It’s 11:30 pm and I’m on my phone when I snap back into reality.

“How long was I gone this time?”

“What time is it?”

Another hour lost, completely dissolved into the space of time. Another victory for a traumatized brain hoping to protect me from my emotional reality.

Ouch that Feels Good

I’ve been researching neuroscience and neurobiology for 5 years attempting to understand why is it that some people can move along in their lives with grace and others like me smell my high school girl friend's perfume and my body tenses up so tight I have low back pain the next day.


In the process of understanding why emotions hold such heavy influence, especially “negative” ones I stumbled upon a bit of research that blew my comfortable Columbia wool socks off my feet. (shout out to those socks for making the world go round)

This research article began to explain that the more intense the emotional experience is the more our body will actually desensitize to experiencing it again. Like you in this exact moment don’t see your nose, you’ve become desensitized to it, the same thing happens to our emotions.

That was when I came across another research study which was showing the amazing link between physical pain and chronic stress. What it demonstrates is that the deeper the emotional pain the more the physical body will exhibit pain. There is an amazing reason as well, the center in the brain that controls how we experience physical pain is the same location that gets lit up when we experience emotional pain.

The fact our bodies would prefer to endure physical pain compared to emotional pain is another protective mechanism the nervous system creates to project the pain away from trauma.

That pain center is also extremely rich in dopamine receptors which can and does addict us to our pain. Feels so good? Maybe not.

The Cat and Cucumber Brain

At this point in time, you may be asking yourself why the brain wires itself to “enjoy” pain. I mean dopamine is the reward chemical, why would it reward pain.


The brain constantly is seeking out patterns, it actually has a specific portion of it dedicated to pattern recognition called the Reticular Activation System (RAS).

This portion of the brain was created to help keeps us alive. Its primary function is to take in our current information, compare it to the past to look for patterns then create anxiety or fear of the future if the pattern has once caused us pain.

Pain in any form is a signal from the environment that we are not safe, sending the nervous system into fight or flight.

Humans have the amazing ability to create fear or stress with events and circumstances that don’t even exist. We called that anxiety and it’s an amazing evolutionary pathway.

This has developed deep and fast pathways in an area of the brain called the hind-brain or reptilian brain.

This portion of the brain has a singular focus, survive. When this portion of the brain gets stimulated it creates a rush of neurochemistry that will reroute all the blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the muscles to prepare for fight or flight.

It places us on high alert, constantly seeking out the next circumstance that will attempt to kill us. This is how we are wired, to live in fear. (however, we can change)

My favorite example of our nervous system in this fear state is this:

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The cat has a reflex arc that requires no thinking whatsoever and instead reacts to the environment, perceiving a non-threatening delightful cucumber as a snake and immediately moving into action.

The Story-Teller Drama Queen

Our nervous system will also do this, however, we can actually inhibit that immediate action because our threat for physical pain is lower than it ever has been in human history. However emotional pain will set us into this same neurological system, instead of mobilizing our body to flee it does something amazing. Tells us stories.

Our nervous system as a protective mechanism to avoid more emotional pain will begin to project circumstances and ideas into the forefront of our awareness to create deeper fear pathways to avoid that pain.

We tend not to touch a hot stovetop more than once because that physical pain will create a deeply embedded reflex arc in the body, no thinking is required for a reflex. That same pain center will also create reactive mental arcs in the brain, flooding you with memories of emotional trauma and projections of that trauma into our future. Then will drop dopamine into those pathways to regulate that network and the more we do that the faster it gets. Until one day you no longer need to even think about it your body has been emotionally conditioned to the fear.

That emotional pain’s protective reactive state tends to be from the primary source of our emotions, other people. In this way, we can understand why those who suffer from mental illness tend to isolate themselves in order to be protected from more pain.

The brain does all of this to (drum roll please) create a predictable future. This is the pathway of self-sabotage in action. Constantly attempting to reaffirm us to our old emotional ways even if they’re toxic and unhealthy, they’re predictable and smoking research shows us anything it’s that the brain loves that certainty more it’s its own physical health.

Wired For Worthy

The good news is that you’re stuck, emerging research in neuroplasticity continues to allow us insights into how the brain can create sustainable changes and that these self-sabotage patterns can be down-regulated.

Here are a few of my favorite researched strategies to regulate my nervous system in times of stress.

  • Go for a walk: forest bathing is an amazing and researched tool showing that nature has a calming effect on the brain

  • Journaling: I was too nervous and self-conscious to get a therapist at first and speaking to myself in a journal as a form of self-soothing therapy was tremendously helpful

  • Mindfulness Practices (a personal favorite) when properly executed (most people think meditation doesn't work because they've been mentally sitting on the couch most of their lives and suddenly they're asking their brain to run a marathon) mindfulness strategies have an amazing ability to shift our brain waves out of stress and turn on the creative centers in the brain that allow us new perspectives on old emotional pains.

While all of these strategies have been profoundly helpful in rewiring my nervous system as a neuro-performance coach I always tell my clients the same thing, you are the scientist of your own life. Get creative and playful with new ideas, systems, and strategies that can help you redefine your reality and uncover your potential.

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