Know Thyself—What You Need to Know About Your Brain to Reduce Stress


A long time ago, when I first heard the famous aphorism “Know Thyself,” by a fellow Greek named Socrates, I had no idea what he was talking about.

Today, I realize that truly getting to know our selves from the inside out is a great path toward optimizing our physical, emotional, and mental health and performing at our best at work and in our personal life.

Do you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed, irritable, worrying, or having a hard time sleeping? What if I was to tell you that you already have the solution to all those troublesome states of being? You just have to learn how to collaborate with the best asset you will ever have at your disposal—your brain.

Meet your brain: Hello, gorgeous!

In the material world we currently reside in, we try so hard to find happiness. We measure our worth in relation to material things, like the size of our bank account, our house, or our car. Or we measure our worth by our external, physical appearance. In reality, our brain is truly the most gorgeous and valuable part of us, not to mention our best ally in finding happiness.

No physical improvements to our body can top what an incredible job our brain and nervous system do as they work tirelessly around the clock to process information in order to keep us as well as possible.

Beyond our cognitive awareness, our brain continuously connects the outside world with our amazing, interior wonderland to assign meaning to our experiences so that we can navigate through the obstacle course of life with as much ease and pleasure and as little pain as possible, and, of course, with the highest chance for survival.

Just like the intricate components of our home security system, our brain uses an amazing network of one hundred billion nerve cells, each one capable of connecting to up to 10,000 other nerve cells, to create an astonishing one hundred trillion pathways (synapses) that can take us to either happiness or misery!

Now, “How is that?” you may ask. Well, the synapses of our brain cells are essentially circuits of the path of least resistance that become our default way of thinking, feeling, and acting based on the meaning we have assigned to any experience.

But let’s look at a specific example to bring this closer to home.

Driving is a skill that involves risk. When we first learn how to drive, we associate elements with actions. For example, we associate a red light with the need to employ the action of stopping in order to stay safe.

Beyond our cognitive awareness of how our actions are driven by the color of a traffic light, mental activity induces neural activity that builds and reinforces connections between nerve cells.

These connections form freeways that we hop on when similar occasions present in our reality. Without much thought, we take the action of stopping when we see a red light time and time again.

Beyond skills like driving, synapses between neurons also build pathways to evoke certain feelings, like warmth and joy when someone buys us a gift, or disappointment when our spouse forgets our birthday. Although, in fact, the only person who ought to feel bad for forgetting our birthday is our spouse, we have formed a circuit that is linked to disappointment when someone forgets our special day.

On a larger scale, this is how certain regions of our brain become more developed than others. And different parts of our brain contribute to different characteristics that we possess. These characteristics can be strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, or other elements of ourselves.

Professor Eleanor Maguire (University College London, UK) is well known for her research on the noted structural changes in the brains of London cab drivers due to the extraordinary demand they place on their brains to memorize an astonishing labyrinth of over 25,000 streets. The grey matter of the London cab drivers, in the part of their brain associated with memory and spatial navigation (hippocampus), was found to increase significantly following their training and an assessment of their memory retention.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, shrinkage of the hippocampus has been observed in those of us suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It seems like our brain is trying to protect us from having flashbacks of our traumas by atrophying certain structures to shield us from negative memories.

Our feelings, sensations, and why we do what we do are interwoven inside the intricate connections between our nerve cells that connect based on our mental activity.

I lived in England for nine years, and I still remember how expensive London cabs are many years later.

But the high cost of taxis in London cannot compare to the price we pay every day by wasting our brains’ super powers, when we translate events as threats that are not actually threatening. (For example when our manager gives us a poor performance review). Using our brains power for defense for imaginary threats that are not here now, prevents our brain from performing well in keeping us in balance. (Homeostasis). (Employing our brain for defense at the rate that we do, also changes the structure of our our brain to be more prone to be ready to fight to flee or freeze in the future as well.)

