Category Archives: Self-Care

The Brain and Emotional Self-Control

Different brain areas are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to inhibit an emotion, according a new study from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University.

In this study, published in Brain Structure and Function, the researchers scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing for oneself to suppress an emotion. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

“This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally,” said lead author Dr Simone Kuhn (Ghent University).

In most previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or inhibit an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide ourselves whether to feel or control our emotions.

In this new study the researchers showed fifteen healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the participants. They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.

Different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

In contrast, when participants were instructed by the experimenter to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.

“We think controlling one’s emotions and controlling one’s behaviour involve overlapping mechanisms,” said Dr Kuhn.

“We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions.”

Regulating emotions is part of our daily life, and is important for our mental health. For example, many people have to conquer fear of speaking in public, while some professionals such as health-care workers and firemen have to maintain an emotional distance from unpleasant or distressing scenes that occur in their jobs.

Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) co-author of the paper said the brain mechanism identified in this study could be a potential target for therapies.

“The ability to manage one’s own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research.

“Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals’ ability to rise above particular emotional situations.

“This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion. But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations.”

Five Strengths

I used to think that mentally strong people had superhuman qualities. I thought that they were bestowed with some sort of cybernetic strength that they – and only they – had.

I thought I would never be like that. In fact, I thought most people would never be like that.

But then I tried something. I took on a challenge that to me seemed impossible. And while we all have things that seem impossible – completing a book, starting a business, passing state exams – mine happened to be running a hundred mile race.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done. But when I finished, I also realized something. The ONLY thing that had held me back was my perception. See, I thought the race would be harder than it really was. I thought it would be so hard that I couldn’t do it. And that is EXACTLY what had held me back.

What I realized was that mental toughness isn’t about being superhuman. It’s about cultivating a few strengths consistently.

Here they are:

Gratitude: You may not associate gratitude with mental toughness, but you probably do associate mental toughness with overcoming adversity. That’s where gratitude come in. Gratitude gives us the reserve we need when times get tough. I think of it like an extra energy source that I can reach into when I have nothing left. Because there are ALWAYS things to be grateful for. And sometimes when facing adversity, it is those things we need to find to get through. And mentally strong people know just how to direct this quality to counteract the chain of negative thoughts that we all face when things don’t go our way. It’s then that we need to remember when things did go well, the successes we have had, and the people along the way who have helped us.

Openness: Mentally tough people do not see the world as a set of predictable steps that lead to the promised-land. Life is just not like that, and mentally strong people know that the only thing we know for sure is that things will change. And sometimes, in ways that we don’t like. But the other thing that happens when life puts a roadblock in our path is that we find a new path. And sometimes a better one. What mentally strong people know is every adversity also bring opportunity. But in order to see it, we have to first be willing to change.

A Sense of Personal Strength: The belief that you are strong doesn’t happen because things went your way. Perception of strength is carved out through the setbacks, roadblocks, and difficulties you’ve faced. It happens because you earned it. And while mentally strong people won’t tell you that they enjoy battling adversity, they will say that life without adversity is like life not actualized. Because it’s in adversity that our strengths our realized. And it’s in then that we come to know how strong we really are.

Meaningful Relationships: The truth is no one can go it alone – not even mentally strong people. But mentally strong people also don’t need an entire army cheering for them. What they do need – and what all need – are a few close relationships where we can let ourselves be seen. We can let our guard down, say what we need to say, and be heard. Every person – even the strongest – has a need to be accepted. And not just for their strengths. Because what mentally strong people also know is that strength is nothing without the vulnerability to be seen as we are – faults and all. It is only then that we can make peace with our faults. And it is only then that we can also make peace with our losses and find the strength to move forward.

Faith: You don’t have to be a spiritual person. You don’t even have to believe in God. But what mentally strong people know is that in order to get through adversity you do have to have faith. You have to believe that somehow it is possible. It is possible for you to face adversity and make it through. It is possible for you to grow stronger from it. And it is possible for you to be mentally tough. It all starts with faith – in yourself, and in something larger than you. Because the minute you connect your experience to something larger, it isn’t about you anymore. And the adversity you face isn’t personal. Adversity becomes something that we all face – for the purpose of getting strong.

Self-Care and Depression

As a clinical psychologist, Mary Pipher, PhD, designed “healing packages” for her patients: activities, resources, and comforts to help them recover from trauma. Then, after Dr. Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia became a runaway best-seller, she herself suffered from an episode of major depression and designed a healing package of her own. “The essence of my personal healing package,” she describes in her book Seeking Peace, “was to keep my life as simple and quiet as possible and to allow myself sensual and small pleasures.” She created a mini-retreat center in her home and modified the ancient ways of calming troubled nerves to fit her lifestyle. Pipher’s healing package looked like this:

She accessed the healing power of water by walking at Holmes Lake Dam, swimming at the university’s indoor pool, and reading The New Yorker magazine in the bathtub every morning.loneliness1.jpg

She cooked familiar foods, dishes that reminded her of home: jaternice, sweetbreads, and perch; and cornbread and pinto beans with ham hocks.

She unpacked her childhood teacup collection and displayed it near her computer desk to remind her of happy times and of people who loved her.

She reconnected with the natural world by walking many miles every week on the frozen prairie, watching the yellow aconites blossom in February and the daffodils and jonquils in March, following the cycles of the moon, and witnessing sunrises and sunsets.

She read biographies of heroes like Abe Lincoln, and read the poetry of Billy Collins, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser.

She found role models for coping with adversity.

She limited her encounters with people and gave herself permission to skip holiday gatherings and postpone social obligations. She erased calendar engagements until she had three months of “white space” in her future.

She embraced her body through yoga and massage. She started to pay attention to tension in her neck and other cues from her body and let those signals teach her about herself.

msclip-030.jpgShe meditated every day.

These activities were exactly what she needed to emerge from the other side of depression. She writes:

After taking care of my body for several months, it began to take good care of me. My blood pressure improved and my heart problems disappeared. After a few months of my simple, relatively stress-free life and my healing package of activities, I felt my depression lifting. I enjoyed the return of positive emotions: contentment, joy, calmness and new sparks of curiosity and energy. I again felt a great tenderness toward others.


Psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, discusses similar healing packages in his best-selling book Unstuck. At the end of his first meetings with all of his patients, he will write out a “prescription of self-care,” which includes instructions on changing diet, advice about specific recommended meditations or exercises, and a list of supplements and herbs. “Among my recommendations, there are always actions, techniques, approaches, and attitudes that each person has told me — which she already knows — are helpful,” he explains. At the end of his introduction, he suggests each reader take some time to write out his or her own prescription. He supplies a form and everything.

Each person’s healing package is unique. Many people have benefited from more meditation and mindfulness exercises, psychotherapy sessions, and therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that help unclog the brain of painful memories. Some people do better with more physical exercise and nutritional changes. While mindfulness and meditation have certainly helped many become aware of my rumination patterns, the most profound changes in others recovery  have come from the bags of dark, green leafy vegetables, yoga, and breathing exercises.

It’s empowering to know that we don’t need a doctor or any mental health professional to design a healing package for us. We are perfectly capable of writing this prescription ourselves. Sometimes (not always), all it takes are a few simple tweaks to our lifestyle over a period of time to pull us out of a crippling depression or unrelenting anxiety.