Pursue What Matters
Episode 175: Coping & the Brain-Body Connection
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Think of a baby that’s tired. If a parent mistakes tiredness for hunger, the parents well intentioned attempts to help the baby totally backfire, resulting in greater distress and frustration for both parent and baby. This is how coping works. We may be doing things to help ourselves, right? We’re very well intentioned, but we fail to recognize how our attempts to help ourselves are mismatched with our needs. So we want to change that today, we are going to help you target your coping for more effectiveness.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:33
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So hopefully, you joined me last week, where I gave you a primer on your brain on stress. So we talked about three keys to understanding the brain, we talked about the four regions of the brain, and some of their basic functions. We talked about why that matters, right? Because understanding what’s happening in your brain can help you better integrate stress and cope effectively for greater resilience and well being. And then we also talked about the tree of regulation, and how inputs from our body and from the world work together with these core neural regulatory networks to really work towards getting our body back to equilibrium after facing a stressor. And so it’s really helpful to understand the brain body connection, as it has such a big impact on our functioning and our well being. And so when you better understand this connection, you can better help yourself. So you know, I get geeky about stress, I think stress has gotten a bad rap. And it’s important to remember that stress is an essential and positive part of normal development. So it’s how we learn how we master new skills and how we build resilience. And so if you haven’t, if you haven’t listened to last week’s podcast, I would recommend that because it really goes through how the brain is organized and how your brain communicates with the body. And so today, we’re going to focus on what makes the difference in determining if stress is positive or destructive to your health, right, because I’ve just made the case that I talked about all the time that stress is not a problem, but it certainly can be. And that really depends on how we make sense of the stress and what we do to help ourselves in the face of stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:50
And so the key here today is looking at the pattern of our stress. And every week with a podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in what in one of three areas. So leading with clarity connect, and that helps you to connect with purpose, leading with curiosity, which is all about developing self awareness and self reflection, which is what we’re really focusing on today. And then reading and building a community, which is where we really think about those leadership and communication skills to help us lead well. And so again, today, primarily, we’re focusing on leading with curiosity, developing good self awareness to understand what’s happening in your body so that you can help yourself. And so let’s start. We’re going to talk about three key points today.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:39
And so the first point is looking at your pattern of stress. So what is your pattern of stress? And so a lot of what I’m talking about today comes from the work of Dr. Bruce de Perry. Now this is covered in his book with Oprah Winfrey, entitled, What happened to you? So it’s a really great resource. I think the way that he speaks about trauma and stressors and resilience is really very helpful. So the question right, do you understand your pattern of stress? Do you know what predictively sets you off when it comes to life’s challenges? And do you know predictably, what can help you settle down after facing a stressor? Again, remembering that stress is a normal part of life, but the long term effects of stress really depend on your pattern of stress activation. And so there are two two patterns of stress activation that we really want to pay attention to. The first one is an unpredictable pattern of activation. Of course, the second one is a predictable pattern of activation. And so let’s first look at this unpredictable activation of the stress response system. So as you might imagine, this isn’t very good for us. So when the stress response system is activated in unpredictable, extreme or pro Long ways, the systems become overactive and overly reactive. And so when a word I want you to think about your stress response system becomes sensitized.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:11
So the sensitized stress response system over time leads to functional vulnerability, it reaches all parts of the brain and body. And there’s a cascade of risk in our emotional health, our social health, our mental health, and our physical health. And so when our stress response system becomes sensitized through unpredictable extreme and prolonged activation, that’s where we really start to look at significant risks from stress. So what happens with this sensitized stress response is that it leads to more sensitization over time, which means you overtime, you become more vulnerable to the effects of stressors. Of course, we all want that for you. So that’s, you know, what we’re going to talk about what to do about that, but that’s unpredictable activation. And then the second form of activation is predictable activation. So as you might guess, this is something that’s, that’s positive and can be managed. So stress response systems activated in predictable, moderate and controllable ways, such as what you see in developmentally appropriate challenges, in education, sport, music, work, all of that leads to stronger, more flexible stress response capability, this leads to tolerance instead of sensitization right over time. So it leads to tolerance over time, which means you are more resilient in the face of stressors. And so in a very real way, you get better at stress, which is a topic that I have talked about before on the podcast. So this is really the path to resilience. And so just, you know, recognizing that, you know, do you do, you seem to have an unpredictable activation pattern or a predictable activation? And then you know, what does this mean? And the truth is that none of us have perfect control over our patterns of stress, right, the truth is bad things happen.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:08
