In this episode, we learn all about feelings. How they show up in our brains and in our bodies, and how they can affect the way we interact with the world around us. Nancy tells us about trying to conquer her Monger during a stressful time, and how feeling her emotions in her body and naming them, helped her to feel better in the moment. We also hear from science journalist and health advocate Donna Jackson Nakazawa who explains to us from a scientific perspective what a feeling actually is, and how it affects our bodies over the course of our lives. She gives us some tips for understanding our emotions and how our health can be affected by trauma.
Learn more about Donna.
Nancy VO: Hey guys, it’s me! Nancy Jane Smith. Welcome back to the Happier Approach, the show that pulls back the curtain on the need to succeed, hustle, and achieve at the price of our inner peace and relationships.
Zip up your wetsuit, because in today’s episode we’re diving straight into the Emotion Ocean. This episode is all about feelings. You know, those pesky little things that tend to wash over us at what seems like exactly the wrong moment? Sometimes it can seem like taking the time to understand and acknowledge our feelings is just a big road block on our journey to self-loyalty.
Well, it turns out that feelings are more than little cartoon thought bubbles, inconveniently popping up over our heads. And just swatting at them won’t make them go away. Feelings are actually connected to what’s going on with our physical bodies, and they can have a HUGE impact on our physical as well as our mental health.
But, I didn’t always know that.
A few years ago. I was driving to work. As the world zoomed by out my window, I could feel my anxiety rising. My thoughts were jumping all over the place, my neck was throbbing and my hands were sweating.
In an attempt to calm myself, I wanted to get to the WHY. Why am I so stressed? So I asked myself, “What is going on? Why are you so stressed!?” But rather than approaching this stressed feeling with a loving curiosity, my Monger took over. The question became, “EXPLAIN YOURSELF, SOLDIER!!” WHY ARE YOU SO STRESSED?”
So like a good soldier, I named all the things that were stressing me out: work, my Dad’s parkinsons, my husbands’ epilepsy, a presentation I had coming up.
This is usually how the game goes—my Monger asks me to justify my stress, and I list off my stresses with an air of indifference as if I was reciting a grocery list. I always lose the game to the Monger because her message always is: you SHOULD
be able to handle it, SOMEONE SOMEWHERE has it worse than you, and you are a wimp who can’t handle any stress.
But sitting at the traffic light wrapped in the safety of my car I let myself cry. I put my hands over my heart and named what was under all that stress, what I was feeling: sad, overwhelmed, and scared.
My body relaxed, and as I pulled into my office parking lot, I thought to myself: I’ve turned a corner with this whole anxiety thing…
Fast forward to this past week. Again my anxiety was high, I was worrying about a project for work, obsessing about a conversation I had had with a friend, and my arthritis was flaring. Last night as I was cooking dinner, I thought to myself once again: Why are you so stressed?
I recited to myself: Well I am behind on a project at work. I ran out of time again! I think I said the wrong thing to Sandy today and my arthritis is killing me. It just sucks so bad. All with the emotional equivalent of reading a grocery list.
And then there was the Monger’s voice: “You are fine. You are so privileged. Think of all the people out there who are hurting, and you are barely holding it together because of a few stressors—give me a break.”
I had been playing this familiar game most of the week. My anxiety is high—my Monger belittles me—I try to justify it by naming all my stressors—she belittles me more. And round and round we go.
I’ve been playing this game for so long it’s habitual. It is like putting on an old itchy sweater.
I want to say that I recognized the game and BAMMO. I practiced acknowledging my feelings, and all was well.
But that isn’t what happened. My Monger won last night just as she had all week.
Bird chirping sfx
And then this morning, walking the dog in the cool crisp air, smelling the flowers and watching Watterson have the joy only a dog can feel early in the morning, I thought to myself: You suck.
You are a mess. You are never going to get this project done at work. You are so behind and you are so lazy if you moved your body more you wouldn’t hurt so much!
My Monger thrives on these negative emotions. And it’s so easy to get stuck there. To feed into that negativity when I’m feeling down on myself. It’s a cycle. I feel bad, the monger pops up, I feel worse. Both mentally AND physically. How do we break that cycle once and for all? It turns out, it has A LOT to do with the story we tell ourselves about how we’re feeling.
ACT II: Donna Jackons-Nakazawa
we’re always searching for a place where our voice and our essence can come to be to its true fruition. And that’s a lifelong path.
Nancy VO: This is Donna Jackson-Nakazawa. She’s a science journalist, health advocate, and author of six– soon to be seven– books that probe at the connection between science, journalism, and health.
