By Roshelle Weir and Phil Slade
It is a popular misconception that mindfulness or breathing techniques to regulate emotions are somehow spiritual in nature. This is not only incorrect, but unhelpful for those of us who might see these as ‘woo woo’ or somewhat nebulous or impractical. The truth is that these things work, not because of any requirement for elevated consciousness, but because our physiology and our psychology are closely linked with each other, and one can be used to hack the other. When using our physiology to influence our psychology it’s called biohacking and is an important skill to master.
Biohacking, at its core, is about taking control of our biology to enhance our mental and physical performance. While it often focusses on improving physical health and cognitive functions, biohacking can also be a powerful tool for managing emotions. To fully appreciate this approach, it's essential to understand the intricate interplay between our emotions and our physiological responses.
Emotions are not just abstract feelings; they are accompanied by concrete physiological changes in our bodies. When we experience emotions, our brains release a cascade of chemicals that influence our mood and behaviour. For instance, the release of dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure, while the release of cortisol is linked to stress and anxiety.
One of the most fundamental physiological responses to emotions is the activation of the fight or flight response. When faced with a perceived threat, our bodies divert blood away from nonessential functions like digestion and redirect it to our muscles and extremities, preparing us for action. This response is a survival mechanism designed to help us react quickly in dangerous situations.
So, how can biohacking help us manage our emotions by influencing these physiological responses? The answer lies in our ability to trick the brain into thinking it's safe, even in emotionally charged situations.
When we engage in switching activities such as controlled breathing exercises we signal to our brains that we are not in imminent danger. By slowing down our breath and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we counteract the rush of adrenaline associated with the fight or flight response. Our heartbeat slows down, blood is returned to the brain and the brain interprets this physiological feeling of calm, as being safe. This physical intervention can help us to regain control using our conscious rational thinking system of the brain.
In addition to cognitive and physical techniques, external distractions can be valuable tools for emotional control. When our minds are stuck in a loop of rumination and negative thoughts, redirecting our attention to an external stimulus can be incredibly effective. This can be something as simple as focussing on a calming piece of music, engaging in a hobby, or immersing ourselves in a good book. By breaking the cycle of rumination, we can regain emotional balance.
I recently heard this great story of a teacher using biohacking to help a student get their emotional reactivity in check. The child was playing handball, which we all know can be a very competitive emotionally charged environment. The child in question became upset after being declared "out" due to a questionable referee decision. The child showed clear signs of escalating towards a meltdown, despite attempts at empathy from the concerned teacher.
In this moment, the teacher employed a unique biohacking technique. She loudly announced that she thinks she has stepped in poo, drawing the child's attention away from the perceived injustice of the handball game. With an element of surprise, the teacher engaged the child by asking if they can smell the imagined poo. When the child realised, they can't and the shoe has been checked for the offending mess, just to be sure, both the teacher and the child laughed about how gross poo can be and shared funny stories of past experiences with it.
This ingenious approach serves as an excellent example of using various switches to help the child avert a potentially furious explosion of emotions. The teacher created a distraction that caught the child’s attention breaking the unhelpful thought pattern they were caught in. Then getting the child to try and locate the offending smell, unconsciously engaged the child in deep breathing, which as explained above gets the oxygen flowing back to the brain where it’s needed. And finally, by introducing humour into the situation, the child’s brain released endorphins, which are natural mood elevators that can counteract stress hormones.
The teacher effectively biohacked the child's emotional response, diffusing tension and promoting emotional control.
By mastering the art of biohacking and embracing creative switching strategies, you have the power to manage your reactivity even in emotionally charged situations. This newfound control over your emotions can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life. Remember, the mind body connection, combined with the power of distraction, breathing, laughter, and creativity, is a powerful tool for emotional mastery, and it's yours to explore and harness.