The vagus is one of the larger more important nerves in the human body. One key role that it plays is as the “reset” button to counteract when our alarm system has been set off resulting in the infamous fight, flight or freeze response as some type of threat has been perceived. The vagus nerve basically tells the body and brain: “It is safe now. The threat is gone. All bodily functions can return to normal now.”
Understanding how to maximize self-control of your emotions and behavior can decrease some of the emotional pain that emotionally sensitive people experience.
Not acting on impulse and thinking through how your actions in the short-term will affect your long term goals will decrease the suffering that you experience.
The good news is that some of the most effective strategies are everyday actions that are only surprising in terms of their effectiveness.
Ways to Strengthen Self-Control
Slowing Your Breath: Slowing your breathing to four to six breaths per minute will activate the prefrontal cortex and increase heart rate variability which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control. When you are in stress mode, you are not able to think as clearly.
Your brain is in automatic survival mode, the need to do just what works in the moment. This is helpful in true emergencies but keeps us from seeing the big picture, our long-term goals. When the brain turns off the stress alerts, you have more access to the plan-ful behavior.
Meditation: Meditation improves attention, focus, impulse control and self awareness. Initial results can be seen within three hours and significant improvements with eleven hours of practice. McGonigal (2011) says that over time the brains of meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as well as brain regions that are related to self-awareness. Practicing meditation over time will build your ability to stay aware and manage your impulses. Practicing mindfulness will also work.
Many people stop meditating because they are “bad” at doing it. Their minds are skipping from topic to topic. Even when your meditation practice seems distracted, you are practicing bringing your mind back to a focused goal and that makes a difference in your ability to focus and concentrate when you aren’t meditating.
Sufficient Sleep: When you don’t get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex develops “mild prefrontal dysfunction,” which is similar to mild intoxication–obviously not good for your self control. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived increases your susceptibility to stress, craving and temptation.
Sleep deprivation diminishes the body’s ability to process glucose which is its main form of energy, and you feel exhausted. When desperate for energy you are likely to crave sweets or caffeine. But your brain and body still won’t get the energy it needs because it can’t process effectively. Self-control requires a lot of energy and so it suffers when you don’t have sufficient sleep.
Eat a Balanced diet: If the body is fueled adequately with the nutrients it needs, self-control will be stronger.
Practice Self-Compassion: Many people believe that being hard on yourself motivates you to stick to your goals. Turns out that is not true. Self-criticism is actually associated with less motivation and less self-control. Self compassion is associated with better self-control.
Structure: Having a regular schedule to eat and sleep helps the body function at its best and that helps build self-control. In addition, building in reminders of your goals that you see on a regular basis is helpful.
Reward Substitution: When faced with needing self-control to do unpleasant tasks to get to an important long-term goal, using reward substitution may help. Give yourself an immediate reward for getting through each step toward the long-term goal. For example, if you want to stop biting your nails, give yourself a reward for each day you succeed.
Pros and Cons: Focus on what you want to do. If you want to stop yelling at people, then your goal would be to speak in a moderate voice tone regardless of your mood. Then make a list of the pros and cons of doing that. Then make a list of the pros and cons of not keeping your goal.
Keep pushing deeper and deeper to list all the important pros and cons. List both short term and long term consequences. Then keep it with you and review it throughout the day and before any situation that you might be tempted to act impulsively (Linehan, 1993).
Replace the Behavior: Take a close look at the benefits of the impulsive or destructive behavior. Replacing whatever positives you get from the behavior you want to replace will be important.
Exercise: Sometimes it seems that physical exercise is the answer to everything. McGonigal (2011) says exercise reduces cravings, relieves stress and enhances the biology of self-control just like slowing your breath. Exercise reportedly enhances the speed of processing of the prefrontal cortex. which plays a large role in self-control.
In addition, the effects of exercise are immediate. Exercising outdoors is especially beneficial. Five minutes of exercising in nature, even walking, has immediate effects on your mood and self-control.
Linehan, Marsha. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personaltiy Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012.
Breathing is something most of us don’t usually think about. If we’re still alive and breathing, we must be doing it right, right? Wrong.
Let’s start with the disadvantages of rapid, upper chest breathing. Things I see in my physical therapy practice every day. Like neck pain, low back pain, anxiety, poor sleep, cold hands and feet. And headaches. Especially headaches. In all my years of practice, I have never, not once, met someone suffering from headaches who breathed well. (Most of my clients with headaches have a similar story: headaches for years, poor sleep, cold hands and feet, tight neck muscles–all related to upper chest breathing).
Let’s get to the good news…
What are the advantages of breathing well, that is, slow, diaphragmatic breathing? There are SO many advantages that I can’t even begin to list– much less describe– them all here. Let’s start with three important ways breathing well is related to feeling well, as in, less pain.
Diaphragmatic breathing promotes the relaxation response. One of the the ways it does this is by activating the vagus nerve (which lies close to the diaphragm, so when we breathe deeply and the diaphragm moves up and down, the vagus nerve is stimulated). 75% of the parasympathetic (rest and repair) nervous systems’s fibers come from the vagus nerve, so the vagus nerve is a VERY big player in the relaxation response. So much so, that slow, deep breathing is one of the most efficient, non-medication ways we have of going from the state of “fight or flight” (where most of us tend to hang out) to the much more healthy “rest and repair.” When our bodies are in a relaxed state our brains are considerably less likely to perceive input as threatening, and so pain signals are significantly turned down. Research has shown that decreasing anxiety can decrease a pain level of 7/10 to 3/10. Definitely significant.
