From Feel Better Fast and Make It Last: Unlock Your Brain’s Healing Potential to Overcome Negativity, Anxiety, Anger, Stress, and Trauma by Daniel G. Amen
It was 6:30 in the morning in the busy emergency room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. I was just putting on my white lab coat as I walked through the doors to the unit. It was my third day as an intern, and the emergency room would be my home for the next month. Down the hall from me, a woman was screaming. Curious, I went to see what was going on.
Beth, a 40-year-old patient, was lying on a gurney with a swollen right leg. She was in obvious pain and screamed whenever anyone touched her leg. Bruce, a brand-new psychiatry intern like me, and Wendy, the internal medicine chief resident, were trying to start an IV in Beth’s foot. She was anxious, scared, uncooperative, and hyperventilating. A blood clot in her calf was causing this tremendous swelling. The IV was necessary so Beth could be sent to the X-ray department for a scan that would show exactly where the clot was, allowing surgeons to operate and remove it. With each stick of the IV needle to her swollen foot, Beth’s screams became louder. Wendy was obviously frustrated and irritated, and sweat started to roll down her temples.
“Calm down!” she snapped at the patient.
Beth looked scared and confused. There was a lot of tension in the room.
Wendy paged the surgeon on call. She paced during the several minutes it took for him to get back to her. When the phone rang, Wendy quickly answered it, saying, “I need you to come to the ER right away. I need you to do a ‘cut down’ on a patient’s foot. It looks like she has a blood clot in her leg, and we need to start an IV before sending her to X-ray. Her foot is swollen, and she’s being difficult!”
Wendy listened for a few moments and then said, “What do you mean you can’t come for an hour? This has got to be done right away. I’ll do it myself.” She cursed as she slammed down the phone.
Hearing this, Beth looked even more panicked.
Being new, I didn’t want to say anything, especially because I had heard of Wendy’s reputation for harassing interns, but I hated to see Beth in pain. This is going to be an interesting day, I thought to myself. I took a deep breath.
“Wendy, can I try to start the IV?” I asked softly.
She glared at me, and with a tone that was both sarcastic and condescending, she said, “Your name is Amen, right? I’ve been starting IVs for five years. What makes you think you’re so special? But if you want to try and look stupid, hotshot, go for it.” She rudely tossed the IV set at me and left the room. I motioned to Bruce to shut the door.
The first thing I did was walk around the gurney to Beth’s head and establish eye contact with her. I gave her a gentle smile. Wendy had been yelling at Beth from the other end of the gurney, at her feet.
“Hi, Beth, I’m Dr. Amen. I need you to slow down your breathing. When you breathe too quickly, all of the blood vessels constrict, making it impossible for us to find a vein. Breathe with me.” I slowed my own breathing, thinking that Wendy was going to kill me when I finished.
“Do you mind if I help you relax?” I asked. “I know some tricks.”
“Okay,” Beth said nervously.
“Look at that spot on the ceiling,” I said, pointing to a spot overhead. “I want you to focus on it and ignore everything else in the room . . . I’m going to count to 10, and as I do, let your eyes feel very heavy. Only focus on the spot and the sound of my voice. 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . let your eyes feel very heavy . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . let your eyes feel heavier still . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 . . . your eyes are feeling very heavy and want to close . . . 9 . . . 10 . . . let your eyes close, and keep them closed.
“Very good,” I said as Beth closed her eyes. “I want you to breathe very slowly, very deeply, and only pay attention to the sound of my voice. Let your whole body relax, from the top of your head all the way down to the bottoms of your feet. Let your whole body feel warm, heavy, and very relaxed. Now I want you to forget about the hospital and imagine yourself in the most beautiful park you can imagine. See the park —the grass, the hillside, a gentle brook, beautiful trees. Hear the sounds in the park —the brook flowing, the birds singing, a light breeze rustling the leaves in the trees. Smell and taste the freshness in the air. Feel the sensations in the park —the light breeze on your skin, the warmth of the sun.”
All of the tension in the room had evaporated. Wendy popped her head in the room, but Bruce put his index finger to his lips and motioned for her to leave. She rolled her eyes and quietly shut the door.
