Stress as Pain Relief

Stress can alleviate pain – perhaps the only good thing about it most would suppose. This “stress-induced analgesia” shields the body from pain after a serious injury and acts as a protective mechanism. Long known to operate through a mechanism in which the body releases its own naturally occurring cannabinoids, recent research indicates the action of the stress hormone noradrenaline as an additional mechanism.

Processes that mediate the emotional and stress-related aspects of pain originate in the amygdala and are controlled by neurons that originate in the brainstem and are regulated by noradrenaline. Noradrenaline appears to modulate pain inputs in the amygdala by limiting neuro transmissions (the mechanism by which one neuron triggers a nerve impulse in another) from the brainstem.

This protective response is akin to other amygdala and brainstem-mediated survival responses – sleep deprivation and increase in emotional response, handling surprise, and the focus of attention on emotion among many. It is useful.

To reiterate a point – understanding of our brain’s physiological processes allows us to manage behaviours without reducing their protective effectiveness. For example, anger has survival benefits. Yet anger also flairs at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. A mistaken run up the ladder of inference produces a threat response where none is warranted. It is times like these when the brain’s physiological responses are appropriate but the situation that prompted them is not. And it is this cognitive management without the loss of emotional richness and survival protection that is one ongoing aspect of coaching TED.

Link: How Stress Alleviates Pain

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Men and Women Cope Differently under Stress

How do you deal with stress?  University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researcher Dr. J. J. Wang, Assistant Professor or Radiology and Neurology, reports that the brains of men and women respond differently to performance stressors.

In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased cerebral blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex and reduction of cerebral blood flow in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system — a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion — was activated when they were under stress.  Men had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as opposed to women.
In simpler terms, men exhibited typical “fight or flight” responses while women were found to exhibit a more nurturing “tend and befriend” type of behaviour.  One potential from the study –

“Women have twice the rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,” notes Dr. Wang. “Knowing that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than in men, may help us begin to explain the gender differences in the incidence of mood disorders.”

As to coaching – factoring this difference into personal coaching is congruent with a variety of techniques in team dynamics and other interpersonal situations.

Link: ScienceDaily

Somewhere over the Brainbow . . .

. . . Neurons are blue, and red, and green and some 87 other colors.  Neuroscientists at Harvard University have developed a methodology for using fluorescent proteins to color individual neurons within the brain.  Using a well-known recombinent system known as Cre/lox scientists have been able to build a transgene from portions of DNA, insert it into mouse DNA and cause the switching on of flourescent protein genes.  The technology allows researchers to see the individual neurons and connections of the brain in unparalled technicolor detail.

Brainbow Image by Tamily Weissman

Link: ScienceDaily

Angry? Get a little Sleep

Sleep deprivation causes the emotional centers tied to the amygdala to become quite a bit more active. 

“It’s almost as though, without sleep, the brain had reverted back to more primitive patterns of activity, in that it was unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses,” said Matthew Walker, director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory and senior author of the study, which is to be published in the journal Current Biology.

This lack of sleep was found to increase amygdala emotional response by over 60%.  It also caused the brain to first connect to the ocus coeruleus, the oldest part of the brain which releases noradrenalin to ward off imminent threats to survival, rather than to the prefrontal cortex. 

This has a certain logic.  A tired animal needs to react quickly to survive.  But, as humans, we need to be able to cognitively assess all situations and this neurological predisposition leads to increased volatility in emotional responses such as anger.  Worse, it increases the likelihood of making inappropriate responses to situations – doing things that we would normally not do in a rested state.

Bottom line – make sure that a coachee is rested before having a heart-to-heart.  And when that is not possible, be prepared to factor in the extra emotional response.

Link:  ScienceDaily

Greed is Counter Productive, but Feels Good

The brain acts as a complex choreography of cooperating physiological structures and process systems. Many distinct brain systems work together to solve complex problems. Our goal-oriented behavior involves at least two systems. Another network manages cognitive reserve. There is the distinction between left and right brain processing as well as the interactions between emotional and cognitive systems and structures. Surprise and attraction/aversion involve cooperating networks. And it all works together seamlessly for the most part.

Sometimes working seamlessly doesn’t mean working for our best interests. We can distinguish between our reflective (thinking) and reflexive (emotion and reward-seeking) brains. The reflective brain “thinks.” The reflexive brain “reacts.” One continuing aspect of coaching involves managing the reactions of our reflexive brain so that it networks well with its reflective side in ways that support our best interests. This is “coaching Ted” – not always an easy task.

One reason is that some actions and the thinking behind them just plain feel good – even when they prove detrimental to us and our reflective selves know it. A recent example is found in David Zweig’s book on investing, Your Money & your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics can make you Rich. Zweig finds that “Making money feels good, all right; it just doesn’t feel as good as expecting to make money. In a cruel irony that has enormous implications for financial behavior, your investing brain comes equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.” Which sets up a physiological basis for greed – the behavior feels better than the result which loops to feed more of the behavior.Overcoming such behavior (and coaching to do so) involves saying “no” in a manner that proves stronger than the good feeling. There are many productive strategies for doing so, ranging from the personal accountability of partners and self-help groups to alternative rewards. At their heart they involve bringing reflexive behaviors under the control of our cognitive selves. And that’s easier said than done.

The Brain and Surprise

Hate surprises or love them?  Our brains handle surprises and attraction and aversion (valence in techno speak) in different ways.  The amygdala processes emotional responses and a new study indicates that two distinctly differing sets of neurons within it respond to either reward or aversion.  And not only that, but that the expectation of reward or aversion also triggers these networks of neurons.  The speculation is that the intensity of reward and aversion effect is intensified by surprise and that neural circuitry is required to process both surprise and the degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feels towards specific events.

Link:  ScienceDaily

The Great Dualism

We’re not talking here about THE great dualism (being and non-being), but about the great dualistic argument between thinking and emotion that is always going on in our heads. The argument goes back and forth thusly – I think this, but I feel that. This battle between thought and emotion remains one of the great management issues in our personal lives – and in the work of coaches.

The problem is that emotion has such a primacy in our hardwiring that we must often take great pains just to bring our more “rational” side to the table as it were. I have flashes of emotion that can instantly bring my whole body into sync with an emotional state. I have yet to have a flash of cognition that does the same.

This is important because I need to recognize my filters if I want to change something in my thinking or my actions. In terms of the Ladder of Inference the battle looks something like this:

  1. Something happens in the Real World.
  2. I select “data” from that event. The great dualism begins for me at the conscious level here, even though a great deal of processing has already been going on “beneath” my consciousness. The great battle begins over what I think about the event – and how I feel about the event. I select data, typically from both camps.
  3. I add meaning to this event from my culture and my personality. The great battle rages between intellectual meaning and emotional meaning. Emotional meaning carries more force unless I aggressively manage it.
  4. I now make some assumptions from this meaning that I’ve added. The great battle continues. I make immediate assumptions based on my visceral feelings. I make what I hope are fairly objective assumptions based on reason.
  5. I draw some conclusions. I hope I’m being fairly logical. I also hope I’m in touch with how I feel and why.
  6. From these conclusions I adopt some beliefs. I think this, therefore I believe that. I feel this, therefore I believe something else.
  7. I finally take actions based on these beliefs. Either passionately, coldly and rationally, or some combination of both.

That’s a pretty quick and basic thumbnail view. And of course, we’re not even addressing drives and gene expression and the other basic parts of Ted that influence our behaviors.

The point to keep in mind, both about ourselves and others, is that this great dualistic battle is always raging, and that it takes a bit of effort to keep one side from dominating the other. That’s why we have family and friends. That’s why there are coaches.