Diaphragmatic breathing also improves oxygenation. Of course it does. Seems obvious. But did you know that the lower parts of our lungs are about 7 times more productive in oxygen transport than the higher parts? So when we breathe using our diaphragms (and thus the lower lobes), we get much more oxygen to all of our cells, including the cells in our hands and feet (they’re warmer–a nice fringe benefit), and our nerve cells (less pain). And all healthy cells need oxygen. Only pathogens (unhealthy cells) don’t.
Lastly, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates lymphatic drainage. Our lymphatic system has been compared to a sewage system (yuck!). It removes toxins, wastes and abnormal cells. The lymphatic system doesn’t have any pumps, so it relies on muscle contraction and deep breathing to keep it moving. Using our diaphragms to breathe stimulates the cleansing of lymph nodes, increasing lymphatic drainage. This increases the rate of toxin elimination (including the byproducts of inflammation, which cause pain) by as much as 15 times!
Mediation, an eastern philosophy which was once dismissed as pretentious, can be effective in treating mental illness, brain scans have proved.
The buzzword is mindfulness. Meditation, which is practised a lot in India and in parts of Islington, is an NHS-approved treatment that combines conventional psychotherapy with meditation techniques, breathing and yoga.
It is sitting around trying to think about nothing and letting out the occasional “ommmm”.
Meditation has been around since the Seventies, but in the past decade there has been growing evidence that it is highly effective. Researchers at Britain’s most respected medical centres have found that it can halve the risk of relapse for those with depression.
”Psychotherapy involves patients analysing thoughts and feelings, with the hope that by understanding them some kind of change can be made. Mindfulness has some of this but it also involves meditation,” the Daily Mail quoted Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry and co-developer of one of the many variants, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), said.
“Meditation, which is an ancient practice and part of Eastern spiritual philosophy, involves sitting, usually in silence, and focusing on one thing, such as the sensations of breathing in and out.
“The mind wanders, so you invite your attention to come back to the thing you are focusing on. People who do this regularly feel very calm. And due to modern scanning techniques that measure activity in the brain, we are beginning to understand why,” he said.
Williams’s colleagues in the US and Canada have been able to pinpoint the parts of the brain that undergo changes during meditation, and the results are astonishing.
“Meditation helps to reduce the activity of part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs feelings of stress. Those who are more stressed and anxious have an amygdala that is overactive. Meditating reduces this.
“And there is an effect on the insula, the part of the brain involved in deep emotions, including love.
“We know from other studies that the insula allows us to feel emotions, so when we are heartbroken we really do experience a kind of pain.
“Normally activity in this area is closely linked to the part of the brain involved in analytical thought. So if we have a fight with our partner, we not only feel dreadful but we start to think about why, what this says about our relationship and what might happen if we don’t put it right,” Williams said.
In those with mental illness, this loop becomes overactive – the thinking feeds the emotions, which feeds more thinking until it becomes overwhelming.
“Meditating breaks this cycle by reducing the links between the insula and the parts of the brain that analyse, as we have seen on brain scans.
“It doesn’t stop a person from feeling or thinking but it uncouples these two parts of the brain, giving the patient more control.
“Further to that, we’ve discovered in clinical trials that mindfulness works as well as antidepressants in preventing relapse of depression. It can also be used alongside drugs,” he said.
Janet Jones, 48, was diagnosed with severe depression 10 years ago. The mother of two was introduced to mindfulness in 2008.
“I was very sceptical at first. But gradually it became part of my everyday life,” she said.
”I would find it difficult to get out of bed and when I got to work, I would feel miserable. Once I committed to mindfulness, my approach changed and my life improved. Mindfulness has given me more control over my life. I now know that no matter how painful something is, it will pass,” Jones added.
“It’s so widely popular and successful, the district wants us to scale it up the entire (Madison) school system,” Davidson said Wednesday in an interview.
Davidson, who was inspired by a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 to research areas like kindness and compassion, heads up several laboratories at the University of Wisconsin including the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
In 2006, Davidson was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Davidson said research has shown why the brain’s circuitry is important in governing a person’s resilience to stress.
Research has also shown the brain is elastic, that it can be shaped by experience and behaviour.
Research, including brain imaging studies, also shows it is possible to cultivate the mind to change brain function and structure in ways that will promote higher levels of well-being and increased resilience, said Davidson. His research is outlined in dozens of articles in scientific journals.
The techniques used with elementary schoolchildren are quite simple. To improve a child’s ability to pay attention — and also improve their studying abilities — a stone is put on a child’s belly, and they learn to focus on their breathing as the stone goes up and down.
The technique can be taught to children as young as four, said Davidson.
“A simple anchor like one’s breath is a centuries-old meditation technique, but it turns out to have some very beneficial qualities in terms of changes in both the brain and behaviour,” he said.
To foster kindness in teenagers, students are asked to visualize a loved one suffering followed by a thought that they be relieved of that suffering.
This is extended to difficult people as well, said Davidson.
This exercise has also been shown to produce meaningful changes in the brain and behaviour, he said.
Elementary schools in Vancouver have also embraced these meditation techniques as part of a program called MindUp that teaches children that it is hard to concentrate when the brain is stressed.
More than 1,000 teachers have trained in the program at the Vancouver school board, and the district has received requests from other school districts, including in Yukon, to teach the program.