“Now I want you to imagine a beautiful pool in the middle of the park,” I continued. “It is filled with special, warm healing water. In your mind, sit on the edge of the pool and dangle your feet in it. Feel the warm water surround your feet. You are doing really great.”
Beth had gone into a deep trance.
I went on. “Now I know this might sound strange, but many people can actually make their blood vessels pop up if they direct their attention to them. With your feet in the pool, allow the blood vessels in your feet to pop up so that I can put an IV in one and you can get the help you need, still allowing your mind to stay in the park and feel very relaxed.”
In medical school, I took a monthlong elective in hypnosis. I had watched a film of an Indian psychiatrist who put a patient in a hypnotic trance and had her dilate a vein in her hand. The doctor stuck a needle through the vein and then removed it, causing blood to flow out of both sides of the vein. Next, at the doctor’s suggestion, the patient stopped the bleeding, first on one side of the vein and then the other. It was one of the most amazing feats of self-control I had ever seen. Beth’s situation reminded me of the film. In truth, I had no expectation that she would actually be able to dilate the vein in her foot.
To my great surprise, the moment I made the suggestion, a vein clearly appeared on top of Beth’s swollen foot. I gently slipped the needle into the vein and attached it to the bag of IV fluid. Bruce’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what he had just seen.
“Beth,” I said softly, “you can stay in this deep relaxed state as long as you need. You can go back to the park anytime you want.”
Bruce and I wheeled Beth to X-ray.
When I returned to the unit an hour later, Wendy gave me a hostile look, but I smiled inside.
With the right plan, you can feel better fast and make it last, even when you are in the midst of an emotional or physical crisis. That is why I have provided the following emergency rescue plan, which includes the techniques I used to help calm Beth —hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery —among others. Before we get to the plan, it is critical to understand how your brain and body work in a crisis, especially as it relates to your emergency alarm system —the fight-or-flight response.
THE FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT STRESS RESPONSE
The fight-or-flight response is hardwired into our bodies to help us survive. It is mobilized into action whenever a stress appears, such as what happened to Beth in the emergency room. Harvard physiology professor Walter Cannon first described the fight-or-flight response in 1915. He said it was the body’s reaction to an acute stress, harmful event, or threat to survival, such as experiencing an earthquake or being robbed —or having the chief resident scream at you while she is poking you with a needle. Acute stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares you to either put up a fight or flee a dangerous situation. The fight-or-flight response is triggered by
- the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobes that is part of the limbic or emotional brain, which sends a signal to
- the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which signals
- the adrenal glands, on the top of the kidneys, to flood the body with cortisol, adrenaline, and other chemicals to rocket you into action.
The fight-or-flight response is part of a larger system in the body called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It is called “autonomic” because its processes are largely automatic, unconscious, and out of our control, unless we train it otherwise (more on that coming up). It contains two branches that counterbalance each other: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both regulate heart rate, digestion, breathing rate, pupil response, muscle tension, urination, and sexual arousal. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is involved in activating the fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps to reset and calm our bodies.
Our very survival depends upon the fight-or-flight response, as it helps move us to action when there is a threat. But when stress becomes chronic, such as if you live in a war zone, grow up in an unpredictable alcoholic home, are sexually molested over time, or wet your bed and wake up every morning in a panic, your sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. When that happens, you are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, panic attacks, headaches, cold hands and feet, breathing difficulties, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, digestive problems, immune system issues, erectile dysfunction, and problems with attention and focus.
In his groundbreaking book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out that for animals such as zebras, stress is generally episodic (e.g., running away from a lion) and their nervous systems evolved to rapidly reset. By contrast, for humans, stress is often chronic (e.g., daily traffic, a difficult marriage, job or money worries). Sapolsky argued that many wild animals are less susceptible than humans to chronic stress-related illnesses such as ulcers, hypertension, depression, and memory problems. He did write, however, that chronic stress occurs in some primates (Dr. Sapolsky studies baboons), specifically individuals on the lower end of the social dominance hierarchy.
