Morning Zen

A Nation Burned Out: The Neurobiology of Finding Grace Under Pressure

October 11, 2019

It seems like wherever you go in this country most people you encounter are emotionally exhausted. Interestingly, emotional exhaustion seems to be the hallmark characteristic of burnout, which may be why, on the surface, burnout and depression look very similar. Being in a state of burnout may not only leave its mark by impairing personal and social functioning, it appears it leaves footprints in the human brain and other nervous systems as well- compromising neural functioning crucial for perspective taking, cooperative teamwork, and complex problem solving. Specifically, the brain starts showing signs of wear and tear in areas associated with emotion regulation and mental health, as the core dimensions of burnout are linked with emotional processing. There are other signs of a national burnout. For example, there seems to be high levels of cynicism, lethargy, and feelings associated with a loss of self-efficacy and sense of control rippling throughout society. Not unlike trauma, this can lead to hyperarousal, overwhelm, and shut down, impairing the learning and growth centers of the brain. It’s a prescription for social and cognitive disengagement alongside the activation of primal behaviors that keep us stuck in disintegration, disharmonizing interpersonal interactions, and overall outdated ways of perceiving the nature of reality. Could it be that this is the climate that has been created with our current political landscape? And, if so, what might this chronic elevated level of individual and collective stress be doing to our wellness? The human spirit? This discussion presents insights from the fields of modern neuroscience, mind-body research, and the psychophysiology of stress resilience that help us explore these questions.  

A State of Protection
The human nervous system has a built-in protection mechanism to manage dangerous situations. It’s not only the brain that goes into a vigilant state of bracing for danger – the body does as well. Both the brain and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) play a profound role in emotional and physiological responses to stress and trauma. Activation of survival physiology is directed by the sympathetic branch of the ANS. This is supposed to be a temporary state for short term protection. For example, when faced with a predator, the brain and the ANS respond in a manner that will lead to the greatest chances of staying alive. It is not concerned with thriving or flourishing. This response may be immobility and shutdown or anxiety, anger, and aggressiveness. Although, this primal response is the same one our ancestors experienced in their nervous systems, it can be triggered by a different set of life-threatening situations than what they more frequently encountered in the wild. For instance, the nervous system does not know the difference between being chased by a saber-toothed tiger and the threat created by knee-jerk responses and anger centered around president Donald Trump. In both cases the sympathetic nervous system driven fight-flight-freeze stress response is triggered, flooding the body and brain with a dose of stress hormones, such as cortisol. This state is not supposed to be chronically activated, as other important physiological housekeeping associated with repair and immune functioning is put on the back burner until the threat has been managed. Furthermore, what gets repeated gets hardwired in the form of neural pathways, or maps that are used to understand how the world works. We see the world through the lens of these maps and neural patterns in our nervous system. The impact of this is significant in the context of the current political and emotional geography in this country. In addition to having more colds, flus, and chronic illnesses, this also means that our brains are being constructed in a way that may not be in line with what we consciously intend for ourselves, which is why the reality we experience sometimes doesn’t match up with the outcome we had hoped for. By intentionally choosing where to put focus, leaders who have influence can play a significant role in changing the structure and function of their own brain and their mind, as well as the people they are supposed to be serving.  For these neurobiological changes to be associated with the expansion of human consciousness and positive social change, leaders need to have high levels of self-awareness and self-regulatory capacity. These are skills that must be cultivated in all of us, particularly when people in power do not possess them. As humans, we are faced with situations that challenge us to come outside of our comfort zone, or window of tolerance. These are opportunities for growth and expansion and coming together as a human family. But we can only do this if we create some space between stimulus and response (self-regulation) and engage in self-care essential for human performance. Findings from the fields of modern neuroscience, mindfulness, mind-body research, and the physiology of stress resilience underscore the importance of moving from a state of protection to connection in order to live consciously and on purpose. This is the space where we can engage in higher order thinking and respond with forethought and attention to self and others.  

Outside of Our Window of Tolerance
The optimal window within which we can respond to a stimulus without becoming overly aroused, and then be able to settle naturally is referred to as our window of tolerance. For example, if you accidentally step out in front of a bus while crossing the street, your heart rate and breathing will increase, and your muscles will tense. However, you can settle back to a state of normal behavior afterwards. You can regulate. Healthy windows of tolerance allow us to self-adjust during challenging experiences and return to rest again. However, if high levels of stress are chronic or prolonged without opportunities for rest and reset, the physiological changes will produce something referred to as allostatic overload. This ongoing state of responding to the emergency of survival seems to be where we are as a result of the political landscape, human rights violating legislation, negative media drama, and lack of emotion regulation skills in our leaders as well as throughout society. In the context of ongoing elevated levels of stress and emotional exhaustion, the parts of the nervous system that supports social engagement behaviors, awareness of self, and the experience of relaxation experience wear and tear. The physiological consequences of this wear and tear include things like a repeated rise in blood pressure, suppression of the immune system, irrational behavior, and damage to the areas of the brain needed for innovative solutions to long-standing social problems holding us back from accessing human potential. The leader of the free world may very well be triggering a public health crisis. 

