Krystal Lewis: So today we’re going to talk a little bit about anxiety, stress, and the brain, and why this is important. So, we’ll talk about how stress affects the brain. We’ll talk a little bit about the brain, how stress affects the brain, and then we’ll practice a technique that can help you to feel a little bit more relaxed and calm when you are feeling stressed out.
So, when talking about stress, we know that stress is completely normal. Everybody experiences it in many different ways.
Something that might stress you out may not stress one of your friends out.
And, stress can be something very small like when you have a test coming up in class, to something that’s pretty big like moving to a new town or moving to a new state.
Those are both stressors. They can be positive, and they can be negative. So, a stressor might be trying out for a basketball team and making the team, trying out for the basketball team and not making the team; both stressful, both experienced very differently.
So we know that stress is a common everyday part of life, but what happens is sometimes stress can become chronic or continuous, meaning it happens over and over again or a stressor is there for a long period of time, and what we know is that can be bad for the brain and the body. And so when we’re constantly experiencing stress and our brains are on alert or on edge, our body’s not going to be relaxed and sometimes we might have physical effects of that stress, meaning we might constantly have headaches or stomach aches. We might be feeling muscle aches due to the amount of stress that we’re feeling.
So, when thinking about the brain itself, we have the brain stem, which is kind of at the base or the bottom of the brain and connects our spinal cord to the rest of our brain. We have the cerebellum, which is partly part of the brain, which you’ll see in your picture, and then the rest of the brain here. The brain has many parts, many functions, as I said, it does a lot. But what we’re going to focus on today is a small part of the brain called the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system in the brain, and the limbic system is really what controls our emotional responses. What we’re going to focus on is our stress response, or fear or fight, flight, or freeze response.
So other parts of the brain are important, such as what we call the prefrontal cortex, or the front of our brain, that helps us to think rationally and make good decisions, it helps us to problem solve,
and logically think about things. The other part of the brain where the amygdala is housed in the limbic system, we call that our emotional brain or sometimes people refer to it as our reptilian brain, or reptile brain, because it’s so old and it functions more so off of a protective mechanism, right, and so it’s there to help us to stay safe in our environments.
So, when thinking about the amygdala, the amygdala is kind of a funny word, right? The amygdala stems from a Greek word that means almond. So the amygdala is this almond-shaped mass of cells in our brain and there’s one in each hemisphere, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The amygdala is activated when we’re in situations where there’s potential threat or danger.
So when you think about yourself maybe playing outside and you’re kicking around your soccer ball, the ball goes into the street and you run out into the street, did not see this car that’s coming, but you heard the car horn. What’s gonna happen is your body reacts. This fight, flight, or freeze response is activated and helps you to stay safe in that situation. So now your body is primed and ready to get out of the way of that car.
Your heart rate starts race, your heart starts racing, your breathing changes, your muscles will feel different, and it’s in that instant that when that fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in that you start to feel physiological changes in your body. So, we do not want to get rid of that response because that in part helps us to stay safe, but when that response happens over and over again unnecessarily it can create some issues within our body, our physical body, and can cause us to feel just really tired and exhausted from constantly being on edge, right? Constantly being on the lookout for danger and our body’s in a state that essentially really isn’t helpful. It makes it hard to make decisions and think things through. Like I mentioned before, because instead of relying on this prefrontal part of the brain, now we’re relying on that emotional part of the brain.
Time to Try a Guided Visualization
So what I’m going to do is walk you through a guided imagery that you can use on your own as well. Thinking about your favorite place, maybe some place that you’ve visited in the past, someplace that you want to go. You can look up pictures on the internet and so you have a good sense of what it looks like, or videos on YouTube, and then you can do this exercise on your own.
But for the time being, take a look at the two pictures that are provided to you and really focus on the colors, and the ocean, and how vibrant it is.
And now what we’re going to do, I want you to just make sure you’re in a comfortable position.
If you’re sitting in a chair, much like me, then keep your feet on the ground, relax your muscles, your back, your body; just make sure you’re feeling very comfortable in your space.
Take a few deep breaths in. In through the nose. Hold. And out through the mouth.
You want to make sure you’re taking very deep breaths in.
So close your eyes, continue to breathe in…and out.
Bring yourself to this relaxing place. Picture yourself walking through the rainforest.
The trees have large green leaves that float above your head. Continue breathing in and out. As you’re walking you see colorful birds flying around and you hear the many animals in the rainforest.
The sound of the wind blowing is soft, and you feel the warm air on your skin.
Breathe in…and out.
As you walk out from the forest and onto the sand, you feel the hot sun on your skin.
The sand under your feet is getting between your toes and you feel the warmth of the sand on your feet. You continue to walk closer to the ocean and hear the waves splashing up to shore.
Breathe in… and out.
The water looks so warm and inviting and the more you walk, the hotter the sun feels on your head, and on your shoulders, and on your arms.
Do you feel it? Your skin is hot and you’re ready to feel the ocean water.
You see the bright blue water and many kids splashing around. You hear happy voices as they play, water splashing, and birds singing their songs.
The colors around you are so vibrant and so bright.
When you reach the sand that is wet from the ocean, it starts to stick to your toes, your feet, and around your ankles. The sand seems to be creeping up your legs.
You continue to walk towards the water and feel the warm water wash on top of your feet, taking away the sand. The water is crystal clear and smells so fresh.
Continue to breathe in… and out. This is your happy place. We’ll stay here for a while, feeling the warm water splashing up on your feet and on your legs as you walk a little bit further into the ocean, the sun on your shoulders, and the calmness around you. What a beautiful place. So peaceful.
Breathe in…and out.
Your body feels so relaxed as you take in the sounds, the sights, everything around you. Let go of the stress that you’re feeling. Relax your muscles. Watch your anxious thoughts float away.
The uncomfortable feelings start to dissipate.
Now you’re just feeling calm and relaxed.
A few more deep breaths in… and out.
Breathe in the peace and the calmness.
Before opening your eyes and bringing yourself back to your space, take a few more deep breaths in… and out.
As you open your eyes and come back to the space, congratulations on a job well done. Pat yourself on the back for doing this guided imagery with me.