I want to offer you a few, simple, everyday ways to reconnect with your long-lost asset—your brain. You can use these practices to induce synaptic activity to change your brain circuits in ways that promote well-being.

  1. Accept what is without resistance.

Adversity and change are absolute certainties in life. Sometimes we will handle them with grace, and sometimes we will fall flat on our face. But we will certainly not accomplish anything by resisting what is. Imagine swimming against the stream of a powerful river. How could we use our energy better, instead of in resisting an inevitable reality? We could be creating a list of all the lessons we have learned, or journaling about changes we will make. How much energy do we lose in the act of resisting?

  1. Establish a sense of curiosity and wonder.

No matter how bad a situation may seem in the moment, everything in life, including the greatest defeats and disappointments, are here to bring us a very specific gift, lesson, or pearl of wisdom. What if instead of spending several hours ruminating over our friends’ betrayal, we redirect our energy in answering the question: “What is the message this person/event is here to teach me?

  1. Stay present.

According to a Harvard study designed to assess habits and happiness, our mind takes off and thinks about things other than what we are doing 47% of the time. Isn’t it crazy to think that we are not present for about half of our life? The same study showed that a wandering mind is strongly linked to unhappiness. I know we have been trained to consider “multi-tasking” an invaluable skill. Can you challenge yourself to find a reason to stay present every time you catch your mind wandering away from you?

Despite my great admiration for the wisdom of Greek philosophers, I must admit that it has taken me a lifetime to make sense of the practical application of their wisdom for my happiness and well-being.

But if you find yourself navigating life with a degree of dissatisfaction that interferes with your well-being as I did, you can absolutely change that.

Although our Socrates is long gone, it is you who holds the key to how to be your own superhero. And it rests right between your temples.

Do You Have a Good Relationship With Stress?

In the midst of this crazy world we live in, fueled with uncomfortable phenomena, one thing that will never discriminate against us, regardless of our race, sex, or socio-economic status is—stress!

Stress has been described as the epidemic of the century. Prominent scientists around the world have provided us with over five decades of evidence that links stress to more than 90% of today’s disease, regardless of the color of our skin or any other of our unique characteristics.

I have had a tumultuous relationship with stress because I did not make friends with it. I am now living with some significant consequences. I have developed a musculoskeletal condition that graces me with chronic pain and restricts my activities to a great degree. Furthermore, my brain has been sculpted to be over-sensitive to stressors. This means that my amygdala (our nervous system’s alarm system responsible for identifying threats) is probably enlarged and my hippocampus (mainly associated with memory, among other critical functions) has probably experienced some shrinkage. So, you can say that finding a solution to the problematic consequences of not having a good relationship with stress has been a big deal for me.

During my diligent study and experimentation to improve my relationship with stress I came across a bewildering realization:

The dire ramifications of stress are not because stress is such a great villain, but because we don’t fully realize just how much power we have to choose how we relate to stressors and to the critical players involved with our stress response! Could it be that our “untamed” power leads us to the troublesome stress symptoms we experience?

What if we use our power to “befriend” stress?

On first thought, you may think the idea of “befriending stress” is a conundrum. The truth is, we all know how to do it. We go through the process of making friends pretty much every day in life.

In fact, making friends involves a simple two-step process:

  1. We get to know someone better.
  2. We establish safety and trust.

What if we followed the same process to improve our relationship with stress?

This week I want to talk about Step One: Getting to know stress better.

  1. What is stress?

Stress is the pressure we feel when our body goes off-balance (homeostasis) to respond to an environmental demand. In small quantities, stress is not necessarily bad as it motivates us to stretch ourselves to meet life’s demands. Imagine if you were an Olympian training to run for a gold medal. Some stress might be helpful to motivate you. Every day, we are all Olympians having to deal with situations that take us off homeostasis, which is our optimal, internal balance of essential bodily functions like temperature and heart rate. Next time you feel the subtle signs that your stress response is activated (for example, if you notice your heart rate has increased) give yourself sixty seconds to assess if the situation at hand is worthy of the activation of your stress response or not.

