#83 4 Steps to Reduce the Affects of Emotional Stress on Your Brain

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Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, going through and completing treatment, finding yourself in the middle of a pandemic…all of this creates a very real stress on your brain. 

Worse Yet, the energy required by your brain to get through that stress takes away from the energy your brain has to focus on other things.  

So, you may find that you’re having difficulty focusing, maybe you’re not feeling creative, or strategic. Maybe you're not able to plan or face any but the simplest tasks. You may not even understand why this all feels so difficult, when it’s really just how your brain responds to emotional and social distress nearly the same what it responds to physical pain. 

In this show I’m going to talk with you about four steps you can take to reduce the burden of stress on your brain, get an understanding of how you can be more harmonious and connected with your loved ones, and how you can give your home a mood boost. 

Don’t let social isolation get the best of you, listen in. 


Emotional and Physical Pain Activate Similar Brain Regions

Read Full Transcript Below:

This is Laura Lummer, the breast cancer recovery coach. I'm a healthy lifestyle coach, a clinical Ayurveda specialist, a personal trainer, and I'm also a breast cancer survivor. In this podcast, we talk about healthy thinking and mindfulness practices, eating well, moving your body for health and longevity. And we'll also hear from other breast cancer survivors who have reengaged with life and have incredible stories to share. This podcast is your go to resource for getting back to life after breast cancer.


Well, hello, and welcome to another episode of the breast cancer recovery coach. I am your host Laura Lummer. And I am so happy that you joined me here today. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to listen to this show in what is just a wild time in our lives, isn't it?


I live here in Southern California and we were just finishing I believe it is week four of our quarantine or shelter at home. And, you know, I think it's something that we need to be really sensitive to, I want to be sensitive to what everyone is going through during this time. Because we're not just isolated at home, but we have also have special holidays and religious events that are happening right now. And you may have traditions around you that you aren't able to partake in this year and that's tough. And you may not be able to partake in them because of the quarantine but also because of treatment in your own immunity. And that's not an easy thing to deal with.


And as I talked about last week, we all respond differently to having our lives disrupted. So today I want to talk with you about the human brain and how it actually responds to emotional distress and how that affects the way you function and get through your day in other areas.


This is important not only in a pandemic. But as I've said before, there are so many parallels between what we're experiencing in this pandemic, and what we go through, during and after breast cancer.


So I'll touch on that whole experience. And I'll give you some simple tips to brighten your emotional state and support your immunity, as well as supporting the environment in your home while you're forced to stay there.


So here is a really interesting insight. According to a 2012 article in Psychology Today, the same two areas in your brain that light up when you're in physical pain, also light up when you're in emotional pain or social distress. And by light up, I mean, through scientific studies and by looking at the brain during functional MRI, to see what happens when people in distress studies have shown this to happen.


So, I recently attended a course on the neuroscience of thriving through disruption, through the neuro Leadership Institute. Where this same concept of physical and emotional pain and how it affects the brain was also addressed. They have a very cool way of looking at how when we're threatened by something, how that impacts us, how it affects the way that we think and function, and how that feeling can escalate and get more intense, and how we respond to it. So I want to share that with you really quickly.


So for instance, before you had breast cancer, you certainly had heard of other women who had had it, and it was probably something that seemed scary. I mean, breast cancer is a scary thing. But it didn't really impact your day to day functioning, because it wasn't happening to you. And you probably never thought it would happen to you.


Similarly, when you heard about this virus spreading all around China, you may have thought as I did, it was really scary and it's awful, but it certainly is going to impact my life here in the United States or wherever you live Australia, Ireland, Canada. Things like that just don't happen here, right? It's an isolated thing that happened in some underground market somewhere in China.


So at that level, you're aware of what's going on, but it doesn't really stress you out because it isn't personally impacting your life.


Then there's a situation where your level of stress can increase and that starts to impact your brain and your nervous system. That would be more like knowing someone close to you, a family member, maybe even a neighbor, a friend or co worker or a loved one who's going through cancer or knowing someone who has COVID-19 or who's lost someone to it.


