Listening to your head, heart, and gut

Guest post by Dr. Shimi Kang

Shimi Kang is an award-winning medical doctor, researcher, and expert on the neuroscience of innovation, leadership, and motivation. Dr. Kang provides science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement in the workplace, classroom, and at home. Dr. Kang is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, best-selling author, and keynote speaker. 

Your many centres of intelligence

Meet Sonia, a high achieving woman and dream employee*. She was known to be kind, hardworking, and responsible. Imagine the shock to her family, friends, workplace, and even herself when she experienced anxiety, poor focus and found herself drastically behind in her professional and personal goals.

Why? Was it the pandemic, work, social media culture, or all the above? The truth is: Sonia didn’t listen to her internal signals that were telling her to change course.

The dangers of stress have been on the radar for a long time. I worked at The World Health Organization in the 1990s when they declared stress a health epidemic of the 21st century1. And the pandemic has only made things worse. Stress, burnout, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and addiction are on the rise2.  

Let’s look deep into the science behind stress, our “three brains” and the three daily activities we all need to navigate our fast-paced, ever-changing, and stressful new world. 

How does stress affect us?

Sonia learned that being too busy, sleep deprived, having fewer real-life social interactions and more social media comparisons all triggered her stress response of “freeze, fight, and flight”

She learned that:

  • Freeze is anxiety, obsessive thinking, procrastination, and indecisiveness
  • Fight is irritability, anger, and rage
  • Flight is any form of mental escape such checking our phones, eating, alcohol/drug use 

Sonia was able to identify her own stress reaction and committed to try to move out of this limited reactive stress state (sympathetic nervous systems) fueled by the molecules of adrenal and cortisol into an interactive growth state (parasympathetic nervous system). Once she was out of stress state and in growth state, Sonia’s mood improved, she had less anxiety, better focus, and she could use her innate and fascinating “human intelligence system” for health, happiness, and success. 

Did you know you have three brains?

Yes, you have more than three brains! You have many centres of intelligence throughout your body.

The human intelligence system is a fascinating and important part of who we are. But many people don’t often stop to think about how they think.

Let’s explore your three main centres of neural networks – your gut brain, heart brain and head brain. Let’s start with the gut brain. 

The Gut brain needs downtime

The human body has a “gut brain” that’s sensitive to the primal emotion of fear and insecurity. That’s why children get tummy aches when they are scared, and adults may experience nausea/loose stools before an important presentation.

When we’re stressed, too busy, or even just “multitasking” (which by the way, does not exist), our nervous system wonders what’s wrong, and why we can’t we rest or focus. Then, it kicks our stress response into gear. 

Moving from stress to growth

Activities such as deep breathing, getting outside in nature, gratitude journaling, mindfulness, and meditation help move our nervous system from stress to growth and release endorphins - neuro-molecules of peace and bliss (yes joy is possible!) Simply understanding the value of downtime, unplugging, and taking a break from life is a good start. Even better is creating daily habits of specific practices that regulate stress and optimize our health, happiness, and performance.

Here are a few habits to develop:

The single most effective way to reduce stress and move from stress mode into growth mode is through slow, deep breathing.

We often get into the habit of shallow breathing, the type that reaches only to our middle lungs. Poor posture, restrictive clothing, and stress can all contribute to shallow chest breathing. But when we breathe slowly and deeply, the baroreceptors in our lungs and diaphragm expand from the pressure of the air. This expansion signals our nervous system that we’re okay, which shuts down the stress response and moves us squarely into growth and recovery mode.

Once you develop a habit of deep breathing, you can do it anywhere: after waking up, before bed, in your car, or anytime you need a moment of grounding, peace and bliss.

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose and breathe out slowly through an open mouth. Whereas a clenched jaw signals stress to our brain, a relaxed, open jaw (as in a yawn) signals safety.
  • When you get the hang of breathing deep and slow, bring the breath slowly into your belly and feel the belly expand. Then, as you exhale, do it slowly and pay attention to how your belly contracts.
  • Start with three breaths and work up to more until you feel fully relaxed. 

Here’s a video on a powerful and easy breathing technique used by the elite US Military Unit, The Navy Seals: Box Breathing. 

Mindfulness means being actively present in the moment by doing one thing at a time. It means being keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings by connecting with your physical senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching—as well as your internal senses of feeling and thinking. Over time, mindfulness will help reprogram your mind to be better focused, healthier, and happier.

When we practice mindfulness, we’re redirecting neural activity from the reactionary part of our brains (the stress system) to the feeling and rational part (the growth system). In doing so, we’re training ourselves to react less to impulses, to slow down, to think and feel before we act.

The opposite of mindfulness is multitasking, the scattering of our attention that leads to stress. When we’re focused, our brain gets the signal that we’re safe, which helps keep us calm and centered. But when we’re distracted, constantly shifting our focus, our brain believes we’re in trouble and will launch the freeze-fight-or-flight response.

Here’s a video on what mindfulness is and how best to start a practice.

In upcoming weeks, we’ll explore optimizing our heart brain through our connection with others and our head brain through play. Stay tuned!

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* The persona of Sonia is a composite for illustration purposes.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of Dr. Kang and do not necessarily represent the views of Manulife.

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