In humans, one big stress (such as being robbed, raped, or in a fire) or multiple smaller stressors (such as fighting with your spouse or children on a regular basis) can turn on a chronic fight-or-flight state in the body, leading to mental stress and physical illness. But you can learn to quiet your SNS and activate the PNS, which will lead you to feel calmer, happier, and less stressed. Improving the PNS is associated with lower blood pressure, more stable blood sugar, and better energy, immunity, and sleep.
THE FEEL BETTER FAST RESPONSE
After I finished my psychiatric training in 1987, I was stationed at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert. Halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Fort Irwin was also known as the National Training Center —the place where our soldiers were taught to fight the Russians (and later others) in the desert. At the time, I was the only psychiatrist for 4,000 soldiers and a similar number of their family members. It was considered an isolated assignment. There were problems with domestic violence, drug abuse (especially amphetamine abuse), depression, and stress-related ailments from living in the middle of nowhere. I dealt with many people who suffered from headaches, anxiety attacks, insomnia, and excessive muscle tension.
Shortly after arriving at Fort Irwin, I went through the cabinets in the community mental health clinic, which was housed in a World War II Quonset hut, to see what helpful tools had been left behind by my predecessors. To my delight, I found an old biofeedback temperature trainer. Biofeedback is based on the idea that if you get immediate feedback on the physiological processes in your body, such as hand temperature, breathing, or heart rate, you can learn to change them through mental exercise. I had attended one biofeedback lecture during my psychiatric training, so I dusted off the old machine and started using it with patients who had migraine headaches. My staff and I taught them how to warm their hands using only their imaginations. Hand warming triggered an immediate parasympathetic relaxation response, which significantly decreased their migraine pain. It was fascinating to see how patients could raise their hand temperature with their minds, sometimes by as much as 15 to 20 degrees. Temperature training taught patients how to participate in their own healing process.
A few months after arriving at Fort Irwin, I wrote a request to our hospital commander, asking him to buy $30,000 worth of the latest computerized biofeedback equipment for our soldiers, including 10 days of training for me in San Francisco. While he laughed at me at first, eventually I got approval simply because he needed to spend his whole budget by the end of the year.
The biofeedback training was the most stimulating and intense learning experience I’d had as a physician. I learned how to help people relax their muscles, warm their hands (much faster than with the old equipment), calm sweat-gland activity, lower blood pressure, slow their own heart rates, breathe in ways that promoted relaxation, and even change their own brain wave patterns.
When I returned to Fort Irwin, my patients loved biofeedback because it helped them feel better fast. I loved it for the same reason and spent time each day doing it myself. I became masterful at breathing with my diaphragm, and I could slow my heart rate and even warm my own hands more than 15 degrees whenever I felt stressed. I had struggled with anxiety for most of my early life, which came in part from having an older brother who beat me up regularly when I was young, and in part from wetting my bed at night until about age nine. Waking up every morning in a panic, not knowing if the sheets would be wet or dry, changed my nervous system to be on alert and expect bad things to happen. Using these tools to calm myself was a wonderful relief.
Based on my work with hypnosis, biofeedback, and quickly enhancing brain function, here are six simple techniques that use your brain to control your mind and body, helping you to feel better fast.
Technique #1: Use hypnosis, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to enter a deep, relaxed state.
Many people associate hypnosis with loss of control or stage tricks. But doctors know it to be a serious science, revealing the brain’s ability to heal medical and psychiatric conditions. “Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it’s been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes,” said psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, the son of a famous hypnotist and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “In fact, it’s a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies. . . . The power of hypnosis to immediately change your brain is real.
Using hypnosis, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) increases parasympathetic tone and can quickly decrease the fight-or-flight response in a wide variety of conditions, as it did for Beth. These techniques have been found to have many benefits, including lowering anxiety, sadness, and tension in parents of children with cancer; pain and fatigue in those receiving chemotherapy; stress in those with multiple sclerosis; anxiety and depression; migraine frequency; tension headaches; craving and withdrawal symptoms in people quitting smoking; poststroke anxiety (a result of listening to a PMR CD five times a week); and phantom limb pain. They can also improve quality of life in the elderly and dialysis patients, fatigue in the elderly, and sexual function in postmenopausal women
Learning hypnosis, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation is simple; there are many online audios that can guide you. We have several on our Brain Fit Life site (www.brainfitlife.com). You can certainly do it yourself. Below are the instructions I give my patients to help them go into a deep relaxed state. The skill builds over time, so it is important to practice this exercise to gain mastery. Set aside two 15-minute periods a day and go through the following five steps.
