The Neuroscience Behind Emotional Strength Training
A New Sense of Self
In my mid-twenties I experienced a life-changing spiritual experience that left me feeling unconditionally loved by God. While I still saw myself as deeply flawed and imperfect, I was suddenly worthy of love by the most powerful force in the Universe. If that was true, what possible argument could I have to not treat myself the same way?
My decisions started to change overnight. I started to eat better, cut out almost all alcohol and woke up to take 5-mile runs at 5:30am before work just for the fun of it. I spent more time with friends and less time worrying about my career. I laughed more, smiled quicker and faced any challenges head on in a calm and organized way.
Even though my external world remained the same I was internally transformed. Life wasn’t without challenges: I still worked full-time in 24/7 emergency response, was a full-time grad student and was conducting an independent research project on how governments could combat the spread of terrorism in prisons — all while trying to maintain a social life. Yet I wasn’t stressed. Serious things like my personal worth and value were no longer on the line. I already carried them inside. I was free.
While it may be easy to write this off as a purely spiritual experience, it’s likely that another culprit was at play: a new self-identity that was instilled via an intense emotional experience. It wasn’t just thinking about a new version of myself that made a difference, it was feeling it.
A Common Tale
Think of a recent time when someone helped you pick yourself back up and solve a major problem. Specifically, think about how they helped you. Did they just offer a new solution that you didn’t think of before? Or, did they help you change the way you felt — especially how you felt about yourself?
I’ve spent the last five years looking for the most effective way to break out of an anxious state of fear. Emotional Strength Training has provided me with results I had only dreamed of previously.
Emotional Strength Training
I recently published the booklet Emotional Strength Training. It introduces a technique that I developed which makes bold claims — not the least of which is that (after some initial groundwork is done) I can get nearly anyone to shift from feeling anxious and insecure to self-confident and safe in minutes.
I work with individuals who struggle with anxious thinking. While they may not have panic attacks or need medication, fear clearly guides their choices and behavior. They are terrified of experiencing emotional pain and they constantly seek control. Their choices are made by asking, “How can I best minimize risk?” instead of, “How can I maximize whatever it is that I really want?”
I work with these people for two reasons. First, I used to be one of them. Second, I’m on a personal crusade to break the growing grip of fear on society. This isn’t just about improving our lives; it’s about helping our children.
Just as previous generations took it upon on themselves to wipe out physical diseases so that we could have a better life, we can be the generation that stops the mental virus of fear. Almost every generation over the past century has experienced ever-increasing levels of anxiety and insecurity. Emotional Strength Training was developed to help stop this.
I claim to be able to provide major results for clients in relatively short periods of time. Big statements require big proof.
Soon after I posted my book on Amazon, a publisher contacted me asking for scientific backing. That simple question started a month-long search for the most ironclad information I could find. This article outlines my findings.
My Dream Scenario
The easiest way to get hard evidence — and the way I would have preferred — would be to run fMRI scans while individuals use EST techniques.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra MRI machine sitting around. If there are any exceptionally well-off individuals who would like to remedy this problem for me, I embrace your help with open arms!
But if you really want to impress me (and if I were to put society’s needs before my wants) consider funding a neurological imaging, research and invention center that’s open to all.
(I really like the area around Santa Barbara, just to throw it out there. I hear that diving the Channel Islands is amazing.)
Cognitive science has to be democratized if humans are to survive the next century. As technology gives individuals more and more power, we need a better understanding of how we make decisions — and how we can make the best ones possible.
A Review of the Research
Now that that’s out of the way, the larger question remains — how is it that a technique that lasts only minutes can produce such dramatic results? What, if anything, can neuroscience suggest?
We’ll take a quick review of the research — and find that this technique may teach us something about the brain that we may not have known before.
Bottom Line Up Front
Tl;dr: Utilizing a positive self-image that automatically triggers positive emotions may create an “emotional hijack” that breaks mental fear-cycles and allows us to access parts of our brain that excel at complex problem solving, creativity and long-term planning.
More technical tl;dr: EST likely invokes the MPFC/vACC pathway in such a manner as it’s able to conduct “top down” emotional regulation of the amygdala and return decision making to the prefrontal cortex. This suggests that vACC activation may be a critical component in predicting the efficacy of self-affirmation interventions.
