As I work with individuals and couples, I like to educate them on how our brains and our bodies impact our relationships. Understanding the correlation between these elements seems easy enough, however, I often get the question, “How do I change my brain?” The answer to this question is a great starting point to create healing and allow new interactions to take place.
Our brains are wired for connection. Each interaction we have either strengthens or weakens the connections in our brains, thus influencing the relationships with those around us. The ability to allow one or two more heartbeats before reacting or responding to one’s partner is the ultimate goal. The better you are able to emotionally regulate (by allowing more heartbeats before reacting), the more positive your interactions with others can be.
There are many ways you can impact emotion regulation and the ability to create new experiences that improve relationship interactions. Some are easier than others, and some have been targeted to help with other areas of life. I’d like to highlight two very important ways to help increase heart rate variability and improve cognitive functioning so you are better prepared the next time you might want to fly off the handle. They are exercise and sleep.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for physical health, but it also has great implications for mental health and relationship health. Increased exercise impacts the way your heart pumps blood. Long-term exercise increases your heart’s efficiency in pumping blood to the body. It doesn’t have to work so hard, and this increases heart rate variability, or the amount of time in between heart beats in a given minute. Increased heart rate variability means more regulation (more parasympathetic, or calming, influences) on the heart, and thus, more flexibility in emotional responses. This means that you have more capacity to keep the breaks on when your fight or flight response is triggered, allowing you more time to thinking critically, solve problems, or socially engage before flying off the handle and reacting to environmental stimuli.
Additionally, exercise increases the volume of the prefrontal cortex—the area in the brain associated with learning and memory. Exercise also stimulates the growth of cells by releasing chemicals in the brain. These new cells are then cleaned, solidified, and bonded together to create new memories for individuals.
We have all heard that sleep is important and should be a priority. Sleep does a lot of thing for us—it helps with creativity, remembering physical tasks, and making decisions. Sleep also does two important things in the brain: creates and consolidates memories and clears out toxins. As neurons fire together (and therefore wire together), sleep helps to connect recent memories with earlier memories. This allows individuals to remember how they reacted in past situations, and react differently next time if they desire a different outcome.
Cleaning out toxins in the brain increases attention and memory, helps individuals think clearly, and even impacts the regulation of insulin. Not getting enough sleep inhibits the ability to clear out the toxins, which can be harmful to the connections that are trying to take place in the brain. Sleeping allows us the opportunity to create new and improved experiences each day.
There are many ways individuals can have more influence on emotional responses. These are only two, but by changing our brains and our physiology in the body, we are prepping ourselves for better interactions. Being mindful of how we can impact the physiology of our bodies allows us more control over how we interact with those around us. We increase our capacity to engage more positively and be more satisfied in our relationships.
Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness
Written by Dr. Kayla Mennenga