First off, what in the world is interpersonal effectiveness? To keep it basic, interpersonal effectiveness skills are all about how we attend and maintain the relationships in our lives. There are many parts to keeping our relationships (including work, family, friend, and romantic relationships) working like a well-oiled machine and benefitting us. Some of these parts include:
How we cope and balance demands and priorities
understanding the difference between what we want to do versus what we should be doing
keeping respect for ourselves and others
Sounds difficult, huh? If we break it down into a simpler form, interpersonal effectiveness is all about how we communicate with the world and with ourselves in order to maintain healthy and helpful relationships. Why is this so important? In my posts, The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitters and How to Release Them, and Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, we discussed the importance of oxytocin for mental health. By using clear communication skills, we are able to create a bond with other people in our life, naturally boosting that release of oxytocin. This not only helps us feel connected to others (and not so alone), it also helps our prefrontal cortex talk to the hippocampus and say “see, this is a good feeling.” As that is going on, BAM! Dopamine and serotonin start to flood in the brain, allowing that darn amygdala to relax and enjoy the company. On the other side, by learning what our own boundaries need to be, asking for help, and learning to say “no” (say what?!), also allows our prefrontal cortex to remind that darn amygdala what it really needs: to feel safe.
Why do so many of us struggle with interpersonal effectiveness skills when our mental health is, well, less than shit? Think about it. When we are in a heightened state of stress, what is going on in that darn amygdala? You guessed it! That darn amygdala is trying to keep us safe, so it is doing a bunch of things:
Throwing cognitive distortions at us
Preparing us for the triple F response
Telling the thalamus to release adrenaline and norepinephrine
Directing the thalamus to tell the hippocampus and hypothalamus to go over all the other times that we have been screwed over in past relationships
Heightening our physical senses
Going on the defense as a way to protect us from getting hurt
As our darn amygdala is getting the brain all geared up because of the stress we are already under, communication with the people around us becomes, well, sensitive. Our hippocampus and hypothalamus are having cognitive distortions filter out any positive information or facts the prefrontal cortex is (trying) shoving at them. The thalamus is flooding our brain with the stress neurotransmitters. All of this hog ties our poor prefrontal cortex, allowing that darn amygdala to let the stress response dictate how we react to people. Sometimes, we don’t react the nicest when our darn amygdala tells us we are in danger.
“When your values are clear to you, making decisions become easier.”
– Roy E. Disney
In these next couple of posts, we are going to explore some ways to improve our interpersonal effectiveness, which will help when we need things, like asking and taking a mental health day without feeling guilty (who’s with me?!) These skills will also help you understand how by attending to our relationships we can get our needs met all while maintaining a healthy respect for ourselves and those that are part of our safe support system. How freakin’ neat is that?
Coping Skills Alert!
One of the most important things to know about interpersonal effectiveness is knowing the purpose of your communication. How many times have you said something and later realize “oops! I shouldn’t have said that! It didn’t even relate to the conversation!”? Before we allow whatever our darn amygdala wants us to say, we have to check with ourselves FIRST:
What is the priority of the message I’m saying?
Is the person I’m talking to capable of meeting me in this conversation?
How will this meet my own needs?
Do I have enough information about what I’m trying to communicate about?
Will what I want to say change how I respect myself or who I am talking to?
What to learn more about asking clarifying questions? Click here to get a full overview of them
These broad questions are all part of making sure we are communicating effectively, respectfully, and clearly, plus, it demonstrates effective interpersonal communication. In order to use these questions effectively, we have to slow down and STOPP (Don’t know what STOPP is? Check out my post STOPP and Take Time for Emotional Regulation). These 5 basic questions can be broken down even further to ensure your prefrontal cortex has all the information it needs to make decisions about what to say.
Thank you for stopping in today to read about the importance of interpersonal effectiveness skills. By reading this, you are gaining the knowledge on why communication seems to go by the wayside when our darn amygdalas are stressed. In the next blog, I will go over more interpersonal effectiveness skills to ensure you are able to keep your communication strong with those around you.
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With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over what interpersonal effectiveness skills are and clarifying questions to ask yourself when you are preparing a response to people. Enjoy!
Ahhh, weather. The love-hate relationship we have with a natural occurrence completely outside of our control. Have you ever noticed how your mood can change just based on what you are seeing happen outside of the window? From sunny days at the beach, to over 5 inches of rain the next day (true story), weather has a way of shaping our mood and our reactions.
I bet you didn’t know the weather has more than just control over our mood. It has control over how our brain processes information. It can control how we physically feel. It can change our reactions (if you are like many of my clients that also farm, you know exactly how an inaccurate weather report can change how you talk to your tractor). Weather has a bearing on a lot in our life, and this post is where you can find the information on how weather can shape our mental health.
When I first started researching for this post, I typed in “mental health and weather.” I got a lot of information on how extreme weather can produce trauma and anxiety after it happens. I was not able to find lot about the link between why people can get so darn moody and agitated prior to a weather event. I knew however that there was some connection just based on watching my horses go crazy in the pasture when the weatherman would forecast storms heading our way.
I then chose to look at something that I know has control over the weather: the barometric pressure. For those of you who may not be weather savvy, the barometric pressure is the measure of the air pressure and the force needed to push that pressure around. When we are experiencing a high barometric pressure, that means the weather is really nice and stable. As the barometric pressure falls, it is a good indicator that some not-so-nice weather, like thunderstorms or colder temperatures, are moving in.
Now that you have your basic meteorology lesson for the day, what does barometric pressure have to do with our health? Well, physically, we notice some changes right away. Did you hear your grandparents or your parents (or even yourself) talk about how sore your joints are when a storm is moving in? You can thank you body for reacting to the low barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure drops, the soft tissues in our bodies (like in our joints or in old injuries) swell up to make up for the difference. This causes those worn out joints and old injuries to be pretty darn stiff and sore. Could this also be happening in the brain?
My research led me to this amazing article that outlined a research study done on bipolar changes when the barometric pressure changes done in 2017. The author of this study, Ben Bullock, and his team were able to find some pretty significant findings. They discovered when the weather was beautiful, temperatures were high, and the barometric pressure was high, their study group was more likely to report manic – type symptoms. These symptoms included an elevated mood, an increase in motivation, and more energy.
Now on those days that were colder, darker, and the barometric pressure lower, the same group of participants reported an increase in depressive symptoms like sleeping to avoid stressors, poor self-esteem, and an increased sense of worthlessness. What was cool about the study is that the participants did not know what variable was being tested, meaning they had no clue these researchers were looking at the effect of weather on mood!
This study shows that the barometric pressure has an impact on mood and emotion. What inside the brain is responsible for reacting when the barometric pressure changes? There has been some speculation that the change in barometric pressure, especially drops in the barometric pressure, can increase the production and reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin. As we know, serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter and helps our mood. How does that exactly work?