SELF-HYPNOSIS, GUIDED IMAGERY, AND PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION: A HEALING PRACTICE
- Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap. Pick a spot on the opposite wall that is a little bit above your eye level. Stare at the spot. As you do, slowly count to 20. Notice that your eyelids soon begin to feel heavy, as if they want to close. Let them. In fact, even if they don’t feel as if they want to close, slowly lower them as you get to 20.
- Take a deep breath, as deep as you can, and very slowly exhale. Repeat the deep breath and slow exhale three times. With each in-breath, imagine taking in peace and calmness, and with each out-breath, blow out all the tension —all the things getting in the way of your relaxing. By this time, you’ll notice a calm come over you.
- Squeeze the muscles in your eyelids, closing your eyes as tightly as you can. Then slowly let the muscles in your eyelids relax. Imagine that relaxation slowly spreading, like a warm, penetrating oil, from the muscles in your eyelids to the muscles in your face —down your neck, into your shoulders and arms, into your chest, and throughout the rest of your body. The muscles will take the cue from your eyelids and relax progressively all the way down to the bottoms of your feet.
- When all the tension has left your body, imagine yourself at the top of an escalator. Step on the escalator and ride down, counting backward from 10. By the time you reach the bottom, you’ll be very relaxed.
- Enjoy the tranquility for several moments. Then get back on the escalator riding up, counting to 10 as you go. When you get to 10, open your eyes, feeling relaxed, refreshed, and wide awake.
To make these steps easy to remember, think of the following words:
- Focus (focus on the spot)
- Breathe (slow, deep breaths)
- Relax (progressive muscle relaxation)
- Down (ride down the escalator)
- Up (ride up the escalator and open your eyes)
If you have trouble remembering these steps, you may want to record them as you read them aloud and then do the exercise as you listen to the audio.
Allow yourself plenty of time to do this. Some people become so relaxed that they fall asleep for several minutes. If that happens, don’t worry. It’s a good sign —you’re really relaxed!
ADD VISUAL IMAGERY TO ENVISION A BETTER LIFE
When you’ve practiced this technique a few times, add the following steps:
Choose a haven —a place where you feel comfortable and that you can imagine with all your senses. I usually “go” to the beach. I can see the ocean, feel the sand between my toes and the warm sun and breeze on my skin, smell the salt air and taste it faintly on my tongue, and hear the seagulls, the waves, and children playing. Your haven can be any real or imaginary place where you’d like to spend time.
After you reach the bottom of the escalator, use all your senses to imagine yourself in your special haven. Stay for several minutes. This is where the fun starts and where your mind becomes ripe for change.
Begin to experience yourself —not as you currently are, but as you want to be. Plan on spending at least 20 minutes a day on this refueling, life-changing exercise. You’ll be amazed at the results.
During each session, choose one goal to work on. Stay with that goal until you can imagine yourself reaching it, going through each of the steps required to attain it. If your goal is to own your own business, for example, use all your senses to imagine yourself in that business. See the office or shop. Interact with your customers. Smell the environment around you. Feel your desk. Sip a cup of coffee in your chair, savoring the taste and aroma. Experience your dream. Make it real in your imagination, thereby beginning to make it real in your life. Or, if your goal is to improve your relationship with your spouse, friend, or children, imagine the relationship as you want it to be, in as much detail as you can. The way to improve your expectations is to first imagine the situation as you want it to be instead of imagining the worst, as you likely have been doing.
IT EVEN WORKS AT HOME
Years ago, on the Fourth of July, we had a party at our house. As the fireworks started outdoors, our then-eight-year-old daughter, Chloe, was creating her own fireworks in our kitchen. My wife, Tana, had created a new dessert for the party, a combination of coconut and almond butter. Chloe decided to heat it up. When she took it out of the microwave, she tested it with her finger —and that’s when the screaming started. It was very hot, and the concoction stuck to her finger. She first tried to shake it off, then wiped it off with a towel and stuck her finger in her mouth. Next, she put her hand in ice water, then aloe gel, and then ice cubes. The pain and frustration escalated as she unraveled, and the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs; see chapter 5) started to take over. “I’m so stupid,” she said. “Why did I do that?” Her mother gave her ibuprofen for the pain and started putting her to bed, but Chloe was not calming down.