Donna Jackson-Nakazawa: I delve into the science behind
the mind body connection and do a deep dive into the science while also intersecting it with what we know about the deepest layers of our human heart and our human existence
Nancy VO: Donna’s journey down this path started early.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa:I grew up in a family of Newspaper Publishers, grew up kind of running around the Annapolis Gazette, the evening Capitol at the time in Annapolis. My father was the editor and my family ran the paper and I just grew up running around with you know, all men At that point, a couple of female reporters and we would go and visit the presses all the time. And guys would give me little bits of unfortunately, lead type.
And I could grab my own words, and you’d go in there be all these little wooden boxes, and you could pick your words, and they’d print little papers for me.
My mother’s family were a group of well educated and well known scientists and her father had been one of the founding scientists at the National Institutes of Health. So depending on which side of my family I was with, there were all these extremely smart people talking about, you know, chemistry and intersections of biology with chemistry and, and then on the other side, people were running around reporting and my father was a social activist. We had Vietnam vets come and sitting at our kitchen table. So I think that that marriage of science, public service, and communication was just very strong in me.
Nancy VO: But… things weren’t always easy for Donna growing up.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: Well, in that narrative, which I made sound so pretty and, and easy, um, there was a lot of discomfort, a lot of tragedy and a lot of a lot of hardship and a lot of adversity.
When I was 12, my dad who had a series of autoimmune issues, went in for a very minor surgery and he died. And so he never came home from that surgery. And we were truly aligned as writers and and thinkers, and life changed completely for us. My father’s family without going too much into it had a lot of vested interest in the financial aspects of newspapers and printing presses. And so we were kind of ousted from that family. everything changed from you know, a family that would be outside and having crab feast on the water and sailing on the weekends. And really kind of a charmed life. To really struggling.
Nancy VO: All of that emotional stress started manifesting for Donna in a physical way.
Donna Jackson-Nakazawa: I was 14. And you know, at that time, we didn’t understand the link between trauma and and our immune system. We just had no clue. But I started fainting and passing out.
By the time I was in my early 20s, I was really passing out on my college campus. In my 20s, I started having seizures, I ended up having a pacemaker put in for heart block and vasovagal syncope so and then I began to develop a series of autoimmune diseases. Thyroiditis, I had Guillain Barre syndrome got better than I got it again. And a couple of other autoimmune diseases. I don’t like to list them all because it just makes me, you know, listing diagnoses kind of perks up my immune system in a way I don’t like.
Nancy VO: Because of her background in science journalism, Donna saw a connection between the negative emotional stressors and traumas she’d experienced, and her autoimmune issues.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: The immune system is kind of like a barrel, right, you can put so much in it. But then there can be that last drop
And the water at the top of the barrel spills over. And so we all are born with different barrels, right. And we could call that lower level of water, genetic predisposition, genetic predisposition, we certainly have autoimmune disease in my family, we can call a layer of water a huge, a huge part of the water that fills the barrel, our experiences, our traumatic experiences, whatever it is, over time that’s picked up a sense of unsafety in us is going to pick up our immune system. So unpredictable chronic stress growing up that threat set that threat response that gets set up in childhood, for good or for ill, over time, the exposure to chronic unpredictable stress and trauma in childhood actually turns on genes that up the stress threat response. Over time, we can see in kids who experienced adversity when they were young, that the genes that oversee the stress response and should turn it on and off appropriately, they get stuck in the on position, you might think of it kind of like a dimmer switch in the dining room, you know, where you can turn that dimmer switch to high and low light shine higher.
So we want with the stress threat response, we want to be able to respond to things that are scary appropriately. And then the dimmer switch turns off. That’s how the stress response is supposed to work as nature intended. But in kids and teens who grow up with chronic unpredictable stress, and many different types of adversity, from poverty to a parent with a mental health disorder to losing a parent, they all have in common, putting a child in a state of not knowing what’s coming in the next moment or the next moment or the next moment. And when that happens, it signals the immune system to perk up and it causes these epigenetic shifts to genes that oversee the stress response. So this fills water in the barrel, right? That just water goes higher.
Our brain and body are talking 24 seven, Are you safe or not safe? And if the answer is you’re not safe, and the reason is emotional, our brain doesn’t distinguish between that as a reason to respond on an immune level, from whether or not that hit is a physical head of physical trauma or an infection or exposure to a toxic chemical.
Is it true that according to in our brain stress is stress, emotional, physical, biological, it’s, it’s all the same, but we as humans have labeled it as something different?