If you are just like me, you are thinking “isn’t this the opposite of what the research study was saying Carissa?” Let me explain a bit more. When we are in a low barometric pressure system, one part of our brain increases in size while the rest of our brain decreases. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a hint, it is not our dear friend that darn amygdala. It’s a part of the brain we haven’t spent a lot of time on, the cerebellum. When the barometric pressure falls, that darn amygdala, and the rest of the limbic system, tend to be squeezed by the pressure of the cerebellum increasing in size. This allows the blood vessels directly running to the limbic system to expand, and intake more serotonin. This is why when storm finishes up or moves out of the area, our mood can greatly change (just like the old saying “the calm before the storm”).
What is the cerebellum? I’m glad you asked! This is the part of our brain, located at the back of your skull, that is responsible for coordinating our muscle movements, regulating our speech, and maintaining our balance. As our cerebellum increases in size, it tends to put our prefrontal cortex in a spot that says “listen up limbic system! We have bigger fish to fry than the temper tantrum that darn amygdala is throwing right now!” What is interesting about the low pressure system in the cerebellum is that it is most likely to be bigger in the winter than in the summer when high barometric pressure systems reign supreme.
This ties into another mental health/weather phenomenon: seasonal affect disorder (better known as SAD). SAD is a condition that many people see in the dark cold times of winter. Their depression, their anxiety, and overall lack of motivation tend to increase. Many people attribute SAD with the lack of natural sunlight. They are partially (okay, mostly) correct, as natural sunlight releases vitamin D into our body, making it easier for tryptophan to be converted into serotonin. Another attributing factor to SAD is the change from a naturally high barometric pressure system to a low barometric pressure system. That change in pressure, along with the change in size of our brain, constrict the blood vessels to our limbic system, making it harder for the feel-good neurotransmitters of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, to make their presence known.
SAD affects over 1 million adults annually (although I think this is a gross underestimate, it is still pretty significant!). People who live in colder climates with clear weather changes for the seasons are more likely to struggle with SAD than those who live in warm stable areas. So for those of you who live north of Wisconsin, you are at greater risk of developing SAD then our friends who live closer to the equator.
Treating SAD can come in many forms. Many of my clients utilize UV lamps, better known as day lamps, to help their body naturally release vitamin D. Yet other clients have found success in taking a vitamin D supplement during these cold (and low barometric pressure) months. Many people with SAD find benefit from starting to see a mental health professional as well as starting an antidepressant. For many, SAD comes and goes just like blizzards and the lack of sunlight that seem to usher in the seasonal change.
Since we can’t control what the barometric pressure is doing, how can we gain control over our mental health when mother nature is all out of whack? There are some simple things that we can do to make life a bit easier, including:
Participating in one of our favorite activities
Increase your intake of foods rich in tryptophan and vitamin D (click here for a list of foods)
Hang out with your favorite source of UV light (here is mine:
Keeping track of your environment when you are tracking your moods can help give your prefrontal cortex facts to present to that darn amygdala when you are not sure why you feel out of whack. Click Here to learn more about how journaling your experiences can improve your mental health
Who would have thought that something so uncontrollable, like the weather, could have an impact on our mental health? Thank you so much today for taking the time to read about one of the factors outside of our control when it comes to our mental health. Rest assured, you are not alone in feeling out of sorts when the weather patterns change on you.
Boker SM, Leibenluft E, Deboeck PR, Virk G, Postolache TT. Mood Oscillations and Coupling Between Mood and Weather in Patients with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Int J Child Health Hum Dev. 2008;1(2):181-203. PMID: 19266057; PMCID: PMC2651091. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2651091/
With all of the distractions in today’s world, every client I have encountered has asked me “how do I focus?” Did you know that our attention span peaks in our 20s (Harvard, 2020)? No? I have to admit, prior to completing the research needed to write this post, I had no clue. What does that say for those of us with attention deficit disorder (ADHD)? How about for those of us that seem to forget so much when our mental health isn’t so hot?
Today’s post is all about why we struggle to focus. The science behind it is quite interesting, especially how we can use the science to improve our abilities to concentrate and focus. I know some of you have been waiting for this info, so let’s jump right in!
The part of our brains responsible for our ability to focus would be the prefrontal cortex. If you recall from my post Mental Health and the Brain: The Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our executive functioning. What is that? That is the fancy professional way of labeling the mental skills we develop to help us stay organized, on track, and remember what we have to do. We use executive functioning to develop and hold on to important things (like how to complete a job at work), looking at situations in many different ways (for example, the many different ways we can get to school or work if there is road construction), and the ability to use self-control (a.k.a. – not eating a pound of chocolate when it is in front of us).
Click here to learn more about the role of self-control when our favorite foods are involved
As we age, our prefrontal cortex develops better control over that executive function. Want a real life example? Think about what kids do and restaurants while they’re waiting for food. As our kids get older, they are able to resist the urge to shoot straw papers at you (as if). This is because their prefrontal cortex is developing and strengthening. By the time we hit our early twenties, are prefrontal cortex is fully developed and able to maintain those executive functioning skills we talked about earlier.
Age is not the only reason our focus decreases. When stress is increased in our lives, our thalamus and you guessed it, that darn amygdala, are busy collecting all the sensory information it can to prove why the stress is warranted. With this increase in steady stream of information, the prefrontal cortex is trying really hard to focus, while determining if there are any facts in the information that darn amygdala keeps throwing at it.
This filtering is quite tasking when you think about it. Example: you are cycling down the street. Did you know that your prefrontal cortex is focusing on the act of cycling while filtering out all the random noises, colors, and oddly dressed pedestrians hanging out? When the prefrontal cortex is doing this, we are using something called exogenous attention. This is when we let our physical senses take over and dictate what we focus on. In this case, our prefrontal cortex says “hey! Keep your feet moving and the eyes on the road so you don’t fall over and get squashed!” All of this happens involuntary as a way to keep us safe…and alive.
That isn’t the only way our focus works. The prefrontal cortex is also in charge of endogenous attention. This is where the prefrontal cortex controls what we focus on voluntary things and tasks. For example: tying your shoe. Your prefrontal cortex tells the rest of your brain we need to focus on keeping those laces neatly kept. The hippocampus and hypothalamus work together to focus on memories related to tying our shoes, all while that darn amygdala moves the focus to the need to tie the shoe. Most of us are not distracted by people passing us by, or squirrels fighting with swords in the corner of our eyes, but on getting that shoe tied.
Whether it is exogenous or endogenous attention, our brain is releasing neurotransmitters to help us do what we need to do in each situation. One important neurotransmitter being released is acetylcholine. If you recall from my post: Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, acetylcholine is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the body. It is responsible for muscle movement, forming memories, and maintaining attention. Acetylcholine works with focusing by essentially amplifying information that requires our focus. When we are concentrating really hard, we can see an increase in acetylcholine activity in the prefrontal cortex in brain scans. How cool!