The negative thoughts were now coming in droves. “I can’t do this. It’s too much. I can’t take it. I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I did it. I wish I could go back and do it over.”
Tana tried to distract Chloe by reading to her, but it didn’t work. She then prayed with her, but Chloe couldn’t focus. Nothing worked, so Tana walked into my office and said I needed to help.
I sat on Chloe’s bed and assessed the situation. As I had done for many patients in the hospital, I used a simple hypnotic trance to calm her. Using the outline above, I had her focus on a spot on the wall, close her eyes, start to relax her body, and slow her breathing. I then asked her to imagine walking down a flight of stairs as I counted backward from 10. Next I had her imagine going to a special park that she imagined with all of her senses, where it was safe and she was with her mother and friends. I had her imagine going into a warm pool. The water had special healing powers that soothed and helped her finger, taking away the pain. The water also helped to calm her thoughts and her body. She did not need to be so hard on herself. We all make mistakes. Being angry only made the pain worse.
Chloe became visibly more relaxed and started to drift off to sleep. The park and special healing pool was a place she could go back to anytime she was upset or needed to calm down. Then she fell asleep. Quietly, we left her room, wondering how she would do. We did not see her until the next morning, and even though she had a small blister on her finger, she said it didn’t hurt and all was well. “Everyone makes mistakes,” she said. “I guess that was one of mine. I won’t do it again.” This technique is very powerful —with adults and with children, too.
Technique #2: Master diaphragmatic breathing.
In the chapter’s opening story, the first thing I did with Beth was help her to slow her breathing, so she could get more oxygen to her brain. Diaphragmatic breathing is a core biofeedback technique to help you feel better fast. It is simple to teach and, once practiced, simple to implement and maintain. Like brain activity, breathing is essential to life and involved in everything you do. Breathing delivers oxygen from the atmosphere into your lungs, where your bloodstream picks it up and takes it to all of the cells in your body so that they can function properly. Breathing also allows you to eliminate waste products, such as carbon dioxide, which can cause feelings of disorientation and panic. Brain cells are particularly sensitive to oxygen; within four minutes of being deprived of it, they start to die. Slight changes in oxygen content in the brain can alter the way you feel and behave.
When someone gets upset, angry, or anxious, their breathing becomes shallow and fast (see the “Breathing Anatomy” diagram below). This causes the oxygen in an angry person’s blood to decrease, while toxic carbon dioxide increases. Subsequently, the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance is upset, causing irritability, impulsiveness, confusion, and bad decision-making.
Learning how to direct and control your breathing has several immediate benefits. It calms the amygdala (part of the emotional brain), counteracts the fight-or-flight response, relaxes muscles, warms hands, and regulates the heart’s rhythms. I often teach patients to become experts at breathing slowly, deeply, and from their bellies. If you watch a baby or a puppy, you will notice that they breathe almost solely with their bellies —the most efficient way to breathe.
Expanding your belly when you inhale flattens the diaphragm, pulling the lungs downward and increasing the amount of air available to your lungs and body. Pulling your belly in when you exhale causes the diaphragm to push the air out of your lungs, allowing for a more fully exhaled breath, which once again encourages deep breathing. In biofeedback, patients are taught to breathe with their bellies by watching their breathing pattern on the computer screen. In 20 to 30 minutes, most people can learn how to change their breathing patterns, which relaxes them and gives them better control over how they feel and behave.
The diaphragm, a bell-shaped muscle, separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. Many people never flatten the diaphragm when they inhale, and thus with each breath they have less access to their own lung capacity and have to work harder. By moving your belly out when you inhale, you flatten the diaphragm, significantly increase lung capacity, and calm all body systems.
Controlled diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to improve focus and lower anxiety, stress, negative feelings, and cortisol; decrease depression and asthma; reduce obesity in children, pain, blood pressure, motion sickness, and seizure frequency; and boost the quality of life in heart failure patients.
