Emotional Intelligence and Mirror Neurons

Emotional intelligence has two sides to it:

  • being able to observe and understand your own emotions
  • being able to perceive, observe and read the emotions of others.

We humans have the amazing ability to perceive the emotions of others. This unique ability, that characterises us as humans, is called empathy. There is an actual neurological basis in our brain that underlies this ability to be emphatic. It is still a fairly recent discovery in neuroscience. It is called Mirror Neurons.

We have so-called mirror neurons in our brain that cause us to feel what other people are feeling. Either if these people are near us, or on the screen such as in movies. Have you ever wept at a movie? Been stirred by a passionate kiss? Been scared whilst watching a horror movie? Whatever emotion that you are feeling while observing someone else, on or off the screen, is purely activated by observing someone else. This is significant and profound.

We have one hundred billion neurons in our brain. And they all interact with each other constantly. When you pick up a spoon, the neurons in your brain that correspond to that hand movement begin to fire. However, there is a subset of neurons that fire if you observe someone else picking up a spoon, without lifting a finger yourself. So your brain fires as though you picked up that spoon yourself.

These mirror neurons are action neurons, and according to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilayanur_S._Ramachandran) they played a vital role in aiding our evolution by allowing us to imitate others, such as our parents and teachers, and allowed us to quickly pick up skills through imitation and observation.

Then there is another type of mirror neurons. These are emphatic mirror neurons. This means they cause us to experience the emotions felt by others simply by observing them. Our brain cannot tell the difference between feeling our own feelings and having our feelings activated by observing others.

 

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Richard Hill, speaker, author and psychotherapist, says that our brains – we – are hardwired to be emphatic. (www.richardhill.com.au). We perceive what others are feeling. This is one of the reasons why sports are so popular. You just have to watch people watching a sports game, the level of passion that gets aroused just sitting in an armchair. These are our mirror neurons at work.

We cannot turn our mirror neurons on an off. We have no control over them, as they are hardwired. They function all the time and cause us to feel what others are feeling, whether you want to or not. Now this is important information. For example, we know that stress is bad for us. It activates our flight or fight mode with all the negative consequences that entails. Now, our fight or flight mode can be activated by observing another in the stress mode, and picking up their emotional signature. You may want to change your actions in accord with that knowledge. Is it beneficial for you to watch sensational news reports for extended periods of time? Do you want to spend lengthy periods of time in the company of someone who is angry?

Mirror neurons function all the time. Being emotionally intelligent means we are aware of this and know that some of the feelings we are feeling are actually activated by our mirror neurons. We can then act accordingly. Either avoid or minimise situations that trigger our stress mode or realise that tension within us may not be our own.

Of course there are many situations in life where we cannot avoid feeling the emotions and pain of others. My biggest hurdle in recovering from the loss of my husband was to overcome the memories that were stored in my body and mind from having witnessed Mark in extreme pain for over four months continually. Whenever I entered the hospital room and saw and heard Mark in agonising pain, I felt his pain. And after Mark passed away, I was still overcome by the extreme level of suffering he had experienced. Because we automatically feel what others are feeling and experiencing, especially a beloved husband, we experience their pain.

We also experience our loved ones joy. It works both ways. Have you ever felt happy and uplifted in the company of someone who is genuinely happy and joyful? That’s because our emotions are contagious. Surrounding yourself with content people will rub off.

If you want to build your emotional intelligence and awareness, then knowing about and being aware of our mirror neurons is important.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal and Reflection

Making sense of change

How to engage in Stress Relief

How often do you engage in stress relief?  How often do you experience stress? At work, at home, health-related, painful memories, old hurts, traffic-congestion, thoughtlessness, … the list goes on and on. If you are like most people, you experience stress on a regular – mostly daily – basis. I would like to emphasis again that stress puts a huge drain on your body, and of course your mood and happiness.

If you are committed to your own happiness and wellbeing, stress relief becomes imperative.

They type of stress relief that suits your personality and lifestyle most depends on different factors. But let’s take a look at the causes of stress. There are two types of stress factors:

  1. Stress that depends on internal factors, that is the way you view the stressful situation.
  2. Stress that is caused by external factors such as pollution, traffic jams, weather conditions

 

As I said, it is important to balance all stress with stress relief. Meditation is the most effective, fast and reliable way to relieve stress. When you meditate, you spend some time in a neutral state, focused on the present moment. Time out from distress and rushing. The benefits of meditation go way beyond stress relief. Meditation will increase your personal sense of power. Your ability to become clear about what it is you want out of your life. And it can give you the sense of personal power, inspiration and motivation that is required to bring your desires to fruition.