Trauma is a thing, we face big challenges all the time, that stretch us and really force us to respond. And so if you recognize that you might have some features of this unpredictable activation, where it’s like, gosh, you feel really fragile, in the face of stress. Look at we want to look at what you can do to bring more predictability to a situation. Sometimes that is through your breathing, right. Sometimes that is through, you know, holding your hands together, that those activities bring comfort, bring calm, they access the various regions of your brain to help to bring bring about equilibrium and regulation, even in the face of an unpredictable activation. And so we want to think about how we can bring more predictability to the situation. And this is where coping skills come in. To help us make sense of the senseless. We want to connect to others who may be able to bring perspective, we want to get to safety, to avoid additional harm. And we want to understand that threat to normalcy, and get professional help, especially if it’s a prolonged activation. And so when you know we can’t necessarily save or save ourselves from unpredictable activation, because life happens, right? Like we get in car accidents, we get in arguments, but we want to think about how you can bring more predictability to the situation. And that is through your use of coping skills, perspective, love and connection and support. And then when it comes to predictable activation, we want you to embrace challenges, right? So do hard things take on challenges that move you to growth in predictable, moderate and controllable ways. And so when we think about predictable, right, you can anticipate what may be involved in a season of soccer, right that, yeah, it’s going to be challenging, and you can’t anticipate everything. But generally speaking, we kind of know what the season is going to look like in terms of time commitment, game schedule, that sort of thing. We also want predictable activation that’s moderate. So we want challenges that are in keeping with your developmental level. So we don’t want you jumping off a cliff if you’re not ready for that. This is really important when it comes to kids.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:36
So we want to stretch kids, but we want that to be within their window of development so that it is a stretch, but there’s a reasonable assurance that they can have success. Because if we’re giving them extreme challenges, where there’s a high likelihood of failure that really undermines the healthy development of self worth Are and self efficacy. So we want to be careful about that. We also want to think about that with ourselves as adult, right? Think about moderate challenges. And I think this is where really having a good understanding of yourself, and where you’re at in space and time can make a big difference, because we’re not always up to the same challenges that we faced at other times, right? We have risk factors. And we have protective factors, right. So we have vulnerability factors and protective factors. And, you know, depending on, you know, the challenges that that you’re currently facing, you may not want to add another big one to your plate, because that might throw you out of your window of tolerance. And, and, you know, really undermine your stress coping and lead to more of the unpredictable activation and the sensitization then tolerance. So we do want to respect where we’re at, at a given place and time. And then you know, another way so we we think about predictable, moderate, and controllable. So, when it comes to controllable activation, we think about having a framework of support boundaries and intervention to ensure that a stressor doesn’t overwhelm. So we think about, you know, let’s think about our soccer example, right? There’s a framework of support boundaries that are rules, there’s an association, there are coaches, there are parents, so that, you know, if someone’s going to extreme, we have a support system that helps to bring that back into line alignment, right. And we have some control in that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:34
So that, you know, the soccer can be beneficial and not just overwhelming in terms of that stress impact. And so those are ways that we can help ourselves with our with predictability around activation. And then the last thing that I want to talk about is three R’s to help you cope effectively with stress. And again, this comes to us there are some resources here from Dr. Perry. So as we talked about the three R’s. This is really where understanding brain structure and organization helps you to help yourself and others when stress activation systems are lighting up. So everything we talked about last week, we’re really going to be applying here. So when you are struggling to cope with stress, it’s important to start with the basics. So I want you to think about the base of the brain.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:27
So last week, I talked about imagining the brain as an upside down triangle in your head, right, and at the top of the triangle, right, the base of the triangle, the very top of your head is where we have the higher order functioning, right, that’s the cortex. And then moving down, we have the limbic, and then we have the die in Cephalon. And then we have the brainstem. And so when you’re struggling to cope with stress, we want to start with basics. The basics are at the base of the brain, right, those simpler, more automatic functions. Because if you try to intervene at a higher level, right, so let’s say you’ve just been challenged by a big stressor, and use you or someone else comes in and tries to reason with you, you know, you really shouldn’t be that upset about it, it’s not that big of a deal. In five years, you’re not going to care about this, let me tell you, that will backfire, you will only become more dysregulated. Okay. And so this leads to the incoming input from our brain and our surroundings being short circuited, and it result in inefficient distorted input to the cortex, right, we don’t want that we want accurate information getting to the cortex. But when we miss a light or mismatch, our coping with our level of activation, we really run the risk of this. And so you know, we have these inputs that become distorted. And when it reaches your cortex, because those inputs are distorted, we have poor problem solving, right. And that contributes to our stress activation system, becoming sensitized, where we become less effective coping with stress. And so this is known as the sequence of engagement. And so this is what Dr. Perry talks about. And it’s really important to take is the idea that it’s really important to take care of First things first, with our basic functions at the base of the brain, before trying to process stress with the more advanced functions at the top of the brain. And so this is where we’re going to talk about the three R’s. So the first RS regulate the second RS relate, and the third R is reason. Now I want you to picture that upside down triangle that we talked about last week.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:46