This increases that level of threat to your own health because now it's closer to you. It's somebody that you know, and it may actually begin to influence you to change your own behaviors, like cleaning up your diet, or starting to take supplements. Or in the case of a virus, you may isolate a little more, start taking things a little more seriously.


Basically, at this point, when something threatening is closer to you kind of like in your own neighborhood, you start to realize that this actually could potentially happen to you. And that can start to create stress in your brain, an emotional distress response.


And then there's the highest level of threat and this is when you personally are affected, you have received a diagnosis or you have been exposed to the virus, or you are forced to be isolated, and you feel like this risk of getting sick is very real and very close to you. Or you have a diagnosis and you know that you are sick. So now, your fight or flight response is kicking in and your body and your brain are experiencing stress.


Now, as far as breast cancer, I want to give one more scenario here. Because once you're out of treatment, of course, that highest level of stress would be you've had a diagnosis, you're in treatment. But once you're out of treatment, it may take some time for your level of stress to come back down from that highest level. Because the truth is that since you've already been personally affected, and you know that threat is very real for you, and it's something that's still a chance there's, there's still this threat of it looms over you.


Because we know that once we've had cancer, that we have a higher chance of recurrence right compared to people who haven't, obviously, that there's that threat that hangs over us for some time. So, you still, even after that experience, have to take intentional action to manage the effect of that stress and the thoughts you have that increase that level of stress.


So, the important thing about understanding which level of threat or level of stress you're under, is that the higher the level of stress is, the more it affects your brain and your ability to think in complex ways or to perform complex tasks. Now, this is really important because if you feel unable to focus, or to finish something and you find yourself saying, I don't even know what's wrong with me? Addressing and managing your level of stress or threat, as well as managing the energy you do have available in your brain, aside from being stressed about it will actually help you.


So, the first step in this process of really beginning to understand what it is you're experiencing, is to be very specific about what you're afraid of, actually naming that threat or that stressor and the emotions you experience around it. This helps to process and manage your situation.


So, think about this. How could you manage something if you don't even know what it is?


If you feel Emotional or frazzled, and you find yourself being moody or angry or snapping at other people, and you respond with I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm just in a mood. That's not helping you. And it's not helping anyone around you. However, if you say, I'm really worried about my financial situation, because of loss of work from treatment, or quarantine, or both, then you can start addressing that situation. And your loved ones can talk with you about it, and help you find solutions.


If you say I'm having a really hard time dealing with all the uncertainty in my life right now, or how unfair I feel like life or the world is because of what you have been going through, and what you're still going through now, that can now be dealt with. So now it's something tangible. So, the first step in managing your brains reaction to things threat into emotional stressors is to acknowledge that you feel threatened or fearful.


Now, I know that a lot of you are saying right now Well, I just want to I want to appear strong, right? I want to be strong. So, let me ask you this. Is it stronger to hold everything in and live in denial, making yourself physically ill by bottling up your emotions, and then pretending they don't exist?


Or on the flip side of that, is it strong to let your emotions rule you? And you find yourself losing your mind from time to time on everyone around you? Or you partake in unhealthy behaviors that undermine your wellness even more, but you convince yourself you're doing what you deserve. Right, or treating myself as if you deserve self-sabotage by Ben and Jerry's or Captain Morgan. Or is it actually stronger to take time for yourself? Get a real awareness, of what you're struggling with, name that thing, and then begin to create solutions to reduce your suffering.


I say that the latter requires much more strength because it does. The other two require no awareness, no energy investment into yourself. And they result in no personal growth. So, acknowledging what you feel in naming it. That's the first step.


And that may take a little time to figure out because when you first experience an emotional stressor, your brain reacts with shock. You don't want to believe this is really happening. You can't possibly have breast cancer. You can't possibly be locked down in a pandemic, locked out of work, isolated from loved ones on Easter weekend. I mean, how could this be real? Right? It's very shocking.


And then when it kind of starts to settle in, that this actually is real. Many of us begin to go through a period of pain, right? We go through the struggle of getting through treatment. We go through that struggle in the pain of being in chaos, having our finances impacted. It's a scary time. And the impact of stress hits our brain hard and makes it even more challenging to focus and get things done.