There are avoidable and unavoidable stress factors. Some stress factors are avoidable in that they are based on our perspective on things. If you change your perspective, your thoughts, you will change your emotional reaction.

Changing your perspective requires you to reflect and to contemplate. Changing your perspective is based on an act of will. It doesn’t happen by accident. When we repeat the same type of thoughts over a long period of time, we always cause the same type of emotional reaction. So this combination of thought – or thinking about a specific memory – combined with the emotional reaction(s) establishes neural pathways in your brain.

Now you need to make changes in the very make-up of your body if you want to stop experiencing the same emotions. You need to re-wire your brain, your neural pathways, so that the old emotional responses will no longer be triggered by the same thoughts. Whew.

Your thoughts bring about feelings in you. The thought ‘I was hard done by my dad. He always favoured my older brother and didn’t have the time of day for me’ will bring about feelings of anger, helplessness, resentment and perhaps apathy. Every time you think about your dad your resentment gets triggered. Until you change your perspective on what happened to you, the same emotional response will be triggered. It can’t be any other way. Your thoughts, repeated over and over, have created very well established neural pathways. They exist in your brain.

Feeling angry and helpless causes your stress response and as such is detrimental if triggered time and time again. If you don’t want to feel stressed about your childhood memories you need to rewire your brain, those old hurtful memories that are stored in your body.

Now, it’s all good and well to have the intention to let go. But those old memories really, really hurt. How then do you change your thoughts, your perspective?

One very effective method of reflection and contemplating an experience from different perspectives is writing. So-called free-flow writing is extremely effective. Writing is a bridge to our subconscious mind – or more precisely it is the metaphors and symbolic language that we use in writing that form this bridge.

We cannot reach our subconscious mind through conscious intent, but we can reach it through personal writing, especially free-flow writing. Personal writing is not about grammar or being polished, but simply about flowing onto the page. One word of caution though – it is very important to have a safe space when you undertake free-flow writing. Because none of us know what’s stored in our subconscious mind, we also don’t know what might come to light. You don’t want your son to walk in on you when you are in the middle of an emotional memory. However, let me stress that any short-term discomfort will be far outweighed by long-term stress relief and health improvements.

If you engage in personal writing in a safe environment – a workshop with a skilled facilitator is a good place as it is a safe, caring emphatic environment – you are able to re-wire your brain, those old painful memories that have very established neural pathways, in a way that no longer causes painful reactions.

It takes a lot of energy to suppress painful memories and emotions, and when you relieve the stress that’s caused by keeping things under wraps, you will not only feel better, but also free up loads of energy that is no longer tight up in stuffing unwelcome memories down the bottom of the barrel. Changing your perspective, your way of thinking, in a way that supports your happiness and inner peace, is a powerful way to relieve stress! It has the potential for long-term and permanent stress relief.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

 

How to Achieve Stress Relief

 

 

 

I’ve talked in the previous posts about the vital importance of engaging in stress relief. According to Joe Dispenza, most people spend most of their time in what he calls survival mode. That is, we are reactive to our environment and we experience stress with adrenalin and cortisol pumping through our veins. This is a state of being that is detrimental to wellbeing and good health. Most significantly, in this state cell renewal and body maintenance do not take place – and these are essential to vibrant health and longevity.

The desirable state of being, the one that is supportive of good health and thriving in life, is what Joe calls the creative state. This state is optimal for cell renewal and wellbeing. In this state we are not reactive, that is to say we don’t simply plot along until some external factor such as a partner, teenager, colleague, traffic jam or missed appointment causes us to react with a negative emotion and stress response. We are in a creative state, we purposefully engage our attention (better still after having planned and/or organised our project – as well as our long-term goals – in our minds beforehand.

A creative state itself does not require planning. For example if you are engrossed in and focused on the chosen task – may it be writing, painting, singing, organising a work project – your attention is fully on the task. A tell-tale sign when you are in a creative state is when time seems to disappear. You might have been engaged in something for a couple of hours and it seems like 15 minutes. Even external factors such as a noisy truck outside your window or a cold air-conditioner are not registered by your brain. In other words, your brain – more specifically your highly evolved frontal lobe – has the power to tune out all unrelated external stimuli that have nothing to do with the task at hand. That’s very cool, isn’t it. You feel engaged, joyful, content, alive. You are literally outside of time and space when you are 100 % focused.