Acetylcholine is not the only neurotransmitter produced when we are focusing. Dopamine is also released into the prefrontal cortex to reward our brain for focusing on what needs the attention the most. This reward tells our brain we are doing a good job (even if it is not focusing on what we desperately want to focus on, like the report for work and not the bag of potato chips staring at you).
Norepinephrine is also released when we are trying to focus. In a lot of my posts, norepinephrine has gotten a bad rap. It really isn’t all bad. Norepinephrine is responsible to help us stay awake and alert, getting the brain ready for any potential stress, and focusing. You know when you are sitting around and then suddenly WHAM! You are now focused on that weird sound coming from the laundry room? That is norepinephrine at work to alert you to the wash machine flooding. Norepinephrine is also responsible for moving exogenous attention to endogenous attention in order to turn off the wash machine and get it fixed. Talk about a super important neurotransmitter!
Now that you know how the brain works when we need to focus our attention, let’s look at how we can help our brain increase (and maintain) it’s focus. It is important to note that:
Coping Skills Alert!
One of the easiest ways to help us improve our focus and attention-span is by giving your brain regular breaks from work. That’s right, taking a break can increase your focus, especially if the job you’re trying to concentrate on stinks. The app, DeskTime, did a study in 2017 that showed the ideal work to break ratio was working for 52 minutes and then taking a break for 17 minutes. This study went as far as showing that productivity for those that follow this model went up by more than 10%. Now, just like physical exercise, starting at 52 minutes may be too much. I recommend people start by following what I call the television model. The majority of television shows are on for 15 minutes and then there is a 2 minute break for commercials. Practice focusing for 15 minutes and then giving yourself 2 minutes to do what you want. Slowly increase these times until you hit that magical 52:17 ratio.
Want to learn more about improving your focus skills? Click Here to find out how
Now what do you do once you get distracted? It takes approximately 25 minutes for our prefrontal cortex to say “hey brain! Get back to what you were doing!” All the more reason breaks are super duper important on staying focused. Once you are distracted, it is important to return to something we’ve already talked about. You got it: mindfulness! In my post Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, we discussed all the cool tips of the trade to return to what is in our control: our bodies. By practicing mindfulness once we notice we are distracted, it helps our darn amygdala calm down and let the prefrontal cortex take back control a bit quicker. As you practice mindfulness (wait, you still have to practice? Whoa!) when you notice you are distracted, that 25 minutes needed to focus naturally decreases.
Focus and concentration is something we all, as humans, struggle with. With the many roles we play, the different technologies we all use, and the pressure to do it all, focus will continue to be something we have to actively on. Thank you so much for taking the time to learn about how our brains focus and ways to improve that focus, one step at a time. Don’t forget to put these skills to practice to actually see the benefits of improved focus. I’m proud that you are taking time to learn how to keep your mental health on the right track!
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Have you started to notice some repetition in my posts? If you have, thank you for noticing! But why do I repeat myself so much? There are many reasons why I preach (and not because I have nothing better to say or do) repetition and practice: IT’S TO HELP YOUR BRAIN! Our brain is just like the other parts of our body and needs repetition and practice to grow, heal and remember what we need to do. This post will go over the science behind why our brains love repetition and how to use practice to improve your mental health.
Many people understand the science behind practice. Whether it is in sports, musicality, homework, hobbies, or basic life skills, practice helps us complete the following:
Becoming proficient in our knowledge of a skill
How to properly execute that skill
commit that skill to memory
Practice is all about developing a new set of skills that we can use to gain confidence in ourselves, improve our motivation to complete a task and create new relationships so we can share that skill with others. Right there, can you identify the parts of the brain we are using? Can you say what neurotransmitters are being released? Hopefully by the end of this post you will be able to.
When it comes to practice and repetition, the brain stores it in two different ways: intellectually and behavioral. What’s the difference? Let’s look at the example of management at work (oh boy). When you are at work you know your job, right? Right. You know your job and how to do your job. You how to handle situations that pop up every now and then. That right there, is behavioral practice. You know your job inside and out and not just as a job description. Essentially you are living your job and really don’t have to second guess what you need to do because you do it all the time. Now, think about that stereotypical manager (Please note, not all managers are like this! This is purely an example and no way, shape, or form representative of all managers). How many of them know the job description and can tell you what they are looking for out of you, but actually cannot do the job? That is what intellectual practice is. They know everything about the job but cannot functionally do the job.
Another great example of intellectual practice is judging sporting events such as gymnastics. How many officials know what to look for in jumps, flips, or even how to score the elements of a routine? All of them one would hope. Now, how many of those officials and judges can do those same elements? Most likely none of them. That is a great example of intellectual intelligence. The judges and officials know exactly what to look for and how things are supposed to be done, but they don’t necessarily know how to do the activities themselves.
A fun example of behavioral practice are people who can play music by ear. These gifted individuals can play a song just by hearing it. No sheet music and no excessive practice, nothing. Their ability to “just play” shows how that darn amygdala can connect with the hippocampus and just let the music happen. This is a behavior that their brain just knows. It comes from years of practicing basic music skills, perhaps lessons, and playing their instrument on a regular and consistent basis.
Why is understanding these two different forms of practice important to repetitiveness and our brain? This practice allows us to activate different parts of the brain. Intellectual intelligence activates the prefrontal cortex region of the brain and helps turn that practice into facts. The behavioral practice helps that darn amygdala turn it into an automatic habit. In turn, it comes together to create memories and support the hypothalamus and hippocampus in storing them.
Remember in my post, Why your Brain Needs a Routine when I talked all about why your brain thrives on knowing what to expect? That plays well into repetition because routine engages both intellectual and behavioral practice (say what?!). What about my post Depression and all that Jazz, and when we learned about SMART goals? Setting up SMART goals enable us to identify the steps needed to gain the reward of a dopamine release, which helps the hippocampus store information about what we need to do in the future to feel good. Heck, even in my post, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why it Works we talk about how practice rewires the brain. There is a purpose to my madness!!
So the next time you say “I get it Carissa! You mentioned this in your last 20 posts!” Remember that your brain likes repetition! Using practice and repetition will help your brain form healthy habits (that is if it’s something healthy that you are repeating and practicing).
Welcome back to episode 3 of our talk on emotional regulation! I’m so happy you have come back to continue on your journey to mental wealth. As we continue where we left off, I want us to discuss positive self-talk.
Sometimes called positive affirmations, positive self-talk is the art of building ourselves up by saying messages that help us gain motivation. Positive self-talk (or as I like to call them, realistic affirmations), can be tricky as they are the other side of the coin of what we are really good at: negative self-talk. Both are learned behaviors based on past messages (hmmm…sounds like some core beliefs to me), both are things that require practice to master.
Missed out on what Emotional Regulation is? Learn morehere
Positive self-talk gets such a bad rap. In reality, it is another great skill that helps with emotional regulation. Now before you go “I’m not getting all mushy-mushy here,” let me explain. When we engage in positive self-talk versus our normal self-loathing, self-defeating, negative self-talk, we are actually engaging our prefrontal cortex into identifying facts about who we are, not the emotions that lead us down the road of negative self talk.