Our Brains on Pain
To our brains, the response to primary needs like food, water, and safety from physical harm is the same as our response to how we feel people treat us. Social needs are treated like survival needs in the human brain. The brain experiences feeling ostracized the same as a smack in the face or being burned by a hot iron- or even a gunshot wound. There are core social needs that drive human behavior and that are experienced the same, if not more intensely, than physical rewards or threats to survival. Neuroscientists at UCLA recently discovered that social pain is experienced in the human brain the same as physical pain. As we evolved, the social circuitry piggybacked onto the pain circuitry in the brain because being socially connected is critical to survival. The experience of physical pain when we become disconnected to others is the brain’s solution to ensure we receive the nurturance essential to staying alive. Social needs include the need for feeling important to the group, having choice and autonomy, understanding what is going on to gain a sense of certainty needed to predict what is coming up, feeling connected and part of the group versus being labeled as being in the out-group, and perceiving that there is equity in the world around us and that we are on a level playing field. Humans require socially rewarding versus socially threatening environments to engage in higher order thinking and the cooperative teamwork necessary for thriving in the face of ongoing flux and turbulence. Psychological safety and connection underpin the neurobiology of the social engagement system, which is foundational to humans working together in harmony and in a way that optimizes collective intelligence. To collaborate effectively in human interactions, the brain requires that social needs be met. Otherwise it will be concentrating on trying to figure out how to survive versus engaging the regions of the brain necessary for experiencing a clear and deep understanding of complex situations. These needs are under high threat in this country with the bombardment of unpredictable primal behaviors exhibited by government leaders, conflicting media messages, and attention to how we are divided, separate, and in need of protection from our own brothers and sisters. Pain levels have been elevated and there doesn’t seem to be periods of relief. This administration’s assault on justice, humanity, the environment, and marginalized communities is leaving its footprints in our biology. Unfortunately, humans are not equipped for constant biological attacks. We will find ways to relieve the pain with things like drugs, alcohol, dissociation, and food, particularly energy dense nutrient deficient foods that are linked to inflammation in the brain and chronic illness. We are being called to learn emotion regulation and self-care strategies in order to prepare for, adapt in, and recover from stress, challenge, and adversity in more adaptive ways.   

Mindfulness, Self-Regulation, and Collective Post-Traumatic Growth
Trauma is when we have an experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope. Clearly, this experience has overwhelmed us and we are weary. Fortunately, there is always an invitation to find meaning and purpose after adversity- to rise to a higher level of functioning. Humans can grow from a traumatic experience and develop greater stress resilience capacity. We are already starting to see shifts in the way people think and relate to the world. For instance, over the past couple of years, youth have become more engaged in advocating for human rights and influencing positive social change.  People are gathering in numbers to shine light on acts of injustice and promote inclusivity and social harmony. There is transformative power in human suffering. Fear-based leadership uses emotional exhaustion and lack of sense making to rule. It is ok to be aware (mindful) of the fear, but not be ruled by it. This is the time for waking up. Our emotional response and ability to make sense (integrate) the experience we are having is key to deepening our resilience capacity and using this challenge to tap deeper levels of human kindness, compassion, and potential. It is not what happens to us that dictates our fate, it is how we make sense of it. To do this, we must come out of autopilot. Harvard psychologist and grandmother of mindfulness, Ellen Langer states, 

“Virtually all of us, almost all of the time, are not there.  All of our suffering — personal, interpersonal, professional, societal — either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness.”

Findings demonstrate that it is mindfulness and compassion that integrates the nervous system after biological insults. Contemplative practices and mental training where attention is being directed in a way that cultivates equanimity, emotion regulation, and improved well-being has been shown to be a promising intervention for burnout as well. Mindfulness, the act of purposefully and nonjudgmentally paying attention with open awareness to the present moment, is a state of consciousness also associated with increased performance and well-being. There seems to be something unique about the nature of observation and present-moment orientation, as they engage us in life differently. For instance, it has been shown to enhance mental performance indicators such as attention, memory, creativity, and emotion regulation, while attenuating the deleterious effects of stress and burnout. Studies show mindfulness practice increases the activation and cortical thickness of the prefrontal cortex and anterior insula, both of which are linked to enhanced self-awareness and self-regulation – two skills fundamental to mental and psychosocial health.  

