Moms can master their moods - but we need to work with the equipment we’ve been given! Expand your body knowledge and awareness!
All parents know that babies don’t come with manuals, but we never get handed an operator’s guide to our own meat suits either.
The human body is such a complex organism - with so many interconnected systems working simultaneously to keep us alive, compel us to connect and urge us to procreate and continue the species. Here I am going to break down a few of the key players within the body that work to create our thoughts, feelings and states.
Having a deeper understanding of what is happening on the physical plane, can help us to grow our awareness around the manifestations in the mental/ emotional plane.
If we have the ultimate goal of mastering our state, which is the product of our thoughts and feelings - it sure is useful to get to the root of where the thoughts and feelings we have come from, what purpose they serve and how we can consciously direct and select the ones that we want to experience.
We are going to look at the nervous system, which is the body’s electrical grid, the endocrine system, which is the body’s chemical messaging system and some key players in the brain.
The Nervous System
Our ability to automatically jump back at the sight of a snake (or garden hose) is in thanks to the nervous system. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord, with the peripheral nervous system stemming out from the spinal cord to all of our limbs and organs in a network of nerves.
Information is sent either from the body to the brain, or vise versa, using the spinal cord as a super highway. The nervous system communicates via electrical currents, at rapid speeds - upwards of 150 mph.
Sensory input, such as the feeling of wetness against your skin and the sound of thunder, gets filtered through a part of the brain called the Thalamus. Then that information is brought to the attention of your conscious brain - via the cerebrum, and you can make a decision about whether or not to seek shelter.
If a bolt of lighting suddenly strikes near you and a tree catches fire, the nervous system may skip involving the cerebrum altogether and without taking the time to think about it you will begin to run in the opposite direction to find safety. This is what is known as the flight response; an automatic behavior carried out by a division of the peripheral nervous system, the autonomic nervous system - specifically the half of the autonomic nervous system responsible for keeping us alert and sending us into action, the sympathetic nervous system.
In cases such as a wildfire, this response is super helpful and keeps us alive, but the body is not well adapted to many of the environments we find ourselves in today. In situations like traffic, online bullying or other aspects of modern life - the stress responses of the sympathetic nervous system can easily be triggered as our brain interprets them as threats to our survival.
It is important to remember, that as a social species a key aspect to our survival is belonging to a pack. If our sense of belonging is threatened, it can be interpreted by the body to be equally as dangerous as a snake bite.
Because the nervous system works so quickly and can catapult behaviors without the filter of our rational minds, it is very important that we stay mindful of how it operates and be aware of the signs that may be telling us we need to self regulate to close the circuit of a stress response.
If everytime my 2 year old throws something, I enter a fit of rage where I lose my temper and escalate the situation beyond what is appropriate - I can use a variety of techniques to not only diffuse the situation in the moment, but prevent myself from losing my cool in the future.
Knowing my trigger, something being thrown, I can practice how I will handle the situation beforehand by playing it out in my mind. Maybe I decide to calmly say, “throwing is an outside activity, I can’t let you do that in the house. Please go pick that up.” By rehearsing this ahead of time I am teaching my brain the response I would like it to use, and because it can’t tell the difference between an imagined scenario and a real one, I can literally create new pathways in my brain simply by using my imagination.
When the inevitable happens, and my 2 year old throws something, I can use mindfulness to pay keen attention to what is happening in my body - without judgement, and attempt to “stay online” without my autonomic nervous system hijacking my conscious control. I can use a breathing technique with a prolonged exhale to slow down my sympathetic nervous system and retain my cool so that I can use the phrase I practiced beforehand.
The more we practice the desired response, the more ingrained that pathway will become and over time it will become the default program run by the nervous system.
In mastering our state, working with our nervous system is crucial to our success. It’s pretty hard to be centered and calm, when something like a flying lego gets your heart pumping and all signals are yelling “fight! It’s an attack!” As we train ourselves to respond differently, flying legos no longer trigger our fight response and we can consciously choose words and behaviors to handle the situation.
Trauma + The Nervous System
When working with the nervous system we need to take into account any past trauma we may have experienced and properly heal that in order to optimize our ability to control our state of being.
While trauma can vary, and what may be a traumatic experience for one person may not be for another - any event that “breaks” the response system can be considered trauma and should be dealt with as such.
An example we all know about is the post traumatic stress that many veterans and military personnel experience. The intense, often violent and very emotionally charged incidences of war, combat, injury and otherwise can basically rupture the nervous system and the brain/ body system becomes unable to properly assign stimuli as a threat or not.
Car accidents, abuse, rape, witnessing a death, natural disasters - these are just some events that often result in trauma. While no two people will experience the same event in the same exact way, situations that require a full out response from the nervous system to ensure survival generally cause this overload to the system -which causes the break. After the event, the brain and nerves become hyper vigilant and perceive things as a life or death situation, even if it is just a gentle touch or a siren passing by.
Being constantly thrown into the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response further wears on the system and it can make daily life unmanageable, along with leading to a myriad of other issues.
While there are many modalities for addressing trauma and helping the nervous system to correctly identify danger, it is not the path to healing that matters, but simply that healing is obtained. Therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Neurofeedback show extremely promising results, but are not yet widely used or fully understood.
If talk therapy is not progressing you forward on your path to healing from trauma, seek out alternative methods and know that no matter what has happened to you, you can get to a place of self regulation and a properly functioning nervous system.
Before I dive into the next system let me add a little tidbit about neurotransmitters, which are chemical signals that get sent between nerve cells. While they can be easy to confuse with hormones, the chemical signals used by the endocrine system, neurotransmitters work within the nervous system and are produced by the nerve cells - not the glands.