In 1988 (I know, I’m going way back here), Claude Steele took it upon himself to study if there is any truth behind saying positive affirmations. With his study, Steele set out to look at what happened to people if their self-esteem and image was attacked. What he found was awesome. Almost all the people in participation attempted to align what they were hearing with what they were thinking. Remember when we talked about the core beliefs in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Part Deux? Those bad boys show up everywhere! Steele found out that people who used positive affirmations regularly not only had a higher self worth, but had less negative core beliefs.
This is all great, but how does positive self-talk work in the brain? Think about it, self-talk is the ultimate communication in how we feel about ourselves. That darn amygdala is blurting stuff out without filtering it, checking the facts with the prefrontal cortex, or even reflecting on what the hippocampus is telling it. By identifying the core beliefs and learning how to challenge the cognitive distortions (thank you Cognitive Behavioral Therapy!), we can learn to change our self-talk.
Coping Skills Alert!
As you continue to practice thought challenges and identifying your core beliefs (remember, practice makes progress!) we can do something to help us reap the benefits of positive self-talk. The 5:1 ratio, better known as the magic ratio, has been found to be a huge benefit to challenging negative self-talk. Why? Well, it has been found scientifically that for every negative thing you say about yourself, you must share 5 positive things to reverse the damage that one negative thing does to your brain. Don’t believe me? Check out what John Gottman has to say about it (he is the first one to share how this ratio can help bring any relationship closer together).
Before you go “but there aren’t that many positive things to say about me!” I want you to know that I hear you. It is so hard when we have perfected the art of negative self-talk that we can’t even find where to start on finding a nice thing to say, let alone accept what we are saying. As mentioned above already, practice makes progress! By taking time and practicing this 5:1 magic ratio at least once a day, you will start to notice the more realistic things about yourself. You will also see that by doing this, you are challenging cognitive distortions, rewriting your core beliefs, all while allowing the feel good neurotransmitters release (primarily, oxytocin). Once you get the hang of doing it once a day, start doing it when you notice you’re thinking negative about yourself. That is the real-time challenge right there.
How do you start with positive self-talk? For starters (and in the case of my own brain) I have started calling positive affirmations (same as that pesky positive self-talk) realistic affirmations. Why? Well, if I say they are realistic, my darn amygdala is more likely to believe them and not put of the fight of “you want me to be positive? With all this shit going on? Are you kidding me?”
Need examples of realistic affirmations? Click Here to find them!
The next step I tell my clients is to write down the realistic affirmations! As we write them down, our hypothalamus has an easier time turning them into a memory. When they become a memory, our hippocampus is able to assign an emotion to them. Lastly, we have them written down so as we struggle with coming up with them, we can refer to the ones on the paper to help job our memory.
Dare I say it? Journaling is a great way to help with realistic affirmations. It provides the direct stimulus from our hands to our eyes that is so good at cementing our memories in place. Journaling can be somewhat daunting however and often leaves newcomers feeling frustrated at the challenge of learning a new skill. Never fear though, we are here to help. First, we recommend reading the post, Mental Health Journaling: Why It Works. This post will give you some of the how and why. Next, check out our course, Journaling With a Purpose, for guided help with journaling to take your realistic affirmations and more to the next level!
Before we call this post good, I need to do a little spiel on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is where we focus only on the good emotions while rejecting all the ones we don’t want to feel. That is not emotional regulation. That is emotional avoidance. Toxic positivity leads people down the path of shame, embarrassment, avoiding the real problems, and creates a whole new level of self-esteem issues. You have to keep in mind what we say (or don’t say) to ourselves shapes those core beliefs we have about emotions. It takes time to shape, and re-shape those core beliefs and rewire our brain. Please do not think that by ignoring those hard and painful feelings it will make things better. Remember, emotional regulation is about experiencing and acknowledging our emotions. It is about giving those emotions the attention they need. It is about communicating to yourself what your needs are.
I want to thank you for taking time to learn more about what positive self-talk (or realistic affirmations, whichever you prefer) and how you can use it to rewire your brain. Each time you practice these skills, you are helping that darn amygdala understand it isn’t always in danger. Keep up the hard work! It does pay off.
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With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handout goes over examples of realistic affirmations. Enjoy!
Time for your break from emotional regulation for this short post about the many forms of journaling. Some of you may have already heard the terms guided journaling, bullet journaling, dream journaling, and even art journaling. But what do they all mean? How are they all used? Well, this post is going to break down different styles of journaling in the hopes you will discover your ideal way to make journaling work in your life.
If you recall my last post about journaling, Mental Health Journaling: Why it Works, journaling is about tracking experiences we are having. In the sense of mental health, journaling helps us with a whole wide range of things to keep our mental health healthy and confident. A lot of people struggle with implementing journaling, mostly because they don’t know where to start. Some people struggle with journaling because they don’t know what to write. Even more people struggle with journaling because they don’t know how to put what they are experiencing into words. So let’s go over some common journaling styles.
For many people when they think about journaling, they think about a free writing journal. This is where you start with a blank page of paper, a pen, and write whatever comes into your head. These journals often take on a diary format where we rewrite down everything that happened in our day. Science is shown that free writing journaling before bed has been beneficial for people who struggle with insomnia. On the other hand, free writing can also create a lot of anxiety if you have no clue what to write about. People may even struggle to stay motivated to write in a free writing journal if they feel like they have nothing of substance to write about that day. If this is the type of journaling that keeps you from using this amazing coping skill, never fear! There are many other styles of journaling.
A very popular style of journaling right now is called bullet journaling. This style of journaling can be used for many types of journaling needs, for example a fitness journal, gardening journal, and yes, even a mental health Journal. Bullet journals, and mental health, are used to help track goals, reminders for taking medicine, identifying experiences that impact our mental health, and any other thing you deem to be important to maintaining your mental health. With bullet journaling, you are essentially creating a list–form to help keep things clear, objective, and organized. This style of journaling is excellent for those people with amped up or shut down anxieties (Don’t know what these are? Go to my post Amped Up or Shut Down: The Many Sides of Anxiety), people trying to maintain motivation, or even people who want to use their journal as a reflective process.
One of my favorite styles of journaling is gratitude journaling. This is where, typically at the end of your day, you sit down and reflect on the many different things that happened during your day that brought even a small sparkle of joy or happiness. By writing down a predefined number of daily gratitude, you are creating your own little feel-good neurotransmitter boost on those days that don’t seem to go as planned (like when you open your eyes in the morning and you already know it is going to be a bad day). The goal to making gratitude journaling work is to be as specific as possible for what made you feel grateful that day. I like to use the magic 5:1 ratio couple therapy godfathers John and Judy Gottman came up with. For every negative thing that happened in our day, writing down five things we were thankful or grateful for can help our brain:
Repair the hippocampus
Release serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin
Challenge negative cognitive distortions and core beliefs
Improve prefrontal cortex activity
Now, sometimes gratitude journaling can be overwhelming for those of us who struggle with self-esteem, unsafe social connections, or if we are being faced with some pretty significant stressors. Nevertheless, we know that by practicing gratitude journaling for four weeks our brain will start to improve. Do you know what that means?