To speak to that I have to take you all the way back 300 years if you want to want to go that far with me to when we can thank early philosophers
Descartes for the idea of Mind Body dualism that the body and the mind function as church and state entities. Early anatomist agreed with him. When they began to go in and look at the body, they found two things which convinced them that the mind and body were not connected. And that is a, constellation of dense red blood cells at the base of the brain called the blood brain barrier. And it was thought that because of this dense constellation of cells, it was nature’s way of preventing the immune system in the body, from communicating with the brain in any way, immune cells and signals couldn’t get through. And then of course, although we know that our body is this immunological organ, all of this thinking led to the idea that the brain was categorically what we call immune privilege. If you are hanging a picture in your house, and you hit your thumb by mistake, it’s gonna get red, hot, painful and swollen. That’s inflammation. That’s literally how we define inflammation, red hot, painful and swollen.
However, early anatomist thought well, the brain can’t be ruled by the immune system, it can’t be talking to the immune system, it must be immune privileged, because it has this hard cap on top of it, right, it has a skull, unlike any other part of the body. So if the brain we’re going to be ruled by the immune system, it must have the power to swell and recede, swell and receive like every other organ in the body. But because of the skull, anatomist and philosophers who agreed that the brain was immune privileged.
100 years ago, Spanish neuroscientists found they were looking at cells other than neurons in the brain. So neurons, of course, fire and wire together, our thought patterns, our neural neural pathways, our neural circuitry, we can think of neurons which are the flashy darlings of the neuroscience research world.
But about 100 years ago, researchers started looking at four glial cells in the brain, they’re non neuronal cells, one of them is called micro glia. And these little glial cells make up almost 10% of our brain cells. But no one really knew what they did. And Spanish neuroscientists kind of looked at them shrugged and went, looks like they’re just catering to neurons. They’re like helping neurons and they’re like a support system, kind of like an entourage around a movie star. But just seven years ago to kick butt female researchers at Harvard took a deeper look at these cells. They went way out on a limb, they really investigated them, and they found out that these little glial cells microglia are actually immune cells in the brain. And when they are activated by stressors, all the same stressors we talked about be that physical, infectious, chemical, or emotional stressors.
They morph and puff up into these big fat hairy Pac Man like cells, and they begin to munch and eat away at synapses. And researchers at Mount Sinai in New York, they found that these little glial cells actually break off their immune cells that break off from our white blood cells on the seventh or eighth day of gestation, in utero, and they rise up to the brain. And they rule brain immune health, they communicate 24 seven with the immune cells in our body, and all of science miss this for the past 100 years.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: None of this understanding that what affects us emotionally affects our brain connectivity, which affects our behavior, our feelings, our thoughts, and how we communicate with each other and our relationships and how well we feel about the world.
No one understood that this was being shaped by our intersection between ourselves, our brains and our environment, on an immune level on a brain immune level, until very, very recently.
So can you explain from a scientific perspective what a feeling is?
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: Feelings and emotions arise in response to the world around us, and that in response to the thoughts that we’re having. Anything that is happening without and within, that stirs, a strong response is going to lead to a feeling, but a feeling is also a physical thing.
So again, we didn’t use to understand that we thought of feeling within the mind. And everything else happened in the body. But a feeling is usually something that feels a little flooding, like flooding, or overwhelming, it fills us, it fills our mind. But what we forget is that it’s also filling our body our body changes, it enters into a slightly different state, depending on the feeling if the feeling is happy, our body floods with oxytocin and other feel good hormones that are actually neuro protective.
A feeling that’s negative is that fight flight freeze response, where the body goes into this escalation of stress hormones, and chemicals, and those flood the body. And that’s why when you’re really stressed, your heart rate goes higher. The little hair on your hands and arms stands up, you, your muscles get very tense to either fight or flee. Your blood all rushes to your arms and legs. It’s why you get butterflies right? Because all the blood does it your body doesn’t care about digestion, right? Then it just cares, do I have to run?
Or do I have to fight. So a feeling is emerging from this 24 seven dance we’re doing with our environment and with ourselves in our own minds. So it’s an intersection between a thought or an event and our mental state.
At the same time, it’s a biophysical response because the two cannot be separated. And I think that’s what’s so important to understand about the biology of emotion is that your emotion, if we look at it through the lens of what we call psycho neuro immunology to break that great term down, psycho is psychology. neuro is neuroscience. immunology is your immune system. So a thought is really something that enters into this process of psychoneuroimmunology, the psychology of thinking, that neuro immune response in the brain and the immune response in the body you cannot separate those three ever, whether it’s in response to an event outside you or within you, and all of them are biophysical responses that occur in the body, and over time begin to change the body and the brain.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: We think that what’s happening in our mind is not happening in our body, and what’s happening in our bodies not happening in our mind. But in fact, our body and mind are two ways superhighway communicating 24 seven about one central question, Am I safe? Or am I not safe? That is your brains job, your brain is a detective. That’s what your brain cares about. We are the drivers of this conversation that we’re having with ourselves and with the world around us.