Along with working within these two separate systems, the key differences between neurotransmitters and hormones are that neurotransmitters only travel across the space between nerve synapses (so very short distances) while hormones move all throughout the body in the bloodstream. Assumably, because of the difference in distance they have to travel, neurotransmitters have an almost instantaneous effect while hormones can take days after release to cause an effect within the system.
There is a reciprocal relationship between some hormones and neurotransmitters, but these intricacies are not fully understood and science is constantly finding new relationships and working to understand them. It does seem that there are significant number of estrogen and progesterone receptors in areas of the limbic system, which we will get to in a bit, which has an affect on a number of nuerotransmitters that effect mood, among other things.
The Endocrine System
Speaking of hormones, they are the chemical messengers that work within the endocrine system! Secreted from glands, which are the endocrine organs dispersed throughout the body, hormones have a massive impact on our state.
Similar to the automatic responses triggered in the nervous system, the endocrine system is involuntary - which means it is run by the unconscious parts of the brain, namely the hypothalamus.
While we can’t dictate to the glands when or how much hormones to secrete (and who would want to have to do that anyway?), we can optimize the natural operations of the body through basic wellness pathways such as nutrition, adequate sleep and keeping our stress in check.
As women, understanding and working to balance our hormones is of utmost importance, since they naturally fluctuate and go through huge shifts when we are pregnant, give birth, breastfeed and eventually pass through perimenopause and menopause.
If we start by working to regulate the nervous system, we are off to a good start. If we are able to close our body’s stress cycle and tame the emotional responses that get triggered in the brain, we are at the same time helping to maintain proper cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and not to overwork the adrenal glands.
Nutrition is also a key factor in proper endocrine function and really the advice is as generic and basic as it gets. Eat a well rounded diet of whole foods. Skip the fad diets, don’t restrict food groups, and supplement where needed. Clearly specific food needs will need to be addressed on an individual basis, but the jist is pretty simple - eat to nourish.
Because nutrition plays such an important role, it shouldn’t be a surprise that gut health is also closely linked with hormonal balance.
Basically the body is like a set of scales, on a set of scales, on a set of scales...and as we make adjustments to one area it will inevitably impact another area.
Impact on Mood
As mentioned above, hormones interact with our neurotransmitters and because those little nuggets are all star players when it comes to our mood, getting them to play nice with our hormones is key.
Estrogen for example, one of the key hormones involved in female reproduction, has been seen to interact with serotonin (a mood stabilizing and “happy” neurotransmitter) as well as endorphins (pain relief and relaxation).
This relationship is still somewhat of a mystery. This is largely in part to the wide variation of levels seen in a woman throughout the month along with the huge variance from woman to woman. Also let’s be real - funding on matters of female wellness has not historically been the greatest.
With the topic of female hormone fluctuations not being of utmost scientific priority, it is not surprising that many well intended doctors are also not well versed on utilizing this pathway as a means for holistic wellness. It is not uncommon for highly educated professionals to rely on birth control (which uses synthetic hormones made in labs that only mimic the real stuff produced by our bodies) as a be all end all for many health concerns.
If you encounter this approach, I would highly suggest seeking out further opinions and specialists. If google thinks you have a hormone imbalance based on your symptoms and all you get is a prescription for the pill, be your own advocate and know that there are other, more sustainable and holistically beneficial means to improve the experience of being in your body.
Another amazing option is to test your fertility hormones at home. Whether you are dealing with crazy PMS symptoms, trying to get pregnant or just looking to gain some information on your body you can take things into your own hands. Modern Fertility is an amazing company helping women to take charge of their hormone health by equipping them with the knowledge of their own hormone levels, from the comfort of home!
The Limbic System
To wrap things up, let’s look at the limbic system, which is the head-(it's in your brain)-quarters for both the nervous and endocrine systems.
The limbic system is our mammalian brain, the part of us that evolved along with behaviors like social reliance and caring for our young. Terms like “mama bear instincts” and “go ape shit” are referring to the quick reactions that stem from this central part of the brain.
While it is tricky to isolate functions within the brain since it is so interconnected, we can say that things like memory, emotions and the autonomic nervous system are some of the heavy lifting done by the circuits housed within the limbic system.
Put quite simply, sensory information gets processed by a part of the brain called the thalamus, which interprets the stimulus and sends signals to the amygdala, a little almond shaped part of the brain, which then takes the story being told by the thalamus and assigns an emotion to it. This emotional reaction of the amygdala acts like a smoke detector and will alert the hypothalamus to activate any of the endocrine glands. The experience is coded by the hippocampus which dictates how memories are emotionally branded so that the system can react even faster the next time it encounters a similar situation.
So when you see that snake (garden hose) or your kid throws the lego for the 100th time, the thalamus is telling your amygdala hey watch out, the amygdala sounds the alarm and sets off a stress response, which triggers the hypothalamus to signal the release of cortisol and adrenaline and the hippocampus saves any valuable information that could be useful later.
Since this is all taking place with zero input from the cortex, or thinking areas of the brain, we are acting out automated programming which can be life saving - or create unnecessary suffering.
This is why it is important to cultivate a mindfulness practice, so that we can become aware of when we have been sent into this reactionary mode, bring the cortex into the equation and use self regulation techniques like breathing, reframing, and other means of self soothing.
Sometimes it can be a struggle to get the rational mind on board and we need to start in the body to signal to the limbic system that the threat is either false or gone. Shaking out the limbs and hips, dancing, exercise and movements like yoga and tai chi can help send these messages to the brain, letting the limbic system know that we are safe and we can let off the gas pedal and put on the brake.
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Mastering your state of being means mastering yourself mind, body and spirit - sometimes starting in the physical plane is the easiest place to start.