Another favorite style of journaling is art journaling. I absolutely love using art journaling for my clients when they are struggling to just say how they’re feeling, let alone putting it all on paper. Art journaling allows us to use artistic abilities (even if we are sucky artists) to create a piece that resembles how we felt, how our day went, or even our hopes and dreams. What is cool about art journaling is that it’s open to interpretation. That means anybody looking at it can see it in a different way. It is no secret that art has a huge impact on our mental capabilities, including cognition, memory, and neurotransmitter release. Not only are you journaling your feelings, but you’re also engaging in a healthy leisure skill (Say What?!) Art journaling can happen with any medium, including ink, crayons, paint, clay, abstract art, photography, and everything in between.
The styles of journaling continue with what is known as guided journaling. This is where someone gives you pre-asked questions that you Journal about that spark reflection, growth, and pondering. Our course, Journaling with a Purpose! is a great example of guided journaling. Many people like guided journaling exercises as it gives them something to write about versus having to come up with it on their own. Many of the questions asked in the guided journaling process are designed to help with a specific issue, like depression, confidence, moving past perfectionism, anxiety, and much more!
Now, this is not every single way to Journal. These above examples are design to spark your interest, creativity, and understanding that journaling does not look the same for every person. I highly recommend to my clients that when they do start journaling, they play around with what journaling style best for them. Remember, you don’t know what will work unless you try it!
Still nervous about taking on journaling? Let me help you! I have created a program called Journaling with a Purpose! that can help you start the guided journaling process. This program includes:
Weekly group coaching
A private Facebook support group
31 days of guided journaling exercise
Help with accountability to using this amazing skill
This course is a great way to enhance your mental health journey and have support while using this new skill, as well as a great way to start rewiring your brain!
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to learn more about the different types of journaling. It is exciting to share this information with you as this skill is such an important one. Hopefully after reading this post, you feel comfortable with starting to try different ways of journaling.
Identifying and acknowledging the emotions you are experiencing (Not avoiding them!)
Recognizing how the emotions trigger a reaction
Choosing a reaction that is a better fit with the situation than the one we want do impulsively give
Reflecting on how the new reaction met your needs versus the original reaction you wanted to give
Does that sound easy and complicated all at once? It sure does! Don’t worry, this series of posts are meant to help take some of the confusion out how to use them. Please keep in mind, I am a therapist, but I’m not your therapist. If you find that these skills sound like they would be what you need, but are unsure where to start, talk to your therapist! Don’t have one? That’s okay. Use the link below to help you locate a therapist close to you
In my last post, we identified how to use ABC PLEASE and opposite action. Today, I want to talk more about some of these amazing ways to help you regulate those emotions. Why? For starters, different things work for different people. Second, by having options to try, you can find what works best for you. With all these options, take some time to practice some of them (there I go with practicing again) to determine which ones you find helps your brain out the best.
Coping Skills Alert!
STOPP is one of those magical acronyms I teach all my clients, young and old. Remember when your teacher would tell you “slow down and think about what you need to solve this problem?” STOPP follows similar principles of slowing down, recognizing what is going on, and looking at what are your options on how to react to that information. Cool, isn’t it? Lets take some time to explore STOPP a bit deeper.
One of the main things that we struggle with is just stopping and listening to what our bodies, our brains, are telling us. The S in STOPP stands for just that: stop what you are doing! By stopping what you are doing when you recognize your emotions are getting out and ahead of you, you are doing several things. First, you are allowing your darn amygdala to share what the heck it is feeling. Listening to that darn amygdala is allowing you to validate yourself and what you are feeling. Dare I say it, you acknowledge what you are feeling (emotional regulation 101 baby!). Second, you give your prefrontal cortex the ability to catch up with what that darn amygdala is doing. Getting your prefrontal cortex and your darn amygdala in the same place and at the same party, helps prepare the rest of your brain (and body) for the next step.
The T represents taking a clarifying breath. For those of you who read my post, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, there is a reason why taking a breath is so important. When we are stressed, our oxygen exchange changes because we are now breathing in shallow, not “normal” breaths. This triggers our body to raise its blood pressure and prepare for the triple F response. Cortisol gets released and boom! You’re experiencing the not-so nice emotions your darn amygdala wants you to instantly (and impulsively might I add) act on. That clarifying breath will allow your body to improve it’s oxygen exchange and naturally lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Why is this important? This additional oxygen will keep the neurotransmitters adrenaline and norepinephrine low enough for your prefrontal cortex to prepare for the next part of the acronym.
O is what the prefrontal cortex does best, observe. You have to give your prefrontal cortex time to observe:
What is going on inside of you:
Identify all your feelings (sad, mad, embarrassed, overwhelmed, guilty, just for example)
Identify what you are physically feeling (tight shoulders, clinching jaw, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, the list goes on)
What is going on around you:
What are your senses telling you? (what is your body temperature? Are you smelling something different? Do you see something? What are you hearing?)
How is the energy around you?
Are there certain events going on that can trigger certain emotions?
Who are the people around you?
As we prepare for our prefrontal cortex to lead the charge on that darn amygdala, we are also preparing our hippocampus to start to release some GABA to calm us down and glutamate to recall when we have experienced these emotions in the past. Observation, and allowing those observations to carry some weight, prepares our brain for emotional regulation.
Now that we have observation down pat, we need to explore what options we have at our disposal. The first P of STOPP stands for process. By giving our brain time to process, we are able to identify what options we have, as far as reactions go, and what those reactions’ outcomes will be. For example, lets say our boss tells us we need to come in early and our darn amygdala wants us to say “shove it up your ass!” If we look at that option, we may be able to see that may cost us our job, ability to pay our bills, and even the ability to get a new job. So as much as we would love to say it, is the impulsive desire worth it? Most likely not. Now, if we were able to use our words and say “I’m feeling frustrated that I’m the only person that is getting asked to come in early”, it may help your boss understand that you are a reliable worker that just wants answers.
Looking at all of our options does another thing for our brain: helps us identify what is in our control. When our emotions are out of wack and running away with us, knowing what we can realistically control helps bring us back to emotional regulation. What is in our control is what brings us to regulation.
The final P in STOPP represents Proceed. Once you have processed all of your options on how to react to your emotions, you have to be able to pick the reaction that give you the greatest amount of help. Some people may be saying right now “I know why I have to choose a decision, but does it have to be a commitment to it?” The answer is, yes. Making a decision, and sticking to it, does several things for our brain. The most notable would be the development of memories for the hypothalamus and hippocampus to store and help you make a similar decision if a particular emotion were to resurface in the future. We are literally storing memories of how we would like to react to the emotion we are feeling! Call me a dork, but that is amazing to see how we can rewire our brain!
