Tips for keeping your stress levels balanced
Although it’s only a small part of the brain in terms of volume, the limbic system has some of the most basic, life-sustaining and meaningful roles of all brain structure. Ever wonder what part of the brain controls emotions? While the entire central nervous system helps control our emotions, as you’ll learn, activities in the limbic system and autonomic nervous system are especially influential over our emotional health. The entire limbic system – including subparts like the hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala – helps control numerous emotional, voluntary, endocrine and visceral responses to our environments that we all experience daily.
What Is the Limbic System?
Although the limbic system works with other areas of the brain in complex ways, and therefore has far more than just one role, the word that best describes what the limbic system controls would be “emotions.” Second, a part of the limbic system called the hippocampus helps us form and retain memories, which are very important for learning and development.
At all stages of our life, the limbic system – including the hippocampus – also help govern emotional behaviors. While it’s an oversimplification to say that someone’s emotions are only determined by limbic functions, it’s clear that this system plays a huge part in helping us do things like remember past events that were both pleasant and traumatic, perceive threats from our surroundings, make choices based on our experiences, control movements based on past learning, form sensory preferences, likes and dislikes, and much more.
Emotional and Psychological Link to the Limbic System
As you’ve probably gathered, the limbic system plays a powerful role in creating different emotions and feelings. In fact, some even call it “the emotional switchboard of the brain.”
One important way that the limbic system impacts emotional health is through carrying sensory input from the environment to the hypothalamus and then from the hypothalamus to other parts of the body. The hypothalamus acts like the regulator of hormone control, helping the body maintain homeostasis and sending signals to the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus receives information from many body parts, including the heart, vagus nerve, gut and digestive system and skin.
Because of the hypothalamus’ functions, the limbic system is directly in control of your stress response and these key functions:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Stress levels
- Hormone balance
Interactions between the hypothalamus and the rest of the limbic system are responsible for controlling the autonomic nervous system – including the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In other words, the SNS and PNS control our fight or flight response. Disorders like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, and even addictions and depression are tied to hyperarousal, high amounts of anxiety and fear and dysfunctions of the fight or flight response.
Anxiety and high amounts of stress (including increased cortisol levels) also have an impact on inflammation levels, digestion and gut health, cardiovascular functions, your immune system, and the reproductive system – sometimes contributing to disorders like diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure, higher susceptibility to infections and infertility.
How to Keep the Limbic System Healthy
In order to maintain homeostasis and feel your best, the goal is to balance activities of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Too much activation of one causes high amounts of anxiety, but too much of the other causes low motivation and symptoms like fatigue. Here are ways to help keep your limbic system functioning smoothly:
- Use soothing or uplifting essential oils
When used in aromatherapy (inhaled), there is evidence that essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream and then trigger the hippocampus. This is mostly due to the amount of blood vessels in the lungs that take up the oils, and then circulate them throughout the body, including to the brain.
Using a diffuser can help you experience the benefits of essential oils, or you can directly inhale them from the bottle or a cotton swab. You can diffuse lavender to reduce stress, melaleuca to cleanse the air, wild orange to improve your overall mood, frankincense for spiritual enlightenment, and peppermint essential oil to improve focus and energy. A portable Essential Oil Diffuser changes colors to match your mood.
- Practice deep breathing
Deep breathing exercises coupled with intentional relaxation of muscles engages the circuitry of the PNS and strengthens it for future use. Relaxing through deep breathing also quiets the fight or flight SNS because relaxed muscles send feedback to the alarm centers in the brain that there are no threats present.
A simple way to practice deep breathing is to lay on your back and try taking slow, steady breaths from your diaphragm – near your belly, as opposed to from your chest. You can also try inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds and exhaling slowly for eight seconds, repeating this for five to 10 minutes.
- Try visualizations or guided imagery
Visual stimuli have important influences on emotional health, socialization and well-being. They can even be used to reduce anxiety disorders or symptoms of autism.
To practice, bring to mind in detail a place that makes you feel happy and relaxed – a vacation, being in nature or time spent with family, for example. Imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, keeping your muscles relaxed and absorbing positive emotions, sensations and thoughts of the experience.
Exercise helps control stress, balance hormones – such as cortisol – raise immune function and lower inflammation. One of the ways exercise accomplishes these functions is by training your autonomic nervous system and fight-flight-response to return to normal more quickly following periods of stress and arousal.
- Make a habit of being mindful, still and silent
You can try things such as guided meditation or regular healing prayer to achieve stillness. Together with Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra produced a series of guided meditations: Creating Peace from the Inside Out: The Power of Connection.
These practices of stillness can help you cultivate gratitude, reduce stress, make you feel more connected to others, become more mindful and aware of good things in your life, and increase feelings of compassion, kindness and well-being.
Your limbic system affects your emotions and psychological systems on the deepest levels. When it becomes imbalanced, negative physical symptoms may also result. By caring for your limbic system through methods from stress reduction, such as meditation and exercise, you are not only caring for your emotional, but also your physical well-being.
This article originally appeared on DrAxe.com and is republished here with permission.