Spirit, Mind, & Body Resources for Making Neurochoices

The Creation and Maintenance of Wellness by Dr. Charlotte A. Tomaino

Staying Objective for Effective Decision Making in Finance
Reading Emotional Information in Order to Know Your Glass Ceiling

One of the brain structures that is instrumental in the regulation of emotion and physical sensation is the insula, a part of the cortex where an awareness of bodily emotional states is located. It is positioned in the cortex to integrate information about the sensations in the body (called somatic markers) that indicate emotional meaning. This is where the feeling of what is happening comes into awareness and can be used as information to guide behavior. Reflecting on how a person, situation, or opportunity feels to you is essential information in decision making. Using the emotional awareness from the insula is part of a very conscious and deliberate system in the brain that provides valuable information for insight. It too is part of the limbic system that processes emotion, but works in a very different way than the stress response, which is hard wired to protect us in emergencies. The insula appears to be a significant part of the brain's ability to use emotional information in thinking.

The distinction between integrating emotional information in a way that is reactive and automatic or reflective and food for thought makes all the difference in your ability to regulate your nervous system rather than be controlled by it. One way to put your insula to work and read the emotional information coming to you is by paying attention to the mechanisms of your own nervous system, depicted in the following figure, and learning to regulate them.

Figure 4.2 is an illustration of some of the characteristics now understood to be part of the regulation of the autonomic nervous system. Research suggests that different levels or types of arousal in the nervous system create behavioral outcomes, which explains the behaviors of Ben and Maria.5 I tell my patients that they have to pay attention to the "glass ceiling" that indicates the limits of their wellbeing. On a good day, when you've had plenty of rest and things are going well, you can tolerate a lot more stress and still manage your emotions. That is a day when the glass ceiling is high, giving you lots of wiggle room to be active. On a bad day, when you are tired or already emotionally overloaded, it does not take much stress to activate negative emotion and reactivate physical symptoms like headaches. With practice, you will be able to observe yourself over time and recognize the warning signs of fatigue and irritability that indicate trouble is coming. Being able to recognize the emotional and physical indicators of a fluctuating nervous system is the beginning of being awake to making neurochoices for a harmonious life.

In Figure 4.2 on p. 000, the Optimal Arousal Zone indicates the range of activity and rest that produces just the right amount of stimulation you need to maximize your skills and abilities. The "Moving Glass Ceiling" is the indicator of the current range of tolerance of your nervous system, which is ever changing. The Hyperarousal Zone is the territory where you get too much stimulation and you freak out, lose it, and sometimes become your worst self. Thanks to neuroscience, it is now understood that each of these states is regulated by a different part of the nervous system and activated by chemical communication.

The hyperarousal state is considered to be a survival state, intended to be used for "emergencies only." The ability to think broadly, creatively, and intelligently is absent when the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This type of arousal produces a state that is grounded in fear and reactivity, and it literally makes you stupid. After experiencing such an arousal state, people often ask themselves, "What was I thinking?" The answer is that you weren't thinking, because you couldn't. You were hijacked by your amygdala, the part of the brain that sets off an emergency alarm and activates the "fight or flight" response, which causes you to lose access to perspective and reflection.

It is in the optimal arousal state where we are our smartest, nicest, and most effective, coordinated, and aware. I like to call it the Expansion Zone because this is where I see growth and excellence available. Here is where you find your skills—your basis for expansion. When you regulate your emotion, you get on the path to accessing your best self.

As we develop language and scientific insight into ourselves in this way, we have a means for making sense of our senses and words to think about our experiences, which produces better judgment. When the frontal lobe can reflect and the left hemisphere can find symbols, words, and concepts to represent our experience to communicate, you have available to you the power of focused, intentional living.

©Tomaino, Charlotte (2012). Awakening the Brain.
New York:Simon & Schuster.