Thursday 29 March 2012

"Counting to Ten"

Do you ever get so mad that all you want to do is yell or throw something? Ever feel like you can't possibly fight back tears for a second longer? We all have those days sometimes, right? Some of us are pretty good about letting "it" go. Some of us like to hold on, ruminate, and just generally feel lousy longer.

I have days when not much really bothers me. Then I have those days when every little thing is about to send me over the edge of some emotional roller coaster. Those are the days when I have a difficult time clearing my head of what "it" is - an interaction with a friend or colleague that went awry or a mistake made. It's a super fun cycle, actually. First the "it" happens, then you ruminate, then you start to feel the physical effects of the negative thoughts (butterflies in the tummy, tension in your neck, shoulders and head), and then trouble sleeping because you can't clear your mind.

Emotions are a funny thing - all in your head, right? Well, yes. In your brain actually. Ever heard of the cingulate system? No, me neither. Turns out it's kind of a big deal.

Here's a description of the cingulate system from Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G Amen M.D., "The cingulate system is the part of the brain that allows you to shift your attention from one thing to another, to move from idea to idea, to see the options in life. In my experience, the term that best relates to this part of the brain is cognitive flexibility."

This part of the brain allows us to do some very cool things like planning, goal setting, and adapting to change. However, there is always a flip side. When the cingulate system is abnormal "we have a tendency to get stuck on things, locked into things, and to rethink the same thought over and over." Ever obsess on the same thought or find yourself on a negative path? You can thank your cingulate system for that.

The good news is that like many wellness issues we have the opportunity to turn things around and break those thought patterns that are causing us harm. Here are some of my favourite suggestions from Dr Amen:

Notice When You Are Stuck: Distract yourself and then come back to the problem later. Some great ways to distract yourself are going for a walk, listening to relaxing or uplifting music, meditating, or singing a song (OK, maybe don't do that in your cubicle at work).
* Write Out Options & Solutions: Seeing a thought on paper can make it easier to deal with in a rational way. After you write down the thought that's "stuck", write down a list of possible solutions.
* Seek The Counsel of Others: Do you have a trusted friend or mentor? Often it helps to talk about something that you can't let go of and talking it through can open up new options.
* Cingulate System Nutrition: Good news for carb lovers: foods high in carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, bread, pretzels, and popcorn) increase L-tryptophan levels in the blood, resulting in more L-tryptophan being available to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. Per Dr.Amen, many people on low carb diets often trigger cognitive inflexibility or mood problems. So go ahead and indulge in that plate of mashed potatoes - it's good for your cingulate system!
* Exercise: OK, let's be real - exercise isn't really one of my favourite things but there is no denying that it works. If I have had a rough day at work, I almost always feel better if I make the 25 minute trip home by foot.

Here's my favourite idea of all. We all know the Serenity Prayer, right? "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,..." It's a comforting reminder that we have limits in life, that we need to respect those limits, and that we are all just human. But reciting it also takes us away from whatever we are stuck on. I like the idea of making room only for something positive in my head, pushing the negative thoughts out and away. But what if, instead of the Serenity Prayer or counting to ten, we took a moment for something silly? How about this from The Rules of Life by Richard Templar:

"I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky. I left my pants and socks there and I wonder if they are dry." ~ Spike Milligan

I feel better already.

KB xo

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