotion encompasses appreciating what we have/counting blessings, benefit finding (every cloud has silver lining), feeling gratitude and expressing it to others, practising forgiveness towards those that have wronged us, and being kind and compassionate towards ourselves and others. Compassion can be evoked by developing a desire to help those who are suffering and directing loving feelings towards them from the heart.
Lack of self-compassion with much self-criticism is a common source of stress. Making a habit of feeling positive emotions strengthens the parts of the brain that generate it and calms those parts that tend to hijack our emotions in a defensive manner at the slightest threat. Cultivating positive emotions activates the vagus nerve which opposes stress hormones and the sympathetic nerves, and thereby slows the heart, lowers blood pressure and calms the internal organs producing feelings of safety and security. The vagus nerve is also activated by hugging which causes the hormone oxytocin to be secreted by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain which in turn stimulates the vagus leading to a virtuous circle. Vagus nerve activity is associated with stronger immunity leading to greater resistance to infection and faster elimination of cancer cells.
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