Regulate happens in the at the bottom of the brain where we have that upside down triangle. So this is where we’re thinking about the brainstem and the diencephalon. That’s where we’re working Heat or regulate. And if you think about the functions of those parts of the brain, that makes total sense. So it’s cardiac temperature, respiration, it’s sleep, it’s arousal, it’s appetite, it’s movement. And so that’s, that makes a lot of sense that we’re focusing first on regulate. And then second, once we’re regulated, right, we move to relate, which moves us up in the brain to the limbic region. So if you remember, the limbic region is all about memory and emotion, reward system, bonding, attachment connection. So relate, makes a lot of sense. In terms of the limbic system, and we think about relate, we think about connection, we think about soothing, we think about comfort, and empathy from others and ourselves. And then the third R is reason. And this is where we get to that highest level of functioning in the brain at the top of the brain, the cortex, right, the base of the triangle. And so this is where after we’ve had some regulation, after we’ve been able to receive some comfort, it makes a lot of sense to bring in some reasoning, we’re more prepared for that. This is where we can examine the stories we’re telling ourselves, this is where we can bring in perspective, this is where we can bring in empathy for others who maybe even have harmed us, which that can feel like a stretch. And so don’t rush it. But that can be helpful, that you bring in your higher order, executive functioning, to help you make sense of what happened, it doesn’t mean it should have happened, it doesn’t mean you know that we absolve people of their responsibility. But this is absolutely designed to help you cope, to help you bring your brain and your body back into equilibrium so that you don’t have this chronic heightened stress response. And so you know, if you don’t have some regulation on board, it’s really difficult to connect with another person. And without connection, there’s minimal reasoning.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:00
So these three R’s really work together, but we have to respect First things first, that is regulate, relate, and then reason. So the sequence really matters, and it will help your coping efforts become more effective and efficient over time. Because you can ask yourself, what do I need here, and sometimes it’s like, okay, well, I’m not breathing, or I’ve got really shallow breaths, or My head is killing me. And I recognize that that’s a sign that I’m taking really shallow breaths, you’re going to target regulation immediately. And if you’re not sure, start with regulation, that is always a safe bet. And so any kind of effective therapy, education, training, coaching, parenting, anything that we do in life, like that requires aware and awareness of, and adherence to the sequence of engagement. Remember my example, at the top of the podcast when we talk about a tired baby, and if a parent does not have awareness, and adherence to that sequence of engagement, you know, mom or dad might try and stuff some food into a tired babies now, and it leads to more dysregulation. more upset for for all involved. And so, you know, these are really basic skills that sometimes we overlook. And I think, you know, some of these we attuned to naturally, which is really great. But I think when it comes to our own coping, if we’re not careful, we can overlook the importance of this sequence in helping ourselves. And so you know, just another example, we think about a toddler throwing a tantrum, right? If you try to start with reasoning with them during a tantrum, like, tell me how that goes, right? Like, that’s not going to go well, at all right, both parties become more dysregulated upset, and the meltdown intensifies. So instead of moving straight to reasoning, like a, like an adult with executive functioning on board would maybe be inclined to do and let me tell you, the more educated, the smarter you are as a parent, the more likely you want to go to raise money. And you know, if the toddler will let you know how effective that is. It’s not it’s totally ineffective. So instead, we want to take care of first things first. So we think about this toddler with a meltdown. Let’s help you breathe, settle down the heart rate. Let’s take a timeout.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:29
It’s really important with timeouts like I think these are great tool for all of us. Young or old. It’s important that the timeout is not seen as punishment, but it’s really seen as just what I say a timeout, it’s a chance for everyone to just calm down collect themselves, slow down their breathing. This is such an excellent tool for facilitating regulation. So I used to tease I still tease about it. That you know when life got challenging, you know, got three kids making all sorts of demands and me lots of demanding work, what I would say is like I have a three door barrier, if my closet were tight, I can close three doors, and have a little timeout for myself, right. So whether that’s, you know, crying in the fetal position or working on breathing or just feeling frustrated, right, we all need a timeout, from time to time to calm down. And so, you know, having having a place and space for that I have a timeout space in my office, that might sound really weird, but it’s not, it’s so helpful. Because I know when I go to that particular spot in my office, I’m trying to help myself regulate, I’m trying to slow down, I’m really focused on breathing and slowing myself down so that I can then think clearly through a situation. And so right, if we go back to this toddler, once we have the regulation, right, so once maybe kiddo and parent have both had a timeout and are more regulated, then you can move to that second R, which is relate. So maybe mom or dad can say, Boy, I understand why you were so upset, you know, you were excited to go play in the sprinklers. I’m sorry, you didn’t understand the situation. And this is where we really bring in love connection. And making amends right at don’t underestimate the the power of affection, right, we know oxytocin is released with physical touch. And right in those moments with relate, we want to be seen, we want to be acknowledged, we want the other person to acknowledge, you know that that was upsetting or that you know, this a difficult thing to cope with. And being able to acknowledge that does not make your loved one weak, it just acknowledges the stressor that they’re facing. And it actually helps to make them more resilient.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:49
