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Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress

Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress

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Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress

Length:
202 pages
3 hours
Released:
Apr 5, 2016
ISBN:
9780757319099
Format:
Book

Description

Success in work, love, and life depends on developing habits that activate the powerful prefrontal cortex when we need it most. Unfortunately, under stress, the human brain tends to revert to emotional habits we forged in toddlerhood: blame, denial, avoidance, reacting to a jerk like a jerk, and turning our connections into cold shoulders—or worse.

In Soar Above, renowned relationship expert Dr. Steven Stosny offers a ground-breaking formula for building new, pressure-resistant habits. Based on research in psychology, neurobiology, and anthropology, Stosny will show anyone how to switch to the adult brain automatically when things get tough and to soar above the impulse to make things worse. Filled with engaging examples from his lectures and therapeutic work with more than 6,000 clients, he explains how to use two potent laws of emotion interaction--reciprocity and contagion-- to inspire those around you, creating collaboration and community instead of chaos and confusion.

Most importantly, readers will learn how, through practice, they can get off the treadmill of repeating past mistakes to become their best selves at home, at work, and in the world.

Stress is inevitable in life, but this illuminating book gives anyone the practical tools to rise above.
Released:
Apr 5, 2016
ISBN:
9780757319099
Format:
Book

About the author

Steven Stosny, PhD, has treated more than 4,000 people for various relationship problems through CompassionPower, the organization he founded and has directed for more than twelve years. His textbook, Treating Attachment Abuse: A Compassionate Approach, set a new standard for understanding and treating family abuse and is widely used in therapeutic settings in the United States and abroad. Dr. Stosny has authored many articles and chapters in professional books and has been quoted by, or been the subject of articles in, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Women's World, O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, AP, Reuters, and USA Today. He has also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other national television shows.


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Soar Above - Steven Stosny

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Preface

This book began as a way of answering three questions that have nagged at me throughout my thirty-plus years of clinical practice:

Why do so many smart and creative people make the same mistakes over and over, in life, work, and love?

At what point does the unavoidable emotional pain of life become entirely avoidable suffering?

How do we escape suffering while remaining vibrant and passionate about life?

Neurological discoveries in recent years have helped answer the first two questions, as we’ll see in the body of the book. But the third question goes beyond science to the very nature of what it means to be human.

We’re Animals, After All, But Much More

The brains of all animals readily form conditioned responses to better negotiate the world around them. A rabbit nibbling on grass automatically runs when shadows move on the ground, even if it never witnessed a hawk swoop down on a littermate. The shadows are associated with an impulse to run, not necessarily with danger, when the moving shadows in its life experience were from branches of trees swaying in the breeze. Most of us will turn on an electrical device—TV, radio, smartphone—when coming home to an empty house or apartment, but not necessarily because we’re lonely. Our brains have associated quiet in the home with an impulse to seek passive stimulation, lest we fall into stupor. We’re less likely to reach for the electrical device when we come home engrossed in thought. The brain tends to associate interest with depth of learning or experience, rather than distraction, and with proactive, not passive, stimulation.

The human brain forms conditioned responses not merely to environmental cues, such as moving shadows, brewing storms, and quiet houses. Our brains build conditioned responses to physiological and emotional states, our own as well as those of others. A slight drop in blood sugar causes many people to fantasize about candy or ice cream. Many folks grow sad when tired. Many more look for someone to blame when they feel distressed for any reason. Almost everyone reacts automatically to the physiological signs and emotional displays of others. It feels as if they bring us down or rev us up, attract or repulse us, without a word being said.

The rabbit is probably better off running when shadows move on the ground. But the world we live in is much more complex than a backyard of thick grass, shady trees, and, on very rare occasions, shadows from a soaring hawk. The world we live in is fraught with nuance and ambiguity.

The Great Limitation

The brain strings together a series of conditioned responses to forge habits, which are behaviors that run on autopilot—things we do without thinking. As we’ll see later in the book, much of what we do, we do by habit. More pointedly, habits rule under stress, when the mental resources required for intentional behavior are taxed. The extensive training for stressful jobs—from military service to air traffic control—is necessary to overcome the formidable limitations of conditioned responses and habits.

Habits limit growth and well-being because the two major regions of the human brain mature nearly a quarter century apart. Most of our conditioned emotional responses had been shaped into habits before the profound part of the brain—the upper prefrontal cortex—was fully online. We make the same mistakes again and again, even though we know better, because under stress the less sophisticated part of the brain overrides the ability to invoke most of what we’ve learned.