But if you're willing to acknowledge and label what you're going through, you begin creating new routines, and creating structure to support you feeling as well as you can in a new environment while dealing with a crisis. And that's step two.


So, you've looked at it, you've acknowledged what you're feeling, you've labeled it, you've named it, and now you set up new routines around it, new routines to kind of bring the level of chaos down a little bit. You acknowledge the level of stress, you're dealing with and you begin to put off complex tasks or projects, if that's possible.


If it's not possible, then you can break them up into smaller chunks, and tackle them over a longer period of time, during the times of the day when you feel the most clear headed, which is typically at the beginning of the day.


So, this setting up routines, it kind of helps to bring down that level of stress. And the acknowledging what you're feeling. And the stress you're under helps you to be able to say, you know, I'm feeling this stress. So, I know that a lot of the energy in my brain those areas that have lit up in my brain are taking some of the energy from my brain. So, I have to be careful about how I'm managing the energy that I do use to continue to bring the stressor down. Because if you're feeling stressed and you're feeling threatened, and you have all this anxiety and your, your brain is literally incapable at that point of creating these complex kinds of thought patterns, or planning or, you know, really high functioning, but you force yourself to try to do them anyway.


Then, you really kind of add more stress, because you're not going to be able to do them. And then you're going to feel as if you failed. You're going to feel you know that you're less than or all of that guilt starts to come in. So, recognizing the stress, recognizing the level of stress you're under, and then creating routines to support that, in times to do the things that are more difficult and require more thinking. That's important. That's a good way to support and bring your stress level down.


So, some things to consider as you're setting up these routines are that you really want to limit your exposure to media. I think I talked about that last week too, but I'm just going to touch on it again. Because that goes for both when you're diagnosed with breast cancer, or when you're dealing with this pandemic. Build in time to get the information you need. To know what you need to know, and then shut it down.


The constant research of everything about breast cancer, once you've already made an informed decision. Or the continuous exposure to COVID News and scary stories once you've already decided how you're managing the situation; it only creates more social and emotional distress. It creates more burden on your brain, and it lessens your ability to think and function optimally.


I saw this post from one of my friends the other day, and it was someone wrapped in a plastic trash bag, wearing a hazmat suit and a gas mask curled up into a little ball in this trash bag on a couch. And the caption read, me after watching an hour of news on COVID-19.


Now that is not the kind of life anyone wants to live. So even if you have to be isolated for whatever reason, whether the reason is breast cancer, it's a compromised immune system or it's just the general everybody is sheltering at home. You ALWAYS have the choice of how you want to live your days.


You have the ability to limit things that create stress for you, to be intentional about incorporating the things that bring happiness to you, and to create and stick to these healthy boundaries. You can do all that independent of what is happening around you. So really try not to get stuck into thinking that you have to wait for things to go back to normal and begin to create new approaches to living your life in the best way you can, as things are now.


 Another very important thing, especially if you're isolated with other people, is to practice empathy for each other. Even when you're going through recovering from breast cancer treatment, it's important to be empathetic with the people around you. Remember how I said earlier that the level of stress reaction in your brain escalates when a threat is closer to you.


So, in this pandemic situation, and in the situation of breast cancer, your loved one’s stress levels are increased, just as yours probably are at the idea of someone you love getting infected. Or they would be if someone you love had cancer, it's kind of a vicious circle, they're worried about you, you're worried about them. So, the important thing is to treat each other with empathy. Try to understand each person's brain processes stress and threats differently.


So, it's a very good idea to talk about how stressed you feel as a couple, as a family and reevaluate the tasks and expectations that you have of each other. Maybe change things up around the house for a bit to just bring the stress level down for everyone. And to openly understand what each person is trying to process, what each person is going through.


Okay, so finally, as promised earlier, here's a little tip, something very simple you can do to increase the wellness in your environment, in your home and support your own immunity. This is something I absolutely love to do, and I think it's so simple people underestimate it. But something you can do to improve to reduce the stress level and improve the mood is to diffuse essential oils in your home.