Technique #3: Become expert at warming your hands with your mind.
Take a moment to focus on your hands, feeling their energy and temperature. When you intentionally learn how to warm your hands with your brain by directing your thoughts to warming images (such as holding your palms up in front of a fire), your body goes into a relaxed state. Scientific research has shown that using this technique can be helpful for anxiety, migraine headaches in both children and adults, blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). New evidence shows that when you hold something warm, such as a warm hand, you are more trusting and giving, and you feel closer to others. Cold hands have the opposite effect.
Researchers studied college students to assess how hand temperature affects emotions. They found that holding warm things may actually make people view others more favorably and may also make them more generous. In one study, a tester met each of the 41 participants in the lobby of the building where the tests were being conducted. In the elevator on the way up, the tester casually asked the participant to hold his cup of coffee while he recorded some information on his clipboard. The participant did not know that this request was part of the experiment. Half the participants were asked to hold a cup of warm coffee, and half were asked to hold a cup of iced coffee. Once in the testing room, participants were given a packet of information on an unknown person and then asked to evaluate the person’s personality using a questionnaire. Participants who had held the warm coffee were much more likely to score the unknown person as warmer than those who had held the iced coffee.
In a second study by the same researchers, participants were asked to hold either a hot or a cold therapeutic pad. Participants thought their role was to evaluate the product. After the “test,” they were offered a reward for themselves or a treat for a friend. The people who had held the warm pad were more likely to choose the treat for a friend. Dr. John Bargh, coauthor of the study, said, “It appears that the effect of physical temperature is not just on how we see others, it affects our own behavior as well. Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer —more generous and trusting —as well.” Coauthor Dr. Lawrence Williams said, “At a board meeting, for instance, being willing to reach out and touch another human being, to share their hand, those experiences do matter although we may not always be aware of them.” These studies are striking because we know that when our hands are cold, we are more likely to be anxious and fearful, traits that decrease intimacy and closeness to others.
Visualizing warmth, especially in your hands, is another tool to help you feel better fast and counteract the fight-or-flight response. I’ve found that teaching patients to warm their hands calms down their bodies and minds just as effectively as prescription drugs. Hand warming elicits an immediate relaxation response. We know this because biofeedback instruments allow us to measure hand temperature and then teach people how to warm their hands. Interestingly, children are better at this than adults because kids readily believe they have power over their bodies, whereas adults do not.
When my daughter Breanne was eight years old, she could increase her hand temperature by up to 20 degrees. She was so good at it, I brought her along with me when I did a biofeedback lecture to physicians at a Northern California hospital. In front of 30 physicians, I had her demonstrate her amazing skill. However, for the first three minutes her hands did nothing but get ice cold, because she felt such performance anxiety. In those few minutes I was horrified, feeling like a terrible father who was exploiting his daughter to be important in front of his colleagues. Then I whispered in her ear that she should close her eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine her hands in the warm sand at the beach (the image that worked best for her). Over the next seven minutes, her hands warmed 18 degrees. The doctors were amazed, she was so happy with herself, and I was relieved that I had not scarred her for life.
How can you warm your hands with your mind? You do it with diaphragmatic breathing and the visualization that works for you. For some, like Breanne, it’s imagining putting your hands in warm sand at the beach. For others, it’s thinking about holding a loved one’s hand or touching their warm skin. For still others, it’s visualizing holding a warm, furry kitten or puppy.
Hand-Warming Technique. Close your eyes and hold out your hands, palms down, and visualize a campfire in front of you. Focus. Think heat. You can hear the fire crackle, smell the aroma of fresh-cut wood burning, see the sparks float up into the sky. Now feel the soothing heat as it penetrates the surface of your skin and goes deep to warm your hands. Picture this as you breathe deeply, and count slowly to 20. Did you feel an increase in warmth? Relaxation? Did you find you started to hold your hands closer as if there were actually a fire in front of you? Practice this technique for a few minutes every day, and you’ll find you get to the relaxation response more easily and faster over time. Find the hand-warming images that work for you, and you will reset your nervous system to be more relaxed and counteract your stress response. You can buy temperature sensors online (under brand names Biodots, Stress Cards, and Stress Sheets) to get feedback on your progress.
