Ok, so let’s understand a little about the brain itself
In simple terms the brain can be split it into 2 areas, the primitive and the intellectual parts.
The intellectual part is housed in the pre-frontal cortex (the front section) which provides us with an analytical and logical assessment of a situation – higher thinking, decision making, problem solving and fluent language. This is us, working at our best.
The primitive or emotional part can be split into 3 main areas, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus.
The amygdala is our fight, flight or freeze response. The hippocampus is our “library” of behavioural patterns and the hypothalamus regulates chemical responses in the body and mind. The primitive part of the brain is there to protect us from all threat and is quick to react. Think about unexpected noise… we go quiet automatically and listen to see if this is a threat to us, this is because the primitive brain kicks in automatically and when we were cave men this is what kept us alive as a species. A loud noise would have been the approach of a predator which would then lead to the fight or flight response.
Nowadays, the loud noise could be a car alarm or a car door shutting but our primitive brain kicks in as if the noise is in fact something that is going to eat us.
The only problem is there is no differentiation between the two situations to the primitive brain. It doesn’t know the difference between a real or imagined threat. Think about when you watch a scary film and something happens unexpectedly designed to make you jump - to the primitive brain you really are in physical danger, you get an adrenalin surge and your flight/flight response kicks in.
As I say, this response kept us alive once but now it kicks in when you watch a scary film, have an argument, are in trouble with your boss, or see a spider (the harmless variety I should add! Otherwise the response is still a way to keep us alive). Any new situation can cause this response, starting a new job, exams, driving test even a first date.
The hippocampus is our library for responses to certain situations –
Argue with a partner = become angry/have a cigarette/shout/get drunk
Worry about exams/starting new job/ driving test = have a cigarette/chew nails/drink/drugs/avoid completely by not showing up
See a spider = run/scream/kill it
These can be our default responses - responses that we have used before and seemed to work for us to avoid danger or ease anxiety. A situation occurs and the hippocampus kicks in with an automatic response because to the primitive brain the stored response kept us alive and seemed to work well.
This is all irrational I know but we can all think of irrational responses to lots of situations which on a level we know are irrational, but we can’t help ourselves. Having to wear our lucky socks because they’re “lucky” why are they lucky? because the first time we wore them we passed a difficult exam. Therefore, we need to wear them again because that’s the reason we passed the exam. Not because we had revised hard and knew our stuff and the questions on the day were ones we were prepared for – no! its because we were wearing our lucky pink Primark socks. Of course, that’s the reason. The intellectual brain thinks “really?? don’t be ridiculous” but yet we still put them on …just in case.
The Stress Bucket
Dr Alison Brabban (1) formalised the theory of the Stress Vulnerability Bucket/Model – stressful life events were described in terms of water filling the bucket with the bucket only having so much room before the water reached the top and overflowed. When the bucket overflowed a person would become symptomatic. So, it’s important to make sure that the bucket gets emptied regularly.
The good news is that the bucket empties naturally when we go to sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleepis a natural part of our sleep pattern which we experience in cycles for around 20% of our usual nightly sleep patterns (2) There is always much debate about the purpose of REM but suggestions usually involves its role in learning and memory processing.
When we are in REM we are dreaming. Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell discuss the idea of REM as a tool for discharging emotional arousal patterns activated during the day in the form of dreams. So, anything emotionally arousing, even TV programmes can become the subject matter of dreams (3) if the arousal pattern is not completed during the day (4)and the dreaming process is therefore a process for making space in the brain.
So, arousal patterns fill our stress bucket in the daytime and our REM sleep empties the bucket at night. But, if there is a lot of stress in our bucket the REM pattern may not be able to cope with it all and you wake in the early hours of the morning unable to go back to sleep and start ruminating on whatever our current worries are, the primitive brain kicks in, the stress bucket gets fuller and we continue to struggle.
Rosalind Cartwright at Rush University Medical Centre, Chicago conducted a study in 2006 examining how REM affects depression in people going through divorce. Results indicated that the quality and content of the participants dreams had an effect on their ability to recover from depression.
It seems that highly emotional but coherent dreams led to higher recovery rates, whereas dreams with low emotional content and a high degree of disconnection resulted in lower recovery rates (5). So, the more vivid, emotional dreams are better for us in emptying that bucket!