Now that you have an idea of what STOPP is, how do you use it? Thank you for asking such a wonderfully insightful question! STOPP is something that if you practice (there is that dirty word again) on a regular basis, it becomes like second nature to use it. It will take a while, but if you remember from my post, Why Change Is So Hard, it takes 66 days for a behavior to become a habit. During that time you will rewire your brain to use STOPP automatically. How cool would that be to make a coping skill part of the way you view and react to the world around you without even thinking about it?
Thank you for taking the time to learn how to use STOPP and why it is an important part of emotional regulation. I like to tell clients to practice STOPP when it comes to eating breakfast. Why? It is a low stress activity we need to do each day and it helps us make a choice on how to start our day. Mental wealth is a journey worth taking. Thank you for letting me be part of your journey.
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With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handout is a helpful reminder of STOPP you can put somewhere you will see it. Enjoy!
Steele, Claude M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 21, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 261–302. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Ah yes, journaling! I interrupt our post series on emotional regulation to bring you journaling. This humble, but effective coping skill is often overlooked, but why? I decided in honor of my new program, Journaling with a Purpose, I should take some time to talk more about the marvelous skill.
This post contains information about my program, Journaling with a Purpose! Come take a look at how this program will move your mental health journey to the next level!
How many of you have ever tried to keep a journal? Better question, how many of you cannot shake the image of a tween girl writing her deepest secrets in a notebook and stuffing it between the mattresses (or in the sock drawer, or any other place in her room)? Journaling has gotten a bad rap and suffered a stigma it doesn’t deserve. This post will show you how journaling can be one of the most effective coping skills out there for rewiring the brain.
To start off, I think it would be wise to go over the definition of journaling. According to the Mirriam Webster dictionary, journaling is “the periodical dealing especially with matters of current interest” (Mirriam Webster, 2021). When you break it down, keeping track of things that interest us and/or matter to us is journaling. That grocery list you add to on a daily basis on the counter? That is journaling! Keeping your finances and check? Also journaling. Keeping a detailed account of the plants in your home (thank you Plants and Mental Health: Why They Pair Together)? You got it! These are all examples of daily journaling we do.
How does it work in the brain? What a fantastic question! Journaling our experiences during the day have been clinically proven to:
Reduce stress levels
Lower our blood pressure and heart rate
Help us explore complex situations
Assist us in maintaining a healthy routine
Promote our immune system to fight off more illnesses
Keep our hippocampus and hypothalamus sharp so they can store memories
Promote the use of other healthy coping skills
Improve our mental health
That is a lot for one little skill! Journaling is an effective way for that darn amygdala to put what it is experiencing into words. According to a study done by UCLA, when we write down what we are experiencing, that darn amygdala decreases in its activity rate. This also means that it is not triggering the release of the neurotransmitters adrenaline, norepinephrine, and the stress hormone cortisol. What makes us awesome, is that this proves that journaling can effectively decrease our symptoms of the triple F response and lower our anxiety levels!
The brain benefits do not stop there. A study completed by Michigan State University showed that by journaling we increase the control that our prefrontal cortex has on filtering the information the brain is processing. As the prefrontal cortex is doing this, it is releasing the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA. If you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, these neurotransmitters, along with small doses of norepinephrine, improve our focus. A nice side effect of this is also improved motivation.
Baylor University conducted a study in 2018 that proved that journaling can also improve the quality of sleep we get, as well as the length of REM sleep. REM sleep is crucial for our brain to help establish new memories, heal the hippocampus, and reset our neurotransmitters. This study also showed that people who regularly journaled were able to fall asleep faster. Why? That darn amygdala had the words on the paper and could slow down the speeding bullet known as anxiety. I don’t know about you, but as someone who struggles with insomnia, this is a game changer!
A lot of these facts cover how journaling helps with anxiety, but what about depression? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget to think about the millions of us (literally millions) struggling with depression. Just like in my post, Depression and all that Jazz, journaling helps us by identifying behavioral habits that could lead to depression. It also helps us set SMART goals, which improves our prefrontal cortex’s ability to motivate the rest of the brain. Journaling has also been effective in helping people struggling with depression to see the full spectrum of what is happening in their life, not just the negative things that fuel the depression. You know what that means? That’s right, it helps us challenge those cognitive distortions that filter out all the good information. When we are able to see those small good things happen, we are able to give our prefrontal cortex the voice it needs to tell that darn amygdala to “shut the hell up!”
Now, how do I journal to reap all of these benefits? I should stress here, there is no right way to do journaling, as everyone responds differently to different skills. With that said, there are definitely things you can do to boost the effectiveness of journaling.
First, try to journal at the same time each day. According to the Arack University of Medical Science, journaling daily at the same time (and in the same place in your home/office), can show significant improvement in anxiety and depressive symptoms in four weeks. Four weeks!
Second, setting at least five minutes aside each day to practice journaling has shown significant changes in how active that darn amygdala is. True story. So for those of you thinking your journaling has to be a nightly novel in excess of 2,000 words in each entry, that just isn’t true. For the sake of our mental health, can we set aside five minutes each day to practice journaling? Umm…yeah!
Third, many people want to know what to write about when they are journaling. This is where I put in a shameless plug for my new journaling program going live September of 2021. Journaling with a Purpose! is a 31-day guided journaling course that provides you with journaling prompts that are based in the same scientific facts you have come to expect from That Darn Amygdala. These prompts will help you start on your journaling journey, while offering you support and accountability to using this awesome skill. Lets use all that you have learned from That Darn Amygdala and work together to to rewire your brain!
Thank you guys for taking time to learn more about why journaling is more than just a fad, but a bonafide and legitimate way to reduce your anxiety and depression symptoms. I hope you take the time to incorporate skill this into your routine, and perhaps join me in my new program, Journaling with a Purpose!
Everyone has those moments where they wish they could have reacted differently. Typically, our emotions get the best of us and we regret what we say (or do) almost immediately afterwards. As we pick up where Distress Tolerance and how Wise Mind Helps us Accept What is Goin On left off, we dive into the next series about DBT: emotional regulation.
What is emotional regulation? Emotional regulation is this awesome little skill we learn as a way to regulate and monitor our emotions. I must stress, this is totally different than over-feeling our emotions or ignoring and avoiding them all together. Let me explain.
By choosing to alter the intensity or the length of what we are feeling, we are still acknowledging the feeling exists. This means we are able to experience the emotion, learn from that emotion, and control how we react when that emotion is present. By having the ability to regulate our emotions, we are able to:
Identify what we are feeling (shout out to the thalamus for releasing glutamate to our hippocampus!)
Accept what we are experiencing (thank you prefrontal cortex for checking the facts!)
Learn and create a memory of how we survived this situation for future reference (you go hippocampus and hypothalamus!)
