In college and in life we face stressful events each day, some small, some big. Did you know that the way you react to these events creates a “path” that your brain seeks and follows and strengthens with each experience? Imagine being a child walking to and from school through a field of wildflowers. Very quickly a path becomes established, as the tendency is to follow the cues that are familiar. Similarly, your brain creates pathways. If you have the tendency to react emotionally to cues of stress, this is the path your brain will take and it will become more ingrained with each experience or repetition. Individuals who typically respond to stress with a logical, problem solving approach create a different path. But, you say, “I already have a path of emotional reaction the size of the Grand Canyon…I’m hopeless.” (Now that’s an emotional reaction if I ever heard one.)
You are not hopeless and here’s why. Your brain has this amazing ability called plasticity. That means you can change the “path” your brain typically travels. Accomplishing this takes practice but think how productive you can be if you engage your thinking brain vs your emotional brain in response to stressful events. Here’s a simple exercise to help you get started:
Imagine your brain in 2 parts: a thinking side and an emotional side. As you go through your day, try to consciously observe and identify what “side” of your brain you are using. By the very act of identifying and labeling how you are reacting you are beginning to use your thinking side. Next, try to purposefully engage your thinking side BEFORE you face a stressful experience rather than letting your emotional side take the reins. Checking your breathing and taking slow, deep breaths can also help to send a signal to your brain that there is no real danger and together you and your brain can work through this.
Come on, give it a try!
Each time you engage the thinking side of your brain you are creating a new path that your brain will eventually seek and follow. Oh, the other path, the emotional one? That’s now a field of wildflowers for you to wander through as you choose.
Carol Gullo-Jenne is an LCSW who recently retired to the Charlottesville area after many years in practice in Virginia Beach. She is also the parent of a UVA almnus and is happy to contribute to the well-being of the University community by sharing her expertise here on our site.