Now, focused attention is a skill that we can learn. Just like playing tennis or driving a car. Meditation is a way of training the mind and the body to concentrate on one thought alone. Meditation is the antidote to stress like antivenom is to snake venom. Science has now come on board and confirmed what eastern mystics have known for eons: meditation quiets the mind and stops stress in its tracks.

Now, the thought of meditation scares many people. Sitting still and doing nothing is not taught in our schools. Our society praises action, action and more action. Many people fear what thoughts might come up when they sit still. Others simply don’t think they can sit still even for a short period of time such as 10 minutes.

I believe that everyone who is motivated to learn how to meditate can do so. Because it is a skill, a learned skill. If you decide to put your full attention on something that is important enough to you because you realise the benefits to your life you will learn it. You might not attain mastery, after all people who learn to ride the bike don’t become Tour de France riders overnight. Like every other skill, meditation also requires practice. But just as you get from A to B when you first manage to ride a bike, even if it is wobbly and you might feel a little unnerved, when you start to meditate you will reap immediate benefits.

Also, it is good to remember that there are many different forms of meditation: going into nature is a form of meditation. A bushwalk, a stroll along the river or the beach usually quietens the mind. That is, as long as you actually focus on the nature around you and don’t think about your bills or other worries. As long as you stay focused and don’t let your mind wander off. If you focus your attention on your surroundings – the trees, flowers, mountains or water – you will relieve stress and help your body to return to homeostasis or balance (at least until the next stress factor comes along).

I would like to inspire you to start to learn the skill of focused attention. It will bring you incredible benefits such as joyfulness, contentment and peace. Start small. Take time out on your next walk to really look closely at a flower and become engaged in the wondrousness of nature.

 

Allow all of your attention to be focused on the flower. It does not matter what you choose to put your attention on – water, the sand under your naked feet, trees, the blue sky – as long as you are 100 % focused. If your thoughts wander, no worries, don’t chastise yourself, simply stop and decide to put your attention back onto whatever you were engaged in.

 

The skill of focused attention is like a muscle that needs strengthening and building. Once it is build up, it only needs to be maintained. There are so many ways in our life where the ability to deliberately and purposefully focus our attention will reward us with gifts such as inner peace and joy. The biggest benefit of all is wellbeing and stress relief.

 

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

 

 

 

 

Why Stress Relief is crucial to your Wellbeing

 

 

Stress has become a fact of life in our busy modern technology and consumption driven world. Unless you retreat to a remote mountaintop you will inevitably be exposed to stress. There are many different forms of stress: physical stress, chemical stress through pollution and hormonal imbalances and emotional stress. Even a physical stressor such as an accident will lead to psychological stress, such as for example if you are out of work as a result of the accident.

All these stressors have one thing in common: they put your body into the fight or flight mode. What distinguishes us humans from the animal kingdom is this: humans alone can trigger the fight or flight response simply by thought alone!!

I’ve just come back from a farm and watched a mustering of cattle. The cattle are aware straight away that the approaching 4 WDs mean trouble. Their eyes dart nervously from side to side, nostrils flare and their skin twitches all over their backs. And they run. A typical flight response. And that’s how it used to be with us humans as well:  cave man needed to react to approaching predators in order to survive.

Now that we’ve moved from the cave into brick houses, furry predators aren’t any longer the issue. But our internal self-talk is. Worry about the future, about bills, partners, bosses, the environment all trigger the fight or flight response. Human beings are the only beings capable of chronic stress. Animals react to a threat, and when the threat is over, the body returns its normal physiological state, which is a balanced state that is most supportive of wellbeing. The heart beat slows down to normal, the blood is no longer prioritised around the limbs and returns to the vital organs, digestion resumes etc.

In chronic stress, the body does not return to the state of homeostasis. [i] In the long term, this will lead to illness. The body cannot maintain prolonged stress levels without detrimental consequences.

What actually is stress? Stress is a reaction to the external world and is triggered by an older part of the brain, the mid-brain or limbic brain. The stress response was designed as an emergency response, not as a chronic state of being.

According to Dr. Joe Dispenza, stress is the No 1 cause that creates disruption in the body. Dr. Dispenza has a degree in biochemistry and specialises in neuroscience and brain function. He states that 74 to 90 % of all people in the western world who attend a health clinic do so as a result of a stress related disease.

When we realise that we experience stress in our life, stress relief becomes our responsibility to ourselves. It is an indispensable component of self-care. There is no two ways about it: prolonged or recurring stress will cause you suffering and illness.

If we accept that our lives are filled with a certain amount of stress, the next step is to accept that stress relief is absolutely vital to our wellbeing. Stress relief requires input from you in some shape or form. Different stressors call for various methods of stress relief.

