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.

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