Did you know you can wire your mind for calm?
I want to share a little bit about what we’ve learned about the brain and the incredibly fascinating field of neuroscience to help you understand how you can naturally induce a calmer state.
I invite you to check out a video I made explaining how to wire your mind for calm. Here are the time stamps for some of the biggest takeaways:
Most of you are probably familiar with the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response that helps our body prepare for survival. Luckily, most of the stressors we experience today are not life-threatening.
So, while our body is trying to protect us from danger and fight-or-flight is critical for our survival, we need a way to manage our body’s physical stress reaction daily to prevent chronic stress.
Today the sympathetic nervous system is activated not only for life-threatening situations like encounters with wild animals but also in response to deadlines, relationships and more. This stress response is powered by a flood of hormones that increase heart rate, infuse glucose into the bloodstream to energize you, sends blood to the muscles and more so you are poised to flee or fight.
On the other end of the spectrum, the parasympathetic system helps the body calm down. This is the system that encourages the body to “rest and digest.” This system helps return hormones and heart rate to normal levels.
These systems are informed by the brain and specific functions within the brain.
Our knowledge of the brain has increased tremendously over the last 20 years. To simplify the complexity, let’s consider the thumbnail as the amygdala gland of the brain.
The almond-shaped amygdala gland is the alarm bell of your brain and is found in the middle of it. It’s a component of the limbic system and is always looking for things to protect us from. While it’s very useful for our survival, when this gland is overactive, it kicks our bodies into a hyper-vigilant state. Chronic stress and anxiety can result.
Now, wrap your fingers around your thumbnail (the amygdala). Your fingers in this simple model of the brain represent the prefrontal cortex. This gray matter at your forehead is known to be the executor of the brain. It receives input and can downgrade any fear or mutiny as well as any unnecessary symptoms or activation.
I envision the prefrontal cortex of the brain as the CEO in a board meeting. The CEO takes in data, insights and opinions from the heads of finance, HR, marketing and production and then ultimately decides a course of action.
Similarly, as the CEO of the brain, the prefrontal cortex discerns and decides what to pay attention to and separates facts from interpretation when it receives signals from different parts of the body.
One of the most important factors in what parts of the brain are firing is the neurotransmitter GABA.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that helps your body relax—it’s your body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter. Although GABA’s role throughout the body is still being studied, we do know how important it is in the brain and spinal cord. GABA levels are known to be very low in people who have epilepsy or deal with chronic pain or chronic anxiety.
When the body increases GABA levels, it can tone down the amygdala and turn on the prefrontal cortex. This quiets the alarm bell and engages executive functioning.
So, if there was a way to naturally increase GABA levels, it would help wire our mind for calm + clarity. And there is!
Strong levels of activity have proven to be the most effective natural way to boost GABA levels.
In an incredible study done in 2007, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers set out to discover if yoga impacted GABA levels differently than just any physical activity. There had been an earlier study done that found that yoga did increase GABA levels, but critics felt the study didn’t differentiate between yoga and any other physical activity.
In the 2007 study researchers used a control group who was walking and another group who did yoga. They had participants achieve the same heart rates so the amount of exercise and physical exertion in both groups was pretty much the same.
The yoga group experienced a significantly greater increase in GABA levels than the walking group.
While physical activity increases GABA levels, it’s likely the combination of deep yoga breathing and full-body movements of yoga helped increase GABA levels more than walking.
When GABA is released, the activity in the amygdala gland—the fear-based pathways—lessens at least for a period of time, and the prefrontal cortex is activated.
Yoga practice can be even more helpful than walking in increasing GABA levels.
IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY: Those increased GABA levels were seen to last about eight days. To keep your GABA levels where they need to be, you want to do your yoga practice at least twice a week to wire yourself for a calmer brain.
Having a little bit of science about the benefits of yoga can really help you speak to those skeptics and teach from a place of competence. It can also help you teach why a yoga practice is effective and keep your students motivated to continue their practice.