2. Is the reason for your stress a truth or a story?

What we don’t realize is that most of the time what triggers our stress response is the subtle, momentary interpretation we give to life situations and not the life situations themselves. For example, public speaking in and of itself does not actually pose any significant threat or danger to an organism. However, the thought of possibly forgetting our words and feeling embarrassed has the power to trigger our stress response, which we can immediately feel by the increase in our heart ratem just the same as if we had encountered a shark while swimming in the ocean. What if we shift our attention to simply recognizing how amazing it is that we are just as powerful as a shark or a bear in activating our fight or flight response, instead of allowing the power of our mind to take us off-balance?

 3. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

There are situations that warrant the appropriate elicitation of our stress response. Maybe we are in a car accident and we have to rush to provide aid for ourselves and our loved ones. A temporary, and infrequent, activation of our stress response with ample time to rest and digest what has happened in-between does not lead to health issues. However, we are now estimated to elicit our stress response over ten times a day. We are over-estimating threats and placing our bodies under a tremendous amount of unnecessary strain that does have significant short and long-term health consequences. What if we acknowledge how efficient we are at identifying threats, but shoot for eliminating one unnecessary stress response activation per week?

 4. Balance and optimal performance go hand in hand.

When we identify a situation as a threat, our thoughts and words trigger our brain to engage multiple systems in our body to address the threat. This diminishes the effectiveness of critical structures in our brain, for example, those that govern thinking; and shuts down other essential functions of our body, for example, our immune and digestive systems. In other words, when we operate under our stress response, our power is momentarily diminished and we enter a state of temporary impairment. Additionally, when we are in this defensive mode we cannot learn as well. What if we use the old advice to “pause and take ten breaths,” and then reconsider if we want to label a situation a threat, considering how powerful our thoughts and words are?

5. There are significant consequences to chronic stress.

When we allow our body systems to be used too often to address imaginary fears, like public humiliation, we are essentially exhausting our body systems by asking them to work overtime. Allostasis is the process that our body uses to regain homeostasis after it has been taken off-balance by a stressor. The total sum of all the things our body has to do to get back to its balanced state is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is greater than our ability to recover, we enter the overload-level of allostatic load, and significant damage to organs and functions can occur. What if we consciously infuse breaks of calm in between jumping through hoops of stress as a means of boosting our resilience to life’s demands? Even sneaking out to the garden to water the plans, or creating a five minute space at work to listen to a guided meditation could be enough to restore balance in our nervous system.

We seem to frequently judge ourselves for our shortcomings, but we do not acknowledge how powerful we can be in creating not just our reality, but also our health and well-being. Although life’s demands are endless and many of them are outside of our control, what is actually within our control is working on building the resources that help us bounce back when something pushes us off-balance.

We are all drawn to rewarding experiences, and we strive to be happy. Reinstating an internal sense of safety and security is one of the most sustainable forms of happiness.

We know how to install a security system in our home to help us feel safe, but do we know how to reinstate a sense of safety in our neurobiology to improve our relationship with stress?

Join me next week for the second part of ways to improve our relationship with stress—how to establish safety and trust with stress and our nervous systems.

We cannot eliminate the sheer volume of stressors, but we can improve our relationship with our body systems and our stress response as a powerful way to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

Self Care for a healthier, happier and more productive reality.

I am celebrating my birthday this week, one of my favorite days of the year to give myself some much-needed self-love and care. I know I ought to be giving myself “birthday love and care” every single day of the year, but out of the 365 days per year, most days there seems to be something else that takes precedence over taking care of myself.

The truth is that optimal performance; peak productivity, happiness, and health are not possible without scrupulous self-care. Our species has achieved some amazing accomplishments throughout our history: We have uncovered the human genome; walked on the moon; and created masterpieces of art, like the Sistine Chapel. But we continue to fall short at practicing self-care, which is a major obstacle to realizing self-mastery.

Why is taking care of ourselves so hard for us to put into practice?