Mindfulness is a critical ingredient for compassion. Compassion activates the parasympathetic nervous system as opposed to the fear response. It lowers the heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation levels in the body, boosting the immune system. It has even been shown to increase the length of telomeres, the caps at the end of our chromosomes that are associated with health and longevity. Compassion triggers the mammalian caregiving system and causes a release of the hormone oxytocin, increasing feelings of trust and cooperation. We see that this need to emotionally regulate is not just within ourselves, but between each other as well. Research shows the quality of our thoughts and emotions effects the heart’s magnetic field, which effects other people in the environment; our emotions are encoded in the human biofield that surrounds each of us. This is not woo-woo, it is science. We are interconnected and effecting each other’s psychological and physical wellbeing, underscoring the importance of self-regulation and high levels of stress resilience capacity for facilitating the change we want to see in the world. It is no longer enough to be smart. A key challenge we face is to achieve the physiological conditions that allow us to be agents of positive change in an age of increasing chaos, complexity, and incoherence. States of dysregulation activate distrust in those around us. It is a state of shutting down the social engagement system. When the social engagement system is shut down, we do not have access to the neurobiology that separate us from lower primates, or the heart intelligence required for effectively navigating the complexity and disarray we see in the present social landscape.  Dr. Rollin McCraty, the director of research from the HeartMath Institute states, 

“Failures of self-regulation are central to the vast majority of health and social problems.  The most important strength that the majority of people need to build is the capacity to self-regulate their emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.”  

Self-regulation and self-care are not things we do on the weekends or during a two-week vacation at the beach. This is not enough to cultivate the self-awareness and mind-body-spirit development human beings need to collectively facilitate a shift in consciousness. Daily ritual practice attending to self-development is what is needed. One place to start is with the breath. 10-20 minutes of mindfulness and/or emotion regulation practice is a good starting place. There are 1440 minutes in a day. A 10-minute practice leaves 1430 minutes. No need to feel like this is an addition you can’t afford to add to your routine. Simply substitute for 10 minutes of negative news or television. If sitting still seems daunting, take up a yoga practice, which is founded in both ancient wisdom and modern science. There are somatically oriented mindfulness practices that nurture self-regulatory capacity and resilience. I suggest sprinkling some gratitude (daily) in there as well, as gratitude has been shown to rewire the brain for resilience. To wake up even more and perform at our best, we need 7-8 hours of quality sleep, daily physical movement, time in nature, and a diet that consists of whole non-processed foods.  One might think food is the last thing they need to worry about with respect to the current crisis we are facing. I invite us to reconsider, as we are now informed that depression and anxiety, along with almost every other state of dis-ease, are tightly connected to gut health. An inflamed gut is an inflamed brain. Getting sleep, minding the breath and emotions, moving, eating well, and perhaps sitting quietly under a tree may seem like good ideas, as this is what we have been told in the past- they are ‘good’ ideas. However, cutting edge science underscores lifestyle medicine is mission critical for those who want to be a game changer. And, boy do we need some game changers.   

Conclusion
I don’t have the answers to the dilemma and social pain we are facing. However, I do know that we won’t find them if we don’t learn how to access the areas of our brain and somatic wisdom necessary for insight, collaboration, and complex problem solving. If we stay on this trauma narrative path and collective burnout, we will be stuck in a cycle of pain and loss of identity. We have observed the excruciating challenges with efforts to control a leader lacking social and emotional intelligence skills required to perform as president. It may be safe to say that an external locus of control could be increasing the feeling of having little effect on the outcomes of our lives. This doesn’t mean in any way that we step away from being paradigm shifters and agents of change. However, as we continue to rub up against this edge, I invite us to see it as a place to engage in the self-inquiry and self-investigation important for authentically embodying these roles. Perhaps an opportunity to engage in deep self-care and wellness has presented itself so that we can lead change from the inside out.

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About the Author

Laurie Ellington

Laurie is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zero Point Leadership, a leading-edge neuroscience-based personal and leadership learning, and development organization. She is also co-founder of NeuroLeader University, the world’s first neuroscience-based online university dedicated to expanding personal and leadership greatness through science-based learning, and the co-author of Six Steps to Unlocking Extraordinary Leadership: The Neuroscience of High-Performance Leadership. Laurie is among the pioneers who recognize that we change the world by harnessing the power of the connection between the heart and mind. Combining findings from neuroscience, mind-body research, stress resilience, mindfulness, and flow, she helps individuals, teams, and organizations change the way they think, feel, and show up in the world.

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