Delay our impulsive need to react immediately (Wait? A calm and regulated amygdala? That’s what I’ve always wanted!)
What is the end goal of all of this? Being able to clearly identify what we need in the moment and being able to meet those needs. Maybe it’s just me, but knowing I can meet my needs without feeling like I let my emotions get the better of me really helps me not use cognitive distortions.
Even though I did a short outline above how emotional regulation helps us, you may still be asking: how does it change the brain? When we are actively thinking and re-evaluating our emotional response, our prefrontal cortex is highly active, so active it even appears more active than that darn amygdala in MRI and CAT scans (Martin, Rebecca E, and Kevin N Ochsner, 2016). Do you know what that means? That means your reasonable brain conquers and is victorious over that darn amygdala’s catastrophizing ways! This reappraisal of our emotions also does wonders for the other parts of our limbic system.
For our thalamus, regulating our emotions allows it to process all the information our senses send us and not just the stuff that that darn amygdala filters to it. This allows our hippocampus and hypothalamus to actually regulate our emotions and assist the hypothalamus in forming positive memories (rather than the poopy negative memories we always seem to form when we are experiencing emotions we aren’t quite comfortable with).
That darn amygdala even benefits from us practicing emotional regulation. As our hippocampus and hypothalamus are storing more positive memories, that darn amygdala has more positive data to draw on. When you think about it, that darn amygdala will freak out less the more we use these emotional regulation skills.
“Difficult Truth: A lot of people are practicing emotional avoidance and calling it a positive mindset.”
– Dr. Jenna Renfroe, neuropsychologist and fellow brain geek
Emotional regulation also has a pretty cool impact on our natural oxygen levels. As we talked about in my post Mindfulness: The Art of becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, oxygen has a direct link to our stress responses. As we practice emotional regulation, our body starts to physically relax. This means we have more oxygen available to help the neurotransmitters adrenaline and norepinephrine slowly leach out of your system.
The science about emotional regulation is amazing! As much as I want to keep talking about the brain benefits of emotional regulation, I want us to jump into two very important emotional regulation skills: ABC PLEASE and opposite reaction.
Coping Skills Alert!
ABC PLEASE is this amazing acronym (darn therapists and their acronyms!) to help us to remember to engage in things we love and to promote a better mood. It also helps us to remember to take care of our bodies (say what?! Who knew taking care of our bodies could help us regulate our emotions?). With regular practice, even if you aren’t stressing out (there I go again with practice), you can help your brain better regulate those emotions.
A stands for accumulating positive emotions. You may be thinking “well duh Carissa!” But there is more than that to it. Accumulating means we have to build our happiness and continue to build on it on a daily basis. By engaging in positive events, we are impacting the brain in several ways:
Allows the hippocampus to use more positive and comfortable emotions
Develops a good pattern of releasing the feel good neurotransmitters
Gives the prefrontal cortex objective facts that life is going okay
Little hint: doing something small each day promotes happiness and helps our brain stay healthy! Take a moment and come up with a list of things you know that make you happy. It doesn’t have to be this great, grandiose list of big activities. It can be as simple as snuggling your pet, seeing your shoes organized under your bed, or belting out your favorite song.
The B stands for building mastery. Through practicing what makes us happy, we are building the mastery of becoming happy. As we master something, anything, we develop a sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment is needed on a regular basis to keep the dopamine flowing and us motivated to keep moving forward in our journey of emotional regulation. The more regular that dopamine release is, the more likely it is to keep flowing. What makes mastery so hard (especially mastering choosing happiness when we are depressed or anxious) is that it takes work! Not just work, but actively practicing it enough to know what works, what doesn’t, and what works better in certain situations.
Why does it require so much work and effort? Think about it. How many of us like being vulnerable? How many more of us want to put work into something when we don’t know if it will work or not? Part of mastering anything is knowing failure will be part of it. When we allow ourselves to be okay with that vulnerability, we allow ourselves to grow!
C stands for coping ahead. That might seem a bit weird, but coping ahead is a great way to prepare for those circumstances that you know will contribute to some not-so-pleasant feelings. As we “cope ahead” we have to be real with ourselves and identify what emotions are going to be present during those circumstances and how we would normally react to that circumstance. As we look at how we would normally cope, we are allowing our prefrontal cortex to plan for the circumstance and come up with a plan on how we may want to do things differently.
Once we have created a new plan for that circumstance, we can now take a moment to envision how that new plan is going to work. This process is kind of like us taking the opportunity to role-play our plan, practice it, and be able to tweak it if the plan doesn’t seem like it would quite work. By planning and envisioning, we are preparing our darn amygdala to react differently. Our prefrontal cortex is supporting our hippocampus to release a different set of neurotransmitters, not just those stressful ones that tells our darn amygdala to go nuts.
The next part of the acronym, PLEASE, deals with how we are physically caring for ourselves. That’s right, we need to take care of our bodies in order to take care of our emotional regulation! By taking care of our bodies, we are doing a few things:
Identifying what our bodies feel like when we are experiencing emotions
Understanding what our body might need (for example: if you haven’t eaten regularly, low blood sugar can mimic anxiety symptoms)
Maintaining a regular routine to keep our mental health more on the side of mental wealth
Providing you with signs that your emotions could be impacting you more than you thought
The PLEASE helps create a warning and prevention system, all helping keep your emotions (and reactions) in check. Some of them seem pretty Captain Obvious, others, may not. Just like I said above (and in every post), practicing these skill will help you when these strong emotions pop up. Take the time to set up a realistic routine to start setting time aside to practice these skills. Need ideas on setting up a realistic routine? Check out my older post Why Your Brain Need a Routine.
Coping Skill Alert!
The next skill I find very helpful is known as opposite action. Action is an emotional regulation skill that prepares us to take action. If you have figured it out by now, our darn amygdala is hard wired to react certain ways in certain situations. As much as we like to react to what that darn amygdala is telling us to do, we now know that sometimes, it really doesn’t make the best of choices. If anything, reacting to the emotion that is screaming at us can make the emotion feel even worse.
Opposite action allows our prefrontal cortex to come into the picture and help our darn amygdala make a different choice. This helps us regulate our emotions in a few different ways: First, it helps us label what we are actually feeling (Wait? We have to identify what we are feeling versus numbing out and pretend it doesn’t exist?). What this does is gives the hippocampus a chance to find memories of this emotion that have been stored to help the prefrontal cortex help that darn amygdala understand it has indeed felt this before. Next, the thalamus helps that darn amygdala calm down by slowing the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine in order for you to remember what is in your control. With all of that going on, you are able to choose how you want to react.
Confused by all the brain talk? Go back and read this post to gain a better understanding
To practice opposite action, we have to engage in an activity that will produce the opposite emotion of what we are feeling. Here are some examples:
Feeling depressed and stuck in bed? Using behavioral activation to take a 15 minute walk will release serotonin, get that body in motion, and help you stay engaged in day-to-day activities
Anxiety has you feeling like no one cares about you? By participating in activities, such as volunteering, allows you to feel included (plus releases the neurotransmitter dopamine) and feeling accomplished.
