Stress is part and parcel of life, and it has its role. In doses, we build our resilience “muscle”. It’s when there is “too much” stress that it becomes a problem. That is when we cannot adapt to situations with presence and joy. Understanding what stress is on a neural level and what we can do to rewire our brain for more joy circuits can transform our lives.
The question is how do we respond to stress?
From the outside, how we respond to stress looks different. Some people get into a state of hyperarousal or feeling overwhelmed. Others may dissociate, becoming numb to what is going on. We seek comfort and security in a variety of ways, many of which can become addictive and unhealthy. We reach for the hedonic rewards.
How we behave also depends on the encoding and imprinting in early childhood, inherited epigenetics, and any tools we have acquired since.
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
And beneath the surface? Stress adversely impacts the thinking brain. We go into mental loops. We blank out.
That is because stress is processed in the emotional brain. The thinking brain is not in charge; the reptilian and the mammalian brain are. The fight-or-flight brain and the limbic (feeling) brain.
What is a wire?
A wire or a circuit is a chemical and an electrical flow, in which “a string of nerve cells (or neurons).. link together in a particular pattern,” and is formed when each of the 100 billion neurons connects to 100 to 100,000 others.
When a person faces a stimulus, the brain searches for similar past experiences, from which it had already learned a successful/workable response. The more a wire has been aroused, the stronger it becomes. Think “rope.” What fires together wires together. These are the easiest for the brain to find and to trigger. So even without conscious thought, we make decisions and choose responses, based on some past experience that may only vaguely resemble the current situation. How and what is triggered also depends on the level of stress being experienced.
Aside from repetition, as in habits, strong emotions also strengthen a wire. This is because emotions are a response to a need, which underlies our survival and needs are taken seriously.
Every response you have in daily life is just the triggering of a wire.
Laurel Mellin, Wired for Joy
Stress and Joy Circuits
As you may have guessed, we have joy circuits and stress circuits. The major difference in how they function is that joy circuits are homeostatic and a negative feedback loop while stress circuits are allostatic and a positive feedback loop. Homeostasis is about keeping balance through staying constant and making small adjustments. Allostasis keeps the equilibrium through change, the process of response to stressors.
The thing with stress circuits is that it is easy for us, from repeated triggering, to be stuck on it. It is normal for our brain to remember these stress moments, as ways to learn what has worked in the past, for the future, and which then become familiar and therefore comforting. Taking the worse-case scenario and overestimating threats, rather than being laid back, has allowed species to survive to now. The “fittest” in this sense may be the worry nuts.
Positive feedback loops enhance or amplify changes; this tends to move a system away from its equilibrium state and make it more unstable. Negative feedbacks tend to dampen or buffer changes; this tends to hold a system to some equilibrium state making it more stable.
According to Laurel Mellin, the stress circuit is triggered due to a “glitch” in which the brain misjudges the extent of the stimulus/threat and orders up a bigger-than-necessary response. Because the stress circuit is a positive feedback loop, there are no limits to self-correct and return to balance; instead it is prolonged and intense. We have all been set off by one seemingly small event and stayed pissed off and irritable the rest of the day or even longer. This is the positive feedback loop of the stress circuit in action.
The question is how do we rewire our brain for stronger joy circuits?
What are Joy Points?
In Emotional Brain Training (EBT), Joy Points are “moments of pleasures, feel-good moments from surges of neurotransmitters in your pleasure pathways.” The part of the brain associated with feeling positive emotions, the left prefrontal cortex, is activated by these neurotransmitters which also act to dampen that of the right prefrontal cortex which is associated with negative emotions.
Why is it healthy to score Joy Points?
Our thinking brain, or the neocortex, is complex, highly analytical, and capable of abstract thought, with the prefrontal cortex being associated with consciousness.
Under stress it becomes inflexible and does not function optimally. We cannot think ourselves out of stressful situations. We revert to old patterns and instead of “we” it is me-centred behaviour.
Unless we have tools to rewire our brains for more joy and a more conscious response to the situation. Or we have been wired for resilience and have a secure attachment to self in early life.
Scoring Joy Points is one such emotional tool. to rewire our brain. (EBT has a variety of tools, depending on which brain state someone is in to leverage the differences in these brain states for the best results.)
Joy points build joy circuits, which strengthen our joy response. They can help us move through pain and times of stress and distress. They help us feel good! “Joy is the optimal state of physiology” with neural integration, high brain fitness, and surges of pleasure in the body. The more we score Joy Points the more our brain sees joy, instead of stress, as the default and comfortable state of being. The brain likes the same and familiar, over change. Why not make joy the familiar? Why not rewire the brain for more joy circuits?
How to score Joy Points and Rewire Our Brain for more Joy?
Start with observing your breath. Focus on the breath and the body. Then use the “Body at 1” technique – head up, relaxed, and shoulders back, a posture that signals your brain that you are feeling well. Next invite in a thought or a feeling of compassion, love, connection, and being nurtured.
Because these are survival needs, you will be rewarded with dopamine, which happens to enforce our survival. This surge of neurotransmitter is a reward for the brain, which is reward-based and thus strengthens the joy circuits. Check for the Relaxation Response in your body.
You can score Joy Points throughout the day and build up a a bank of these memories to have them easily accessible. The more we strengthen our joy circuits, the more we weaken our stress circuits. This is one way we can rewire our brain.