Your brain on yelling and stress and tigers and love…
We are built amazingly well. Let’s see..we have an internal alarm. A 911 center in our brain for when we are afraid. We have neurons that help us detect threat in people’s facial expressions. We have chemical messengers that are released when we’re anxious. We have different systems in our bodies that take care of us when we’re under stress. Our muscles contract when we sense a stressor, getting us ready to run. And our livers give us some glucose juice, a boost of sugar energy to fuel us when we do bolt.
We have different stress responses too. Four, count ‘em four. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Faint.
And our brains and bodies know which one to activate in which circumstance. They talk back and forth with our minds. Our very thoughts can change how our DNA is expressed. Our memories fill our hippocampi. Our autobiographical stories live in our right brain. Our words for expressing and telling them live in our left.
And consider that those stories and experiences have created a specific circuitry inside us. Unique to us. Imagine how the different ways we attached to our caregivers as babies organized our brains for trust and security or avoidance and fear. How amazing that love has a hormone. And fear does too. There’s a biochemistry of trust. And shame. And shock.
And when we are acutely stressed out, our brain has a built-in piece, the hypothalamus that stimulates the pituitary, releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which tells our autonomic sympathetic nerve and adrenal medulla to signal our adrenal cortex to release cortisol, our lungs work faster to pull in more oxygen, and our hearts pump faster so more blood can rush to our muscles in case we need to run from the tiger.
And if we think we’re getting ready to run from that tiger often enough, guess what?
We trick our brain into thinking there really is a tiger. When really…it could be our over-scheduled life. Our child crying. Our partner not connecting with us. Our boss demanding impossible things and waving our job over our heads. Our bills piling up. Our dishes too.
See, very reassuringly, we have this power. The power is this: just like we can grow a tomato plant by planting a seed or grow rhododendrons or grow a maple tree with deep roots that travel underground…we can also grow a way of being by growing dendrites, millions of brain branches, billions of neurons and whole neurobiological circuits around a way of being.
Whether we’re positive and hopeful. Or hopeless. Or Type A. Or lazy. Grateful. Or begrudging. Or uninhibited. Or unmotivated. Flexible or rigid. Or whether we procrastinate. Or ruminate. Or see the cup half filled. Or half spilled.
Our brain is sculpted through experience. Relationship. Thoughts. Emotions. Receptive. Or stressed. Joy. Or resignation.
When parents ask me about crying babies… or toddlers who tantrum… or wonder why their kids don’t listen unless they yell again and again in increasing volume…I tell them about stress and love and our nervous systems scrambling for cover. To protect us. In case of tigers. And I tell them those tigers aren’t really there. But we think they are, so we scream. Loudly.
And their eyes fill with water and a lot of times they hug me. Because, hugging releases oxytocin, the love hormone. And we all want peace. Not tigers.
Parents, don’t stop yelling because you feel guilty. Stop yelling because it’s hurting your health. Now and in the long run. It’s sculpting your children’s brains. And forming ideas in their minds about thresholds for compassion. That there may be a limit to patience…as well as compassion. A limit on compassion for ourselves. Yelling does that.
It steals energy. And creativity. And global-thinking. And awe. And your life feels eerily joyless.
Love your amazing brain. It’s designed to protect you from harm, to alert you to speed-bumps, to help guide you to never sign a contract with someone you don’t intuitively trust, and to mimic your practice.
Our brains are benevolent. They are designed to change. They love novelty, new patterns, questions, wonder, play, laughter, connection, curiosity and empathy. How magnificent that these are all the things that we love too. When we live in alignment with our values, deepest desires and needs, our brains, minds and bodies resonate with joy.
Instead of yelling, know your story. Instead of depleting your energy, practice gratitude. Instead of thinking that who you are is what you’ve practiced–your habits and ruts and disappointments–see beyond your story to the one you are writing today, in this moment.
And one more thing…instead of ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, practice being right here right now in this moment. Amazingly, our capacity to be present preserves the ends of our chromosomes, our telomeres, and promotes longevity.
We are filled with power and promise. Harness your awe. Teach your kids about their exquisitely designed inner life, and never, never dismiss, squander or underestimate the love, connection, joy, vitality and wonder you were designed for.
Copyright Lu Hanessian