I will be writing about different forms of stress relief in the coming blog posts. However, here is a video by Dr. Joe Dispenza about the importance of changing your perspective, or – as he calls it – changing your mind: literally that is, neurologically speaking.  If you don’t change your thinking, the resultant emotional state will remain the same and so will your experience:

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In summary then, stress relief is not an option but a necessity for your long-term wellbeing. What type of stress relief you choose is up to you. I urge you not to underestimate the importance of stress relief. What can you do today to alleviate your stress?

 



[i] Human homeostasis is derived from the Greek, homeo or “same”, and stasis or “stable” and means remaining stable or remaining the same.The human body manages a multitude of highly complex interactions to maintain balance or return systems to functioning within a normal range. These interactions within the body facilitate compensatory changes supportive of physical and psychological functioning. This process is essential to the survival of the person and to our species. The liver, the kidneys, and the brain (hypothalamus, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system) help maintain homeostasis. An inability to maintain homeostasis may lead to death or a disease, a condition known as homeostatic imbalance.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_homeostasis

 

 

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

 

What is Stress

 

Stress comes in many different forms and ranges from mild to extreme intensity, as is the case in any crisis situation.

Modern life presents us invariably with a whole gamut of stress factors: pollution, peak hour traffic, road rage, disrespectful behaviour by others, work stress, deadlines, poor sleep patterns, fighting with your spouse or teenager to name but a few. These are external stressors.

Then there are our internal stressors: old wounds, insults, having been wronged or treated unfairly, losses. Old emotional pain locked away in our bodies. Unresolved issues and wounding keeps a good chunk of our attention under wraps. This reduces the amount of creative attention we have available to us to focus on the task at hand, such as a work project. The more locked-away pain we have, the more we feel that we have been wronged by others, life, a colleague or our boss, the lower our stress threshold becomes. It is a vicious cycle. The more stressed we are, the lower our tolerance level for the smaller stressors in our life, such as another driver cutting in on us, minor annoyances or delays. We blow up, get angry, and our resilience for stronger stressors, such as a betrayal or the loss of a relationship, diminishes. The more stressed we are, the more vulnerable we feel.

But there are other ways we stress ourselves: through our thinking. Negative thinking and self-talk, such as I’m not good enough, I don’t have what it takes to …… get the promotion, my dream relationship; and worrisome thoughts about the future cause stress, although nothing external has actually taking place. It is a mental projection into the future. Neuroscience teaches us that thinking alone – coupled with the negative emotions evoked by the negative thoughts – can trigger the fight or flight stress response.

Actually, to be precise, it is not the thoughts as such that trigger stress, but the resultant negative emotions. Any thoughts that don’t cause an emotional reaction will not trigger the fight or flight response.

Evolutionary speaking, the fight or flight response was a beneficial survival mechanism. Modern human beings haven’t been around long enough to alter the fight or flight response. Now it is triggered not just by a predator we need to get away from, as was intended, but by our thoughts alone.

This has very detrimental consequences for our bodies. Our digestion as well as our mental and emotional states suffer, our ability to focus diminishes, our organs endure hardship, and over time we become sick. Many people actually experience stress on a daily basis, with the fight or flight response being triggered.

When my husband fell ill in an extreme crisis situation, with ambulance sirens flaring and life or death surgery, the stress was accordingly extreme. And it stayed extreme over the ensuing eight months of his tragic illness, coupled with repeated surgeries and the not knowing if he would live or not and several against all odds setbacks. I was like an elastic band stretched to its outermost limits. There was no letting up, not even a little loosening of the elastic band. Such continuous, prolonged stress takes a huge toll on the body, who is not designed to withstand a prolonged fight or flight response. The body is out of its equilibrium, ready to run, and other physiological modes such as digestion become secondary. Only they are not meant to be secondary around the clock.

It would have been impossible for me not to be in the fight or flight mode during this extreme life crisis. Faced with the death of my husband my body responded to the crisis, and kept responding for all those months the crisis kept going. I was symbolically chased by a lion.

But we can learn to respond differently to minor and medium stressors and we can address locked-away pain.

 

Our brain cannot tell the difference between an actual event and an envisaged event. Research has shown that a team of basketball players who only ‘practiced’ with basketball computer games off the field and no time on the field where almost as skilled as another team that practiced their game intensely on the field. Such is the power of our mind.


 

 

If you don’t want to become the ‘lunch’ of your own worrisome thinking, and the upsetting emotions this thinking causes, you need to make changes.  

 

What is the way out? Stress relief will be the topic of my next post.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change