Here is a small collection of guidelines about self-care—possibly the most critical component to realizing all noble human pursuits:

  1. If and when the cabin pressure drops, you have to put on your mask first before you can help anyone else that may need your assistance!

Isn’t it time we got over the conditioned way of thinking that we are selfish if we take care of ourselves before we take care of the ones we love? If we have people we love in our lives, we need to remember that we cannot be there for anyone in our lives if we become ill.

  1. Re-think your “number goals,” and change them to ones that truly matter.

We often sacrifice self-care for the goal most of us make number one on our numbered lists of goals: money! But which of these number-related goals might be more important than money: Thirty minutes a day of physical activity? Five servings of fruit and veggies everyday? Twenty-five grams of fiber per day (if you are a woman) or thirty-five grams (if you are a man)? What unique, beautiful, body number goals should you be considering? Do you need to have a blood pressure goal, or an HbA1C goal if you are a diabetic? Re-think your number goals.

  1. When it comes to your physical health, strive for balance versus perfection.

If you don’t get your thirty minutes of exercise today, can you add an extra ten minutes per day over the next three days? Events happen that take us off-balance. Becoming good at reinstating our balance when it’s lost is one of the most important and impactful things we can do to take good care of ourselves. After all, we cannot eliminate the myriad of life situations that will often challenge us and in significant ways. However, becoming better at how we land back on our feet after each setback and regain our balance is key to arriving at desired outcomes.

  1. Nurture your mind everyday.

Self-care goes above and beyond the American Medical Association’s recommendations regarding our physical health. Challenging yourself to find one way to nurture your mind everyday will increase the grey matter in the parts of your brain associated with inner strengths like resilience.

It only takes a few minutes to listen to a TED Talk or a short, guided meditation, or to read a few pages of a powerful book. But the benefits of re-sculpting your brain toward a happier you last forever!

  1. Self-talk matters.

How do you talk to yourself? Often, we are our self’s worst critic. We camouflage self-criticism under the label “high standards.” A helpful antidote is to picture yourself as your BFF (your best friend forever). How would you talk to them? If your self-talk does not pass the “BFF test,” it’s time to revamp the elements of your internal dialogue. Reframing is a fabulous way to calm our nervous system and bring us back home. For example, if we try something and fail, we can look at it from this perspective: “We are a fabulous person simply having an experience of failure.” Although it may seem like semantics, the act of reframing a negative to a positive is enough to allow us to support our nervous system to work with us towards our health and not exhaust it by employing it for our defense from imaginary threats.


  1. Give yourself the gift of connection and human touch everyday.

Regardless of how many ups and downs each day may bring, make the time to hold your loved ones up close and personal. When we hold or touch a person we love, the hormone oxytocin floods our blood stream. Oxytocin is a potent modulator of critical nervous system functions involved with anxiety, depression, and pain perception. If you feel that life becomes a little too much at times, don’t forget oxytocin—the most natural and potent anti-depressant, which is free and has no side effects. All you have to do is reach out and touch the ones you love!

  1. Take an active stance against negative thoughts, words, and people.

We don’t often consider the negative consequences of the vibrational frequency of any type of negativity. But if you think of a time in your life when you nurtured a plant, you know how toxic it would have been if you had chosen to water your plant with an acidic fluid, like bleach or vinegar. We, too, are delicate flowers easily taken off our optimal levels by any threat that sounds our alarm! There is nothing more alarming than negative thoughts, words, and people.

Each and every one of us has a very special purpose, regardless of our background, history, or humble beginnings.

We often believe that the economy, unique life situations, or circumstances outside of our control are responsible for us not living the life we want and deserve.

The truth is that we have everything we need to arrive at all our desired outcomes.

All we have to do now is focus on effectively closing the gap between the optimal results we expect and the quality of care we provide ourselves.

As it turns out, the love we put into anything important at work or at home will determine our results.

But the one thing we need to always remember is that we cannot love anyone anymore than we love ourselves.

The time to start loving yourself more is now!