After my 12-year-old son Max was killed in a car accident, a surprising number of people told me they would kill themselves if something like that ever happened to them.
I was never sure how to respond to those comments.
But I was always certain that I could find an alternative to self-inflicted harm when navigating challenging moments.
It took me a few years of trial and error to both perfect this strategy and explain how and why it works.
As we enter the holiday season – the self-proclaimed “happiest time of the year” – and many of you have confessed that this season always feels like the most challenging, I felt called to share my favorite alternatives and why they work to support you, your friends, family and loved ones through any days that might feel more challenging.
We all have bad days, or days when things seem a little bit harder. And feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed on those hard days is not reflection of any deficit in you or your coping skills.
It is actually your body’s natural response to a perceived threat.
Your body’s survival response – from both the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system and your amygdala in your limbic system – shut down your ability to think calmly and clearly so you can problem solve. Instead, you may feel like your heart is racing, head is spinning, and anxiety and overwhelm are kicking into high gear.
Autonomic Nervous System Fight, Flight, Freeze Response
Overwhelm occurs when your nervous system is stuck in freeze, or the dorsal branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. In response to danger, your nervous system primes you for survival by either fighting, fleeing or freezing. In other words, there are 2 survival states are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum – ramp up v shut down.
Fight or Flight: Your “fight or flight” response is controlled by the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, which releases hormones like adrenaline to prime you for battle.
If you assess a danger as something you potentially have the power to defeat, your body drops into “fight” mode. If the danger is too powerful to overcome, your body prepares you to flee. Your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system shifts resources to help you survive – heart rate and blood flow to the extremities increase, adrenaline kicks in, muscle strength increases, pupils narrow and sight is reduced to seeing only the “way out”.
All functions not critical to your immediate survival shut down (including digestion, detoxification, immune function, reproduction and rational thinking) so you can escape the danger at hand.
Freeze: If you can neither defeat the dangerous opponent nor safely flee from it, your body drops into the self-paralyzing freeze response. Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where you further prepare to protect yourself. It’s also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It involves similar physiological changes, but instead, you stay completely still and get ready for the next move.
This can present as being temporarily unable to move, overwhelmed and shut-down – feeling shame, spaced out, depression, and low energy – or ‘going out of body’ in cases where neither fight nor flight are viable options. In these situations, your body does not release the hormones to help you fight or flee, but instead causes you to “freeze up” or “numb out”. Your body releases chemicals that function as an analgesic, dulling the intensity and the pain of any mental, physical or emotional injury. This allows you to survive the enormity of what’s happening to you and survive the trauma. If you can’t make a dangerous individual or situation disappears, you’re much better off “disappearing” yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in. A chronic freeze response is also closely related to depression.
The freeze response kicks in when the survival system has decided that whatever is facing us is too overwhelming.
Your brain is wired to recognize threats to your safety and activate survival. The threat detection part of brain that drives anxiety and overwhelm is your amygdala. This is modulated by your prefrontal cortex.
Here’s how it works:
First, your amygdala identifies potential threats. You might think of it as your threat assessment center. It monitors incoming signals from your five senses. When it senses potential danger, it connects to your prefrontal cortex to help interpret and assess the threat and determine your response.
If your amygdala is aggressively firing danger detection signals and your prefrontal cortex is under-functioning and not properly inhibiting or suppressing your emotional response, it can present as overwhelm, anxiety or panic attacks, which keeps you on alert to potential or imminent danger. In essence, every potential threat illicit a response.
Your prefrontal cortex, located in the front part of your brain behind your forehead, helps you calm down and reduce anxiety and overwhelm so you can think clearly, reason, sustain focus, suppress impulses and problem solve. The prefrontal cortex helps your brain sort through stimulation and decide what information is relevant and what to ignore. This the mechanism helps calm your emotional response and improve your emotional intelligence.
That said, your prefrontal cortex can go offline when really bad things happen, an occurrence known as “amygdala hijack” -where your prefrontal cortex is under-firing and your amygdala is over-firing and you may experience feelings of overwhelm, anxiety or depression.
Poor prefrontal lobe function is often correlated with depression. Decreased firing in the prefrontal cortex results in lower levels of motivation and a decreased in your sense of well-being. This helps explain why most people who are depressed also can’t concentrate, focus or remember things.
To enhance your capacity to navigate overwhelm and improve your emotional state, you need to down-regulate your amygdala and up regulate your prefrontal cortex – both of which are most easily accessed through your sense of smell.