13 Hand-Warming Images
- Holding someone’s warm hand or touching their warm skin
- Visualizing (in great detail) someone you appreciate
- Putting your hands in warm sand at the beach
- Taking a hot bath or shower
- Sitting in a sauna
- Cuddling a baby
- Cuddling a warm, furry puppy or kitten
- Holding a warm cup of tea or sugar-free cocoa
- Holding your hands in front of a fire
- Wearing warm gloves
- Being wrapped in a warm towel
- Getting a massage with warm oil
- Holding a hot potato while wearing warm gloves
Technique #4: Pray and/or practice meditation (especially Loving-Kindness Meditation).
Focusing on your breathing, a beautiful outdoor scene, or Scripture for just five to ten minutes a day is a simple yet powerful way to improve your life. Prayer and meditation have been found to calm stress; improve focus, mood, and memory; and enhance prefrontal cortex function to help you make better decisions. What’s more, meditation benefits your heart and blood pressure, digestion, and immune system, as well as improving executive function and emotional control and reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability.
There are many effective techniques, including reading, memorizing, or meditating on Scripture; writing out a personal prayer; reading classic spiritual writings; or focusing on gratitude. One of my personal favorite forms of meditation is called Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM), which is intended to develop feelings of goodwill and warmth toward others. It has been found to quickly increase positive emotions and decrease negative ones, decrease pain and migraine headaches, reduce symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and social prejudice, increase gray matter in the emotional processing areas of the brain, and boost social connectedness. Here’s how to start to practice:
Loving-Kindness Meditation. Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position and close your eyes. Take two or three deep breaths, taking twice as long to exhale as inhale. Let any worries or concerns drift away, and feel your breath moving through the area around your heart. As you sit, quietly or silently repeat the following or similar phrases:
- May I be safe and secure.
- May I be healthy and strong.
- May I be happy and purposeful.
- May I be at peace.
Let the intentions expressed in these phrases sink in as you repeat them. Allow the feelings to grow deeper.
After a few repetitions, direct the phrases to someone you feel grateful for or someone who has helped you:
- May you be safe and secure.
- May you be healthy and strong.
- May you be happy and purposeful.
- May you be at peace.
Next, visualize someone you feel neutral about. Choose among people you neither like nor dislike, and repeat the phrases.
Now visualize someone you don’t like or with whom you are having a hard time, and repeat the phrases with that person in mind. Kids who are being teased or bullied at school often feel quite empowered when they send love to the people who are making them miserable.
Finally, direct the phrases more broadly: May everyone be safe and secure.
You can do this for up to 30 minutes; it is up to you.
Technique #5: Create your emotional rescue playlist.
Music can soothe, inspire, improve your mood, and help you focus. It is important in every known culture on earth, with ancient roots extending back thousands of years. After evaluating more than 800 people, researchers have found that people listen to music to regulate their energy and mood, to achieve self-awareness, and to improve social bonds. Music provides social cement —think of work and war songs, lullabies, and national anthems. In his powerful book The Secret Language of the Heart, Barry Goldstein reviewed the neuroscientific properties of music. He suggested that music stimulates emotional circuits in the brain and releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” which can enhance bonding, trust, and relationships. He wrote, “Listening to music can create peak emotions, which increase the amount of dopamine, a specific neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. . . . Music was used to assist patients with severe brain injuries in recalling personal memories. The music helped the patients to reconnect to memories they previously could not access.” Be aware, however, that music you strongly like or dislike may impair your focus.
Based on the concept of entrainment, which means your brain picks up the rhythm of your environment, you can manipulate your mind with the music you choose. In a fascinating study, research subjects rated Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos (K. 448) and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as happy and sad, respectively. Listening to happy music (Mozart’s piece) increased activity in the brain’s left hemisphere, associated with happiness and motivation, and decreased activity in the right hemisphere, often associated with anxiety and negativity. Beethoven’s piece did the opposite. According to research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, you can improve your mood and boost your overall happiness in just two weeks, simply by having the intention of being happier and by listening to specific mood-boosting music, such as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, for 12 minutes a day.Having only the intention to be happier was not as effective. Listening to happy instrumental music (versus music with lyrics) was more powerful in activating the limbic or emotional circuits of the brain.