But a lack of REM has a detrimental impact on other areas of our lives including pain. Research studies from Missouri State University’s Centre for Biomedical & Life Sciences found that REM deprivation caused increased expression of the proteins which are known to play an important role in initiating and sustaining chronic pain (6)
Another study reported the first data showing in healthy, pain free individuals that modest reductions of sleep time and specific loss of REM sleep produces hyperalgesia (heightened sensitivity to pain) the following morning (7).
Studies also indicate that a lack of REM may be linked to weight problems in children and teenagers. Studies involving rats show potential negative effects on long term memory, and also a reduction in coping skills and reflexes with REM deprivation (8)
The Importance of language
So, is talking to ourselves good for us? Yes, it is.
A meta-analysis of 32 sport psychological studies with a total of 62 measured effects was carried out by Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis et al at the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Thessaly (9). Findings showed that self-talk can indeed increase performance through attention to the task and that specific types of self- talk are more helpful than other types (10).
It was found that specific ‘instructional self-talk’ e.g. knees up, elbows out, was most useful for improving technique and for tasks requiring fine skills, whereas ‘motivational self-talk’ e.g. give it your all, was more effective for tasks needing strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching up for competitions.
This has relevance to not only sports performance but all other areas that people want to improve. As Hatziegeorgiadis says: “The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this help our behaviour”.
And the types of language we use to form those thoughts is especially important. We often have a lot of negative self-talk, this needs to be changed for more positive alternatives – this alone has a huge impact on our wellbeing and ability to accomplish goals.
Dr Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University and Mark Waldman, a communications specialist, have also conducted research into how our brains respond to language. In their book ‘Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict and Increase Intimacy’, they say ‘the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain’ (11)
Angry words send alarm messages to the primitive brain, and fearful words cause us to begin imagining the worst and creating counter strategies.
Newberg and Waldman say, the more we stay focused on negative words, the more we can damage areas of the brain that regulates memory, feelings and emotion.
A focus on positive words, can modify brain functions, increase cognitive reasoning, strengthen the frontal lobes and activate motivational centres in the brain.
By holding a positive and optimistic word in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. The more we concentrate on positive words, the more other areas of the brain become affected.
Words can affect our genetic makeup. Certain positive words can, if focused on for ten or twenty minutes per day, influence the genetic expression in your brain. Citing work undertaken at Massachusetts Hospital by Robert Benson, Newburg and Waldman argue that repetition of personally-meaningful words is able to turn on ‘stress-reducing genes’
1 - Brabban, A & Turkington, D. The Search for Meaning: detecting congruence between life events, underlying schema and psychotic symptoms. (2002) In Morrison, AP (Ed), (2002), A Casebook of Cognitive Therapy for Psychosis (Chap 5, p59-75). New York: Brunner-Routledge
2 - www.howsleepworks.com/types_rem.html
3 - Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience, 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates. The Possible Functions of REM Sleep and Dreaming. (2001) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11121/
4 - Griffin, J & Tyrell, I. Human Givens, (2006) HG Publishing Ltd, Chalvington, P42
5 - Cartwright, R., Agargun, MY, Kirkby, J & Freidman, JK. Relation of dreams to waking concerns. (2006) Psychiatry Research, 141, p261-270
6 - Paul L. Dunham, Ph.D. and his team presented their research at the American Headache Society’s 52nd Annual Scientific Meeting., https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/rem-sleep-deprivation-and-migraines
7 - Roehrs T, Hyde M, Blaisdell B, Greenwald M, Roth T., Sleep loss and REM sleep loss are hyperalgesic, Sleep. (2006) Feb; 29(2):145-51., US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Heath, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16494081?report=abstract
8 - http://sleep.lovetoknow.com/Not_Reaching_Your_Sleep_REM
9 - Hatzigeorgiadis, A. Thoughts That Win, 25 May 2011, Association for Psychological Science.
10 - Hatzigeorgiadis, A. Instructional and Motivational Self-Talk: An Investigation on Perceived Self-Talk Functions, (2006) Hellenic Journal of Psychology, Vol 3, P164-175
11 - Newberg, A & Waldman, MR. Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict and Increase Intimacy, (2013) Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Ebook