I am a thinker. You may have noticed. I am also a deep feeler. You may have noticed that, too. I am also a fairly reasonable thinker. This last characteristic was later in coming to my life. I had a friend tell me once that I “hid behind my intellect”. Out of context, that sounds a little mean. It really wasn’t meant that way and it wasn’t the way I took it at the time. But I did think, “Are you kidding me? I have worked hard to use my intellect to help me live a less sloppy, crying, worrying life. This is NOT a negative.” (By the way, those comments were made in my mind, to myself, not to my friend.) Our higher brain functions can help us a great deal, like a lot lot. However, there are aspects of our more primitive selves that can come in handy.

Our bodies communicate with ourselves. The nervous system is amazing. Our Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes our brains, is a marvel. Nonetheless, often the fastest of our communications are less than sophisticated.

Case in point, there are fundamental, often called lower brain functions that try to keep us from dying. They are on the alert, vigilant, but also kind of simple. If you have ever seen prairie dogs constantly dark out of their holes and call to each other, you know what I mean. They are trying hard to avoid being food for an animal higher up on the food chain. Vigilance is a type of assessment, a scanning of environments for danger.

But guess what? Like prairie dogs, our CNS is often alarmed for no damned good reason. It is very sensitive to possible problems but makes a lot of false positives. In other words, the CNS can work like a mammogram; it is sensitive to danger but not specific. False alarm! False alarm! False alarm!

These alarms, are compelling and can trick the more reasonable parts of our brains into freaking out. “My heart is racing, I feel scared, therefore there must be SOMETHING REALLY BAD HAPPENING.”

This can also work with anger and with depression. There are parts of our brain that can go to a bad place really fast and if it is compelling enough, it convinces fancier brain parts to follow. “My life is horrible because people are doing bad things to me in a long-term and fancy way. And yes, this is based on mind-reading but I am fancy and know how to read minds. And by the way, why do you all hate me?”

Cognitive therapy was originally based on getting ourselves to be reasonable with ourselves. What is the evidence for our depression inducing thoughts? We are jumping to conclusions. And no, we cannot mind read. There are a group of higher brain tools that we can use to get ourselves to calm the Hell down. And they are very handy tools.

We don’t always have to start at the top, however. We can work our way up by changing more basic and fundamental communication systems. Most of us are familiar with deep breathing techniques as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, as a way to reduce distress. The way we breathe that is the least stress inducing is the way we breathe when we are asleep, when we don’t even have to think about it. Deep breathing, or relaxation breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the state of our CNS at ease, relaxed, and feeling safe. “Fight or flight”, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by fast breathing, higher in the chest. Breathing this way raises blood alkaline levels. This is the how, by the way, the main characters killed the blood invading aliens in the movie, The Andromeda Strain. It is the perfect breathing for danger but it causes a lot of trouble when we do it when we are not really in harm’s way.

I am learning some more “bottom up” calm down techniques in my class. The latest is the “half smile”. Our facial expressions not only serve to communicate with the outside world, but they also communicate with the inside world. Feeling irritable? Turn the corners of your mouth up, ever so slightly into a half smile. There’s even research on this. It often helps people calm down.

It sounds a little like a magic trick. However, what’s it going to hurt to wear a Mona Lisa smile from time to time. It might feel awkward but not nearly as awkward as when I lose my temper and not only embarrass myself but find myself filled with regret. Not to mention the relationships that need mending.

So I have been trying the half smile. It’s a perfect time to practice. I’ve been working a lot with the move of our private practice. I am frequently annoyed in these kind of circumstances. Stress, when it involves a lot of logistics, has a way of pissing me off.

I can’t say that I am looking like Mona Lisa all of the time but I have to say that I notice a difference and it works many times when I try it. It’s not a permanent solution but it helps get me in a better frame of mind to use other coping strategies. I have also tried doing a half smile on my walks, hoping that this will help associate the half smile with the ease I feel when I am exercising.

I also can’t say that I haven’t felt stressed or overwhelmed at times, with this move. But it is less so than would be in the past, I think. All of the tools I have been using have been helpful.

Try it out and see what you think! It may work and it may not. But it’s free and easy.