Essential Oils Offer the Most Direct Path to the Prefrontal Cortex
Your olfactory nerve—also known as cranial nerve #1—travels directly to your frontal lobe (and prefrontal cortex) through a bone known as the cribriform plate at the top of your sinuses.
Scent also has direct access to the amygdala. In fact, on a physical level, only two synapses separate your amygdala from your olfactory nerve. No other sensory system has this kind of direct and intense contact with the neural substrates of your brain’s emotional control center.
Smell is the only sense that does not travel to the thalamus (the relay center for all sensory signals) before accessing the forebrain. Your other four senses – including sound, sight, taste and touch – send signals through the thalamus first, which then sends the signals to your amygdala before forwarding it to your prefrontal cortex.
This may explain why your brain responds to smell-based stimuli – like essential oils – within seconds. In fact, research estimates your sense of smell to be 10,000 times more acute than your other senses. Once registered, scent stimuli travel more quickly to the brain than do either sight or sound.
This makes essential oils an incredibly powerful prompt for triggering desired behavior.
Breath Increases Amygdala-Prefrontal Cortex Connectivity
Your sense of smell is also tied to you breathing. Deep inhalations and exhalations both help you focus on your breathing, taking time to slowly inhale and exhale – while inhaling essential oils – can help you connect to your mind and body to remind you that you are safe, and not needing to respond to danger.
Research on “Mindful attention to breath regulates emotions via increased amygdala-prefrontal cortex connectivity” found that mindful breathing techniques help modulate the impact of your amygdala on your prefrontal cortex so that your ability to respond in a calm and thoughtful way is better integrated during emotional stressful situations.
The research found that mindful breathing “down-regulates activation in the amygdala and increases its integration with prefrontal regions”, rendering it effective in “regulating aversive emotions.”
Essential oils can be powerful tools to help focus attention on inhalation and mindful breathing.
How I Calm Overwhelm with Essential Oils
When you use stimulatory essential oils to improve blood flow and the healthy function of your prefrontal cortex, while simultaneously calming your amygdala and your fear response, you are able to enhance your mental and physical function, calm anxiety and depression and accelerate healing.
Focus™ for the Prefrontal Cortex
Focus™ is one of my favorite blends to help stimulate the prefrontal cortex and enhance your brain’s ability to plan, organize, and see the big picture. It also helps exert a moderating influence on the more impulsive and less flexible structures of your limbic system.
Focus™ contains a proprietary formulation of organic Rosemary, Basil, Peppermint and Cardamom that when topically applied help to shift blood flow and energy to the prefrontal cortex. More specifically:
Peppermint (Mentha piperita): High stimulating, Peppermint helps to boost your focus and your energy level both mentally and physically. A 2018 study published in Phytochemicals in Health & Disease found that peppermint oil with high levels of menthol helped improve performance on demanding cognitive tasks while also reducing the mental fatigue associated with extended cognitive tasks performance.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Helps your brain and your memory work at top form, . In addition to helping you focus; it may also help you relieve nervous exhaustion and stress-related illness. The cognitive enhancing properties of Rosemary essential oil are often attributed to 1,8-cineole, one of the main active chemicals in rosemary oil. In fact, a study published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology correlated significant improvements in cognitive performance with the inhalation of rosemary essential oil. The study found the higher the concentration of 1,8-cineole, the more cognitive improvement occurred.
A similar study published in Physiology and Behavior found that a blend of rosemary oil and spearmint oil may have beneficial effects on learning and memory as well as with aging of the brain as one gets older.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Is one of the best nerve tonics. It clears your head and helps relieve intellectual fatigue, which gives the mind added strength and clarity. Basil has a high linalool content, making it an ideal to help sharpen your memory, improve concentration and promote a sense of focus when applied to the temples and back of the neck
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum): Helps lift the mood and alleviate mental fatigue and nervous strain. Improves mental clarity and memory.
To help enhance your focus, apply 2- 3 drops of Focus™ to the prefrontal cortex (over your temples on your forehead) to help increase blood flow and energy to the area. This helps balance brain function and improve cognition and processing speed. In fact, Research shows that increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex can prevent the reduction of brain function in elderly people, especially in attention and working memory.
This is because your prefrontal cortex contains several reflex points that can be stimulated with essential oils for focus. Applying essential oils or touching to these reflex points to the forehead can increase cerebral spinal, organ and muscle flow of blood to the area. It’s hypothesized that when we are under stress, blood goes to the back of our brain, where the past is stored. Placing a hand, or appropriate essential oils, over the forehead, helps shift the energy and blood flow from the more emotional mid‐brain areas to the area just below the forehead known as the prefrontal cortex which is associated with a calmer mind and rational, logical thinking.
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