Are you angry about what crap your boss has you doing? Take a moment to do an act of kindness for someone. The oxytocin and endorphins released by that act of kindness reduces the levels of stress you feel (plus, it helps heal your hippocampus and keeps it in tip top shape)
It is important as you do these opposite actions to check in with yourself once they are done. This check in will allow you to see how choosing the opposite action to what you were initially feeling, what you are feeling after you participated in the opposite action, and how that choice impacted you. What I love about checking in after participating in the opposite action is it allows your prefrontal cortex to partner with the hypothalamus and hippocampus to create new positive memories on how to deal with emotions. That way, there are facts present right away for that darn amygdala to use and say “we can do it differently!” The other cool thing about checking in is it gives your brain (mostly that darn amygdala and the prefrontal cortex) a chance to reevaluate our emotional response and make a decision if that first response was really needed. As this is happening, the neurotransmitter, glutamate, is being released, helping create new memories of how we will survive if that emotion happens again.
Isn’t it amazing what some of these skills can do to change our brains? I want to thank you so much for taking charge of your mental health. It isn’t an easy role, but it is one that your brain thanks you for the work you are doing. I will be doing another post next week about more emotional regulation skills, which excites me because everyone loves options!
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With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over the basics of emotional regulation, ABC PLEASE, and opposite action. Enjoy!
Ahhh, motivation. Motivation seems to be something you have, or you don’t. Have you ever wondered why that is? To me, it feels like one of the greatest mysteries of the brain. Prime example: being highly motivated to do laundry then letting it sit in baskets for days before the motivation returns on the next laundry day. It can be so frustrating when motivation just packs its bags and leaves.
This post gets to highlight the joy of the prefrontal cortex (along with all of its parts) and its role in discovering and maintaining our motivation levels. Do you feel motivated to learn about it (total intended dad joke there)? I hope you are!
By definition, motivation is “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way” (motivation, 1989). Think about it: every action we take has motivation behind it. Staring into the fridge? You are motivated by hunger (or boredom) to be looking in there. Searching through your closet? You are motivated by wanting to look good (or dressing comfy). Popping in your kids’ favorite movie in for the 6th time today? You got it! You are motivated by the joyous sound of silence!
Motivation drives all of our behaviors. Whether we are trying to gain some sort of reward (like finding our favorite leftovers in the fridge) or avoiding some sort of consequence (for example, the guilt and disgust when we find that our favorite clothes fit tighter than fashion allows them to), motivation is there, directing what we do. Where does motivation start in the brain?
For years, scientists and doctors have studied where motivation comes from in the brain. It is so darn hard to study because it is the root of every human action. Did you know there is no actual theory on motivation? There have been arguments throughout the scientific community about if there are different parts to motivation, or if motivation is different than a drive or need, and even if there is a way to measure motivation? With so much up in the air about motivation, I bet you are wondering how do we talk about it. There are a few things scientists, theorists, and doctors can agree on, which is what we will focus on today.
If you recall from my very first post, Mental Health and the Brain: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) the limbic system is large and in charge of our emotional parts of our brains. When it comes to knowing what we want (or avoiding what we don’t want), that darn amygdala reins supreme. It has this knack for wanting to be comfortable and safe. By staying comfortable and safe, that darn amygdala (amongst other parts of our brains) reap the reward of a dopamine release.
Seems simple enough, right? It isn’t quite that simple. Our prefrontal cortex has a role in this whole motivation game. The prefrontal cortex helps determine if that dopamine-reward is really worth it. Lets use the example of homework for a moment. How many of us at some point in time looked at our grades to calculate if an assignment was going to make us or break us? I would be lying if I said I didn’t do that at least once a semester! Right there is a great example where we know if we complete the assignment, we get rewarded with a higher grade, but we decide based on different factors (like grades, other classes, other grades in other classes, or really wanting to go to that kegger rather than stay in and do more work) if that grade is worth it.
Now that we have the basic understanding of how motivation works, what about when we have no motivation? How does that exactly work? There have been several studies over the years that point to many different reasons. One of the more commonly accepted reason is that our brains are deficient in dopamine. if you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, dopamine is directly tied to feeling accomplished. Without it, we tend to have little to no motivation, symptoms of depression, and aid in increased feelings of stress. Funny enough, if we are struggling with depression, dopamine is not being produced as often as it should. It leads to a feeling known as anhedonia, or what I call, a case of the “fuck its.” This is when you really don’t care about anything, nothing seems to spark your interest, and you just feel “blah.” Have you been there? Boy, I have!
Another study done in 2019 points to something different aiding in the lack of motivation. Emory University in Georgia completed a study about depression that showed something interesting. Out of the 114 people studied in this depression study, almost all of them presented with a slight inflammation in the brain. The cause of this inflammation is unknown, but it could be from low-grade fevers, fighting off an infection, even in some cases, chronic stress. As a way to keep our bodies functioning, the body shuts down things the body doesn’t need all the time, like dopamine production. This explains why when we aren’t feeling good, we have no motivation to get things done besides sitting on the couch, curled up with our favorite show, and drink ginger ale.
What about being lazy? Is that the same as not having motivation? The answer is simple: no. When we have lack of motivation, there is no desire or even goal as an outcome. That feeling of anhedonia? That fits perfectly with the lack of motivation. It is important to remember that a lack of motivation is a sign of what is going on around you. You can still be a hard-working person and not have motivation. You can be a perfectionist and end up procrastinating because the passion just isn’t there.
Laziness, on the other hand, serves a purpose. When you think about it, laziness is the intention of avoiding, well, anything. Don’t get me wrong, somedays, you need a lazy day to rejuvenate yourself and relax. If you find yourself on a (very) regular basis trying to take shortcuts in your work, pawning your work off on someone else, or you are doing more of what you want and not what is actually required of you (like licking the cookie dough spoon rather than help actually make the dough), you may have been bitten by the lazy bug.
If you find yourself being more on the lazy side than the unmotivated side, I refer you to my post, Why your Brain Needs Routine. This post will outline for you all you need to know about the importance of a routine to help break the habit of laziness. You can also check out my post, Depression and All That Jazz, to learn about how behavioral activation may be the ticket to breaking out of that lazy spell.
Now if you find yourself on the side of lack of motivation, there are things you can do to help improve your motivation. Now, will it be easy? Nope. Will it be worth the work? Most definitely. It will require some time, patience, and good ol’ practice (oh boy, I said that P word again), but it will help your hippocampus remember your hard work and start telling your prefrontal cortex to release more dopamine.
Click here to sign up to learn more about improving your motivation
Thank you so much for taking time to learn about what is going on in your head when your motivation flies out the window. Hopefully this post will motivate you to work towards gaining mental wealth.
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With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over things you can do to help release dopamine and improve your motivation. Enjoy!