Many of the habits activated under stress violate our deeper values­­—for example, blaming, yelling, stonewalling, or devaluing loved ones. To escape the guilt, shame, and anxiety that are unavoidable in violating deeper values, we employ the prefrontal cortex, not to correct and regulate our toddler-like responses, but to justify them. Justifying behaviors that violate deeper values not only makes things worse, it greatly increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior. That’s why we distrust people when they’re defensive—they seem to be justifying violations of deeper values. Our experience tells us that justified behavior is likely to be repeated.

The great limitation of the human brain is its tendency under stress to engage complex social interactions—not to mention the complicated and nuanced emotional terrain of close relationships—with feelings and behaviors conditioned in the part of the brain dominated by Mine and No. It’s a tendency that we must rise above to reduce emotional pain and that we must soar above to achieve a life of meaning and purpose.

Soar Above

To soar above is to go beyond limits, to become greater, to become the most empowered and humane persons we can be. The ability to soar above the limitations of habits and conditioned responses is a large part of what it means to be human.

The goal of this book is to use habits to overcome the limitations of habits, that is, to forge habits of invoking the most profound part of the brain under stress. These new habits will transform us into the kind of persons, parents, and partners that, deep in our hearts, we most want to be.

CHAPTER 1

The Profound Brain

The human prefrontal cortex is the pinnacle of biological development in the mammalian world, by far nature’s crowning glory. It enables us to look at a tree and imagine a house, calculate the many steps involved in cutting down the tree, grinding it into beams and plywood, and fastening the segments together to form a floor, walls, roof, and so on. (Consider for a moment how wondrous it is to see a tree and imagine a house.) The prefrontal cortex empowered us to go well beyond mere survival to become the only animals that range across the planet, scratching out vast farmlands, building great cities, and creating advanced civilization.

A relatively late addition to mammalian species, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) exhibits many specialties, including analysis, sensitivity to the perspectives of others, judgment, calculation, and regulation of impulses and emotions. It appraises environmental cues and organizes information to reconcile those appraisals with internal experience—thoughts, sensations, emotions, and impulses—in a process known as reality-testing. It then decides on behavior consistent with learned preferences, prejudices, or deeper values.

The strongest internal signals to which the PFC must apply reality-testing are emotions. Consistent regulation of emotions requires continually:

Interpreting emotional signals (This is how I feel)

Testing emotional signals against environmental cues (There is something or someone around me making me feel this way or there isn’t; it’s a false alarm)

Considering preferences (This is what I like)

Weighing deeper values (This is most important to me)

Deciding a course of action (This is what I will do)

As I look out my office window, I feel a sense of peace within. My PFC tests the reality of that feeling and decides that it is accurate, because I’m looking at a beautiful lake lined by lush trees. I decide to linger with the splendid lake view. But if the reality were different—for example, there was a storm—my PFC would regulate the anticipated peaceful feeling with the more urgent information from the environment, and I would probably check the windows and ensure that nothing important is loose in the backyard. Or if the lake was peaceful, but I felt anxious or depressed when looking at it, the PFC would modulate my internal experience to match the beauty of the environmental cues, because reverence for natural beauty is a deep personal value of mine. In other words, I’d remove focus from my feelings, which would allow appreciation of my surroundings. As a result, I’d feel better.

The PFC provides a level of self-awareness and awareness of others unparalleled in the animal world by virtue of what psychologists call theory of mind. That’s the ability to ascribe mental states, such as beliefs, feelings, motives, and desires, to self and others. Perhaps most important, the PFC enhances our most humane qualities, such as appreciation and higher order compassion—sympathy for vulnerabilities that we do not share. Thus we are able to create connections of value with other people, in which we both give and receive emotional support. As a byproduct of its combined processes, the PFC creates value and meaning in our lives.

Nature Saves the Best for Last

Not only did it develop late in evolutionary history, the PFC matures late in each individual due to delayed myelination, which isn’t complete until the second decade of life. Myelin is the substance that lines nerve fibers to protect and insulate neurons. It aids in the quick and accurate transmission of electrical currents carrying data from one nerve cell to the next. In other words, the PFC isn’t functionally online much before the second decade of life. Hence, it is called the Adult brain.

As we mature, the Adult brain gradually takes over dominance from that which controls the world of toddlers: the primitive limbic system, a relatively small region common to all mammals. (When you see a picture or model of the brain, you don’t see the limbic system. The large cerebral cortex sits over it like a helmet with a slit in the middle, where the two major hemispheres of the brain join together.) Although the brain is always changing, the limbic system is pretty much fully developed on a structural level by age three. Hence, it is called the Toddler brain.