Create your own emotional rescue playlist to boost your mood quickly. Research shows it can be effective to start with musical pieces you love. If you’re not sure where to start, try some of these pieces, which have been shown through research to boost mood.
RESEARCH-BASED FEEL BETTER FAST MUSIC
Without lyrics (words can be distracting):
Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, third movement (K. 448) – Mozart (~ 6 min.)
“Clair de Lune” – Debussy (~ 5 min.)
“Adagio for Strings” – Samuel Barber (~ 8 min.)
Piano Sonata no. 17 in D Minor (“The Tempest”) – Beethoven (~ 25 min.)
“First Breath after Coma” – Explosions in the Sky (9:33 min.)
“Adagio for Strings” – Tiësto (9:34 min. original; 7:23 min. album version)
“Fanfare for the Common Man” – Aaron Copland (~ 4 min.)
“Weightless” – Marconi Union (8:09 min.)
“Flotus” – Flying Lotus (3:27 min.)
“Lost in Thought” – Jon Hopkins (6:16 min.)
“The Soundmaker” – Rodrigo y Gabriela (4:54 min.)
“See” – Tycho (5:18 min.)
“Spectre” – Tycho (3:47 min.)
Add nature sounds (your own recordings or downloads of favorites) to boost mood and focus.
“Good Vibrations” – The Beach Boys (3:16 min.)
“Don’t Stop Me Now” – Queen (3:36 min.)
“Uptown Girl” – Billy Joel (3:23 min.)
“Dancing Queen” – ABBA (3:45 min.)
“Eye of the Tiger” – Survivor (4:11 min.)
“I’m a Believer” – The Monkees (2:46 min.)
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper (4:25 min.)
“Livin’ on a Prayer” – Bon Jovi (4:09 min.)
“I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor (3:11 min.)
“Walking on Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves (3:48 min.)
Brain-enhancing music specifically composed by Barry Goldstein to enhance creativity, mood, memory, gratitude, energy, focus, motivation, and inspiration can be found at www.mybrainfitlife.com. Treat your brain and listen often.
Technique #6: Flood your five senses with positivity.
The brain senses the world. If you can change the inputs, you can often quickly change how you feel.
Hearing —Music can help to optimize your state of being, as we have just seen.
Touch —Positive touch is powerful. Getting a hug, a massage, acupuncture, or acupressure or spending time in a sauna can improve mood.
- Massage has been shown to improve pain, mood, and anxiety in fibromyalgia patients; mood and pain in cancer patients; and mood after open-heart surgery. It has also been shown to improve mood and behavior in students with ADHD. (30–60 min.)
- Acupuncture and acupressure can help with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), depression, anxiety and anger, and pain. (60 min.)
- Saunas have been shown to enhance mood after just one session, increase endorphins (feel-good chemicals), and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (20 min.)
Smell —Certain scents are known to have positive effects on how we feel, especially lavender oil (for anxiety, mood, sleep, and migraine headaches), rose oil, and chamomile.
Sight —Soothing images can impact your mood. Images of nature and fractals (never-ending patterns) can soothe stress. In one study, people who looked at real plants or posters of plants experienced less stress while waiting for medical procedures.
Taste —Flavoring food with cinnamon, saffron, mint, sage, or nutmeg has been shown to enhance mood.
Find fun ways to put this all together to change your state of mind: Take a sauna while listening to “Good Vibrations” and watching scenes of the ocean, all with the scent of lavender or rose oil in the air and while sipping on a cinnamon almond-milk cappuccino.
These six techniques are effective ways to help you feel better fast when you’re anxious or upset. Come back to them anytime you need to regain control over your mind and body.
SIX BRAIN-BASED TECHNIQUES TO REGAIN CONTROL OVER YOUR MIND AND BODY
- Use hypnosis, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to go into a deep, relaxed state.
- Master diaphragmatic breathing.
- Become expert at warming your hands with your mind.
- Pray and/or practice meditation (especially Loving-Kindness Meditation).
- Create your emotional rescue playlist.
- Flood your five senses with positivity.