Friday, July 12, 2013

Train the Brain to Master Stress and Enhance Health

The brain and the brain-mind-body connection is one of the most important areas of scientific exploration for a host of reasons. In April, 2013 President Obama announced a $100 million project to map the human brain. This project named Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), is designed to be an extended effort similar to the Human Genome Mapping project.

The BRAIN project has an impressive array of players to include the National Institutes of Health DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the National Science Foundation plus four private plus four private research institutes. While advances in neuro science have been extraordinary over the past few years, we are still decades - if not centuries - away from understanding how the brain really works. This project is a noble attempt to jump start research that ultimately may bring more effective treatments for conditions such as Parkinson's, epilepsy, and brain injuries.

One might wonder why DARPA has an interest in brain research. Recall DARPA is about identifying ways of achieving military advantages on the battle field and beyond. I don't believe it's a stretch to suggest we'll see weapons that disorient and otherwise disable a hostile opponent's ability to perform. DARPA is also likely interested in how to "train the brain" of future soldiers to enhance their fighting effectiveness.

There are already weapons and tactics today in our military and law enforcement agencies arsenals that affect a person's brain and central nervous system's ability to function. Having detailed knowledge of brain functions beyond what is known today will allow development of weapons that work directly on the physical brain, mind, and body in ways we can't yet imagine.

The $100 Million Question:

Few of us have access to brain monitoring equipment such as fMRIs, electroencephalograms (EEG), or other equipment that measure aspects of brain function. We do, however, have an array of ways to monitor and self-regulate our brain - mind - body interactions.

Let's begin with a simple truth: Our level of stress directly affects our well being. Low stress promotes optimum health, empowering emotions, and clarity of mind. Chronic high stress promotes problem medical conditions, disempowering emotions, and muddled thinking.

So, can we effectively "train the brain" without a $100 million project team and the latest and greatest neuroscience equipment? Absolutely, yes we can.

Brain Plasticity and Our Ability to Learn Stress Mastery:

One of the surprises that's emerged in neuroscience research over the past decade or so is the discovery that brains have the capacity to change in ways considered impossible a generation ago. Another surprise is that our minds - through patterns of thought and behavior - can creaste physical, structural brain changes. 

The key to training the brain and mastering chronic stress is the frequency and type of activities we engage in over time. I'll have more to say on this in future posts, but let's play with a couple of techniques that will help you lower stress.

The more often we practice self-regulation, the more effective we are in reducing chronic stress. The good news is we can start with techniques that are easy to learn and only take a few seconds to do. Performing these simple techniques throughout the day encourages what's called the Relaxation Response. This is the mindful, relaxed state where we're most comfortable and creative.

Two Simple Techniques:

Technique 1: Close your eyes and follow your breath:

What happens? Closing your eyes increases the percentage of alpha waves in the brain compared to beta waves. It's simple and takes just a few seconds to do. Closing your eyes changes the relative mix of beta and alpha waves in the brain.

Beta waves are associated with our moment to moment eyes open waking activities. They range between 15 - 30 Hz (cycles per second).

As we engage our minds to solve problems, carry on a conversation, or otherwise intently pay conscious attention to our surroundings, we increase beta wave dominance. Generally, as the percentage (compared to other wave ranges) and frequency of beta waves increase, so to does our stress.

Alpha brain waves (8 - 12 Hz) are associated with a reduction in conscious brain activities. Our visual system is a major contributor to increased beta activity. Closing our eyes will typically calm the brain by lowering the concentration of beta waves in the occipital lobe and other brain regions.

Alpha waves, the brain frequency associated with the Relaxation Response, increase when our eyes are closed, but we remain awake. They can also increase when we're feeling a sense of reverie or a calm, relaxed state such as when we're taking a bath or driving in "auto pilot" on a long stretch of a lightly traveled highway.

Tuning into the breath provides a focus awareness point. It helps to quiet the "monkey mind" that diverts our attention (and typically increases the Stress Response) through thought associations.

If, when focusing on the breath, your attention wanders, simply notice and then return attention to your breathing.

This simple exercise helps calm the brain - mind - body after only a few seconds. Taking one to two minute "stress breaks" each hour and doing eyes closed breathing is a great way to promote your emotional and physical well being.

Technique 2: Heart Breathing:


  1. Place both hands over your heart. Right on left or left on right works equally well.
  2. Close your eyes and imagine breathing into your heart with each in breath.
  3. Breathe in as deeply as you can with comfort and then gently release the breath without effort. Allow the breathing to be unforced and relaxed.
  4. Pace your breathing so that it takes about five to eight seconds for your in-breath and about the same amount of time for your out-breath. 
  5. Breathe from the diaphragm in a rhythmic, gentle flow.
  6. Bring to mind a person, place or thing that you love or have deep, positive feelings for. As you're breathing, really feel the love or positive feelings in your heart. Breath in the love and allow the good feelings to flow outward from your heart throughout your entire body.
  7. Smile and really feel the joy, love, or other positive feelings flowing through your body.

What happens? Heart Breathing brings the same benefits as closing your eyes and following your breath plus many others. Creating the flow of positive feelings can influence your heart, mind, brain, and body in ways that encourage the Relaxation Response, lower average heart rate and increase heart rate variability, lower blood pressure, and provide an overall sense of emotional well being.

I recommend doing Heart Breathing at least three times a day. Optimum duration can vary, but you'll likely notice a significant shift to a sense of positive well being after just one or two minutes. Heart Breathing can also be a wonderful way to enter into longer duration meditation.

Of course, please check with your doctor before engaging in any health related activity and never do any relaxation activity when driving or engaging in any other actions that require your full attention.

If you would like to share your experiences using one or both methods, please comment below.


Stephen Carter

Stress Solutions, LLC |

Important Note: This and all other postings to this blog are for informational purposes only. This and all other posts are not intended to diagnose, treat, or otherwise recommend any treatment for any medical or psychological condition. Anyone using any of the information contained in this or any other posting on this website does so at his or her own risk. You are urged to seek competent medical consultations with appropriate licensed medical professionals for any and all medical or physical conditions.