The primary survival function of the limbic system is to generate an alarm. But it has little reality-testing capability—that is, it can’t distinguish what is really happening in the environment from what is being thought, imagined, or dreamed. That’s how we can have intense emotions when nothing is happening around us, invoked by thoughts, memories, imagination, or dreams. Reality-

testing is the province of the Adult brain.

From a survival standpoint, the gap in development between the Toddler brain and the regulatory Adult brain makes sense. The only way toddlers can survive is to sound an alarm that will get adults to take care of them. There is little survival advantage in regulating the alarm as long as the underdeveloped PFC is incapable of figuring out how to make things better. Because they can do very little for themselves, toddlers must manipulate their caregivers into doing things for them. Later in toddlerhood they’re able to cajole with sweetness and affection. (What is more adorable than a three-year-old?) But early on they coerce caregivers through their greatest tool—the alarm, ranging from persistent whining to full-blown temper tantrums. (We tolerate the harshness of the alarm in toddlers because they’re so damned cute and lovable.) When comforted instead of punished when they experience intense negative emotions, toddlers learn that they do not have to hide part of themselves to gain connection. When connection persists during positive and negative experience—that is, when care-

givers do not react to the alarm either by rejecting or withdrawing affection—children learn gradually that they prefer the positive experience of the connection to their reflexive reaction of No! Mine! They begin the lifelong task of balancing the Grand Human Contradiction.

The Grand Human Contradiction

Human beings are unique among animals in the need to balance two opposing drives. The drive to be autonomous—able to decide our own thoughts, imagination, creativity, feelings, and behavior—must compete with an equally strong drive to connect to others. We want to be free and independent without feeling controlled. At the same time, we want to rely on significant others—and have them rely on us—for support and cooperation. Other social animals—those who live in groups and packs and form rudimentary emotional bonds—have relatively little or no discernible sense of individuality to assert and defend. Solitary animals are free and independent but do not form bonds with others that last beyond mother-infancy. Only humans struggle with powerful drives that pull us in opposite directions, where too much emotional investment in one impairs emotional investment in the other.

Competition between the drives for autonomy and connection is so important to human development that it emerges in full force in toddlerhood, which is why the twos can be so terrible. Toddlerhood is the first stage of development in which children seem to realize how separate they are from their caregivers, as they become aware of emotional states that differ from those of their parents. They had previously felt a kind of merging with caregivers, which provided a sense of security and comfort. The new realization of differences stirs excitement and curiosity but also attenuates the comfort and security of the merged state. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity. They don’t know who they are, but when aroused, they know who they’re not: they’re not whatever you want. Thus we have the favorite two words of the toddler: Mine! and No!

The increasing conflict with parents wrought by the drive for autonomy presents obstacles to the other powerful human drive: to connect, to value and be valued, to be comforted and to comfort. Hostility toward their parents, however short in duration, stirs uncomfortable feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, which fuel intense emotional distress: the classic temper tantrum. Internal emotional conflict is overwhelming for toddlers because they have so little development in the regulatory part of their brains—the PFC.

But for many people, the emotional intensity of those early struggles to balance autonomy with connection forged strong neural pathways in the developing brain. Under stress, these fortified neural patterns—reinforced countless times over the years—hijack higher cognitive processes to validate its alarms and justify its impulsivity and overreactions, instead of modifying them with assessments of reality.

The Two Brains

The downside of late maturity in the Adult brain is that it comes online after the Toddler brain has already formed habits of coping with the alarms it raises, mostly through blame, denial, and avoidance. Many Adult brain interpretations and explanations under stress are dominated by those habits, which lowers the accuracy of its reality-testing and impairs its ability to make viable judgments. To the extent that Toddler brain habits are reinforced in adulthood, the Adult confuses the alarm with reality, which makes Toddler brain alarms self-validating:

If I’m angry at you, you must be doing something wrong. If I’m anxious, you must be threatening, rejecting, or manipulative.

The result is self-fulfilling prophesy. Other people are bound to react negatively to the negativity I transmit.

Fortunately, the Adult brain has the power to override Toddler brain habits and intentionally develop new ones that serve one’s long-term best interests. Developing new habits is not an easy process, but it’s utterly necessary to soaring above. The first step is to change the way we regard Toddler brain alarms.

Negative Feelings Are Signals, Not Reality

All alarm systems, negative feelings included, are calibrated to give false positives. You don’t want a smoke alarm that doesn’t go off until the house is in flames; you want it to go off when there’s just a little smoke, even if that means it occasionally gets

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