Nancy VO: That stressed out feeling I talked about in the story at the beginning of the episode? My body tensing up, my mind racing, my heart beating fast– that physical response is all wrapped up in my emotional response. And THAT affects my immune response too. The arthritis flare I mentioned? It could have to do with the stress I was feeling.
Nancy VO: So now that we know that all of this is connected, the mind, body, and immune system– how can we use that knowledge to feel better, physically and mentally?
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: So there are many things we can do to clean up our environment. We can add in, you know, meditation, and yoga and movement and dance and all kinds of different things. But we also have to begin to rewrite and re-narrate the way in which we talk to ourselves and the way in which we communicate with ourselves about the threats that exist in the world out there.
Nancy VO: That idea of telling the story of your stress to yourself differently is totally key. And Donna actually developed a course to do just that– it’s called: Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal With Neural Re-Narrating.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: We can literally rewire our conversation about how safe we are so that the immune system and the brain can calm down the immune system and the body can calm down and we can create a narrative that’s literally on paper of our story, giving it meaning
Nancy VO: When we’re able to understand our story, and tell it to ourselves with more compassion, it can calm us down emotionally, which makes us feel better physically.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa: I really developed this course, to help bring down that stress threat response, particularly for those with chronic conditions. And rewire some of those neural pathways, away from that heightened stress threat response, so that we can flourish even when we’re dealing with adversity. There’s a saying in the trauma community that trauma healing happens when we understand our story. And we give meaning to it, and we create meaning through it for who we are now and long into the future.
Offer yourself every opportunity to take this time to ask yourself about that intersection between the trauma that you faced in your life or now as an adult and your ability to go within and the narrative that you have of yourself and your own worth, and your ability to wake up on your own side.
Nancy VO: As I think we’ve established, it’s hard for me to give myself compassion. Especially when my Monger is running the show. What I didn’t realize before, is that by re-framing the conversation with myself kindly, I’m actually creating a new neural pathway. A new groove in my brain for my mind to trace, that might lead me to a less stressed-out place.
ACT III: Learning to re-narrate
Nancy VO: Where we last left off, I was walking my dog on a beautiful morning. But I was also wearing that itchy, uncomfortable Monger sweater. Letting my Monger berate me for an arthritis flare that was affecting my ability to get work done.
Nancy VO: Suddenly, I thought: STOP. This it isn’t helping! I took a minute to ask myself: What are you feeling? Sad, scared, overwhelmed, tired, lost. I am feeling like a mess. Then, I got tears in my eyes. I immediately softened and I heard a quiet voice say: “It is ok to be a mess, Sweet pea. It is hard right now. You are doing just fine.” And my whole body relaxed. I let the tears flow… And for the first time in a week, I took off the Monger sweater.
This time—I didn’t say to myself, Oh, you’ve turned a corner. I didn’t put that much pressure on myself. I recognize that as much as I want to put this anxiety stuff behind me, as much as I wish the minute I notice my anxiety, I could acknowledge my feelings and all would be well… that isn’t the case. My Monger still wins for way longer than I want her to. I still play her silly games of justifying my stress. And I wear her sweater, which repels any messages of self-loyalty for days and weeks at a time.
The good news? I do have the antidote. I know acknowledging my feelings helps. I know that owning what I am experiencing and not trying to justify it or belittle it helps… It isn’t instantaneous. It isn’t magical. It takes WAY longer than I want it to.
My High Functioning Anxiety wants to find a hack, a system, a guaranteed 5 step plan. A plan that I will want to do and will only take a few minutes, and BAMMO I will be fixed. And it just isn’t realistic. For now, dog walks, slowing down, acknowledging my feelings, talking to friends, being kind to myself, and having my own back. That’s what helps.
That’s it for this week! In our next episode we’re going to tackle a mental health buzzword that can really tick me off: gratitude. What is it? Is it really realistic to try to feel it all the time? We’ll find out next time, on the Happier Approach.
Nancy VO: The Happier Approach is produced by Nicki Stein and me, Nancy Jane Smith. Music provided by Pod5 and Epidemic Sound. For more episodes, to get in touch, or to order a copy of my book The Happier Approach, you can visit live dash happier dot com. And if you like the show, leave us a review on iTunes! It actually helps us out a lot.
Special thanks to Donna Jackson-Nakazawa for speaking with us today. If you’re dealing with unresolved childhood trauma or feeling chronically stressed and want to learn how to rewire your brain for health and build resilience back into your life, you can find Donna’s books and courses at donna jackson nakazawa dot com. That’s Donna Jackson N-A-K-A-Z-A-W-A dot com.
The Happier Approach will be back with another episode in two weeks. Take care, until then.