Essential oils have been shown in many studies to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-asthmatic among other benefits all of these properties. Now, am I saying that diffusing essential oils in your home is going to kill COVID-19 virus? No, I'm absolutely not saying that.


But I am saying diffusing essential oils in your environment or using them in natural cleaning solutions around your house can reduce microbes in your home, it can support respiratory health, and it supports your emotional well-being.


So, for example, as a cleaning solution if you take a one-quart container, and you mix two parts of white vinegar with one part of water, and then you could add 12 to 24 drops of essential oils. Now, don't be mistaken. If you're not really familiar with essential oils, they're not like spreading oil all over your counter. Right, they're not the same thing as like putting, I don't know what canola oil in your water is, it's not the same thing at all. Now it is the same in the sense a little float to the top that they're denser than water. So, you do want to shake it up when you're using essential oils.


Anyway, some good antimicrobial oils are eucalyptus, lemon, lemon grass, Palo Santo, (which is one of my favorite ones), tulsi which is extremely beneficial, especially in diffusing and in cleaning because tulsi has been shown to have many benefits for the upper respiratory system.


Palo Santo, Eucalyptus those are also good for supporting your respiratory health. So, you could use these beautiful oils in solutions to clean the surfaces and it helps your home to smell lovely, while reducing the use of toxic cleansers or synthetic and toxic fragrances. In a diffuser, there's a long list of oils that have been shown to have an effect on improving your mood. Some of those oils are clary sage, Jasmine Neroli, patchouli, tuberose, gardenia bergman, another one of my favorites, Eucalyptus, lavender, lemon balm, all excellent oils.


And I am a huge fan of diffusing essential oils in my environment and I feel find that when people walk into my home or into my office and they smell them, there's this immediate reaction. There's a sense of calm and peace and I'm constantly asked, what is that? What is that fragrance, or I'm told, oh, I just love sitting here smelling that it makes me feel so happy.


 So, experiment with giving your environment a boost. If you're stuck in it, make it the best it can be and make it, set it up in a way to support your wellness and reduce your level of stress. Try things like opening your windows letting as much light into your home as possible and using aroma therapy. Now even if you're normally sensitive to fragrance, you may find that you can tolerate a good quality essential oil but be sure that it does not have solvents or additives in it. As many times sensitivities to fragrance is really just a sensitivity to chemicals that are used to create fragrance.


So, there are lots of good quality essential oils out there that do not have solvents or additives. My personal favorite is a company called Floracopeia. I know I've mentioned them on the show before. I love this company. I love their product. I love the grassroots approach to health care that they take. And they have very high-quality training materials at just an excellent product.


In fact, at the time of this recording, I recently placed an order with them and for some oils that I was running low on and I saw that they're offering 50% off on all of their educational materials. So if you're looking for some mental stimulation or for an environmental pick me up, you might want to check them out. Give yourself something to do to keep you busy while you're locked down and enjoy the fragrance of it at the same time. So I'll post a link to the show notes that company. I don't get paid to say that, I'm not an affiliate of Floracopeia, but I just love to give them as a resource because they truly Do you have an amazing oil. And I know it's safe and good quality, so I wouldn't want to recommend something that I don't personally use.


Alright, so I will post a link to that in the show notes. And if you have something that you're doing as you're going through being locked down in a pandemic, recovering from breast cancer, going through breast cancer treatment that you do, to keep your mood up, and to keep your stress level down, I'd love to hear about it. You can direct message me on Facebook, you can find me as Laura Lummer on Instagram, you can find me as the breast cancer recovery coach, I'd love to hear about what you do to keep yourself happy and keep stress as low as possible in your life.


Now, also you can come to the breast cancer recovery group on Facebook, that's my private Facebook group. It's free to join, and a lot of listeners to the podcast join that group. You can come on over and have some community with other like-minded women.


So if you haven't checked out my website recently go and check it out, you can download my free guide the four steps to healing after breast cancer care. Simple, easy to follow steps that give you just a foundation to begin that recovery after breast cancer. Hope you get your mind in the right place.


All right, so check that out. And until next week, when I talk with you again. Be safe, stay at home, take care of yourself, and make your environment the best that it can be, and be good to each other.



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