So you don’t need to be stingy with your love and care in those moments. And then finally, right, like, once we’re, once we are a little more regulated, and we’ve been able to relate and receive come some comfort, we could maybe find a path to reason, even with a two year old, right? So what do we want to do when this kind of situation comes up again? Right? So if we’re in a situation, you don’t understand it? What can we do? Like? Is there a little bit of like, is there a little question or a little hand signal that you could make, one of the things that we did with one of our kiddos who was pretty prone to tantrums. When the child was younger, is we came up with some specific cueing, like we had just a little a little saying from one of the TV shows that this kiddo like and when we could see that this kid’s temperature was raising, right like moving into tantrum mode, we would very gently, you know, kind of neutral voice, use this cue to help this child build a little more awareness of what was happening inside, inside this kiddos, body. And it really was powerful because it helped to create an intervention before there was a full meltdown right before this kiddo lost any power to reason or to relate. And so some simple cueing or another skill of like, we’re just going to hold hands when we don’t understand each other. And we’re going to take a few minutes to just, you know, calm down and really consider the the situation at hand. It really can act as a reset, to help with regulation. And then of course, relating and being able to reason. And so, you know, a common mistake, I think I mentioned this when we are when we are the loved one is we move to reason too quickly, right? We say it’s not a big deal, you’ll be fine, move on. Because to you, it might not be a big deal to you, you might have perspective to you, you might see the path ahead. But you’ve got to remember when your loved one is in the middle of a significant stressor. Right.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:57
One of the features of that is that we lose perspective, and coming in when they’re dysregulated. And trying to give them that perspective is less helpful. There’s a time for it for sure. But that’s not the time instead, right? So so what happens when you come into reason too quickly is you are you’re misaligned with where your loved one is that you’re missing where they’re at. And oftentimes what I see with folks is that reasoning, we move to reasoning, because the emotion is uncomfortable for us, right? We don’t like to see our loved ones suffer. We don’t like to see our loved one in pain. And yet, we try and move to reason too quickly and we leave our loved one behind and leave them alone in their pain where they feel more alone, more misunderstood. And so it’s really important as a loved one to meet your loved one where they are at. Right so if it’s like okay, let’s take a few minutes to calm down together right don’t ever tell your loved one to calm down. That will also backfire on you. But let’s work together for soothing, and connection. And then you know, you need to trust that there will be a time for relating and reasoning, but regulation needs to happen first.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:12
So, you know, it wasn’t too long ago actually, you know, was had, you know, some challenging news. And I was right, like, I was really upset about it. And I reached out to my guy, friend, and He’s great. He’s so, so great. But he also like, jumped to reason pretty quickly, right. And we we met up for lunch a little while after that. And it was good, right? Because we were able to relate and spend that time together. And as I was, you know, trying to kind of give voice to some of my concern, one of the things I said is, I said, I think what I really needed was a hug in that moment, right? And he’s like, oh, like, I can totally do that. Like, I didn’t need him to problem solve, I didn’t need him to bring perspective. And in fact, you know, the problem solving that he was recommending, like, I had already taken those steps. So it, you know, often it’s not that we need answers from other people, we need connection, we need them to acknowledge the pain and the difficulty of our situation. And so even having, loving, right, loving conversations about that in terms of like, what you need, as you develop more awareness can really help your loved one.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:19
So they’re not scrambling in the dark, you know, trying to be helpful, but unwittingly may be, you know, Miss misaligning with you. And so, again, it’s important to remember that there’s an order to those three R’s, right, first is regulation. So regulate, second is relate, and third is reason. So I hope this really helps you to understand the three R’s and your pattern of stress activation. And I hope you will join me next week, because we’re going to do a deep dive into the three R’s. And we’re going to provide examples of each of the three R’s to really help you match up your stress coping to your specific needs. So I’m gonna have lots of examples for you then. In the meantime, meantime, head on over to my website to check out the show notes with all the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/175-brainbodyconnection. One more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com/175-brainbodyconnection. I’d love to hear from you on Instagram @dr.melissasmith. I have lots of additional resources from each of the podcasts. And I’d love to hear what you think of what you’re hearing. So in the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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