The MPFC & vACC: How You Know & Feel About Who You Are
In the mid 2000’s researchers J. Moran, C. Macrae, T. Heatherton et al. wanted to find out how the brain processed self-reflection. To do this, they conducted fMRI scans on 42 individuals while they completed a brief self-assessment exercise. The subjects were shown different character traits (e.g. “loyal,” “clean,” “gullible,” “high-strung”, etc.) and were asked to report on whether or not these traits described them.
Two notable findings were witnessed. First, activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) increased as traits were seen as increasingly self-descriptive. If the subject saw “trustworthy” and felt this described them, the MPFC activated.
Yet the researchers found that another region of the brain was activated after the MPFC: the anterior cingulate cortex (vACC). While the MPFC responded to whether or not a trait was self-descriptive, the vACC responded to the emotional value of self-descriptive traits (their “valence.”)
If the trait cleared by the MPFC was positive (e.g. “sincere,” “trustworthy,” etc.) the vACC lit up and provided positive emotional feelings to the test subject. But when a self-descriptive trait was negative, (e.g. “jealous,” “mean,” etc.) the vACC did provide a negative feeling — but at a significantly lower level.
It seems that the brain may be built to emotionally self-reward and reinforce positive traits instead of using pain to punish bad behavior. It’s as if our brain is telling us, “I like it when you do things that show this quality!” and rewards us. But when we fall short of our ideals, a healthy brain only wants us to feel slightly bad. It’s enough to know that this isn’t desired, but not so much that we lock ourselves into a world of pain. If we want to feel better, all we need to do is start practicing those positive qualities with which we identify.
The vACC and Amygdala: Breaking The Fear Cycle
The vACC is a fascinating part of the brain. In addition to serving as a crossroads for numerous functions (memory, emotional regulation, decision making, etc.), this region of the brain utilizes von Economo or “spindle” neurons. These neurons are present in a few highly intelligent and social animals, including humans.
One of the key roles of the vACC is its ability to conduct emotional regulation.
A 2011 report by Stevens, Hurley and Taber focused on this. As they state:
The cingulate cortex has projections to both the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Reaction to emotional stimuli is controlled by a “top-down” emotion-regulation process from several areas of frontal cortex. For example, when the pACC (part of the vACC) is activated by emotional conflict resolution, reduced activity is seen in the amygdala. Top-down control provides the capacity to regulate an over-activated emotional response.
Calming the Amygdala
If you feel like you’re in a constant state of anxiety, chances are that you have an over stimulated amygdala. It could be argued that all of my work over the past five years has really been a search for the most effective way to calm down the amygdala and break people out of their “fight or flight” state.
Over activation of the amygdala by fear causes major long-term effects. Constant tension causes us to a) increasingly fixate on negative information (e.g., only seeing what’s wrong while ignoring what’s good) and b) see ambiguous/neutral information as negative (“If they didn’t call me it’s because they hate me,” seeing calm faces as angry, etc.).
Proper vACC activation has been shown to be vital to modulating the amygdala and our emotions in a healthy way. While the vACC plays a role in our emotional experiences, it’s also strongly connected to the rational parts of our brain.
This was demonstrated in the work of A. Etkin, T. Edgner, D. Peraza et al. They showed 19 individuals different emotional faces with the words “happy” or “fear” in front of them. Their task was to identify the emotional expression of the face while ignoring the words. If they saw a terrified face with the word “happy” in front of it (meaning a mismatch), their job was ignore the words and report “fear.”
Tasks with conflicting information activate the amygdala and cause emotional conflict. However, as time went on negative emotional reactions started to dissipate. fMRI scans showed that successful activation of the vACC (perhaps due to a growing internal belief of competency) seemed to relax the amygdala and reduce negative feelings.
Having a healthy and active vACC is critical for living a good life. In fact, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — the current gold standard for anxiety disorders — may owe its effectiveness in part to modifying vACC behavior.
Why Emotional Strength Training Works
What Emotional Strength Training Utilizes:
Once the initial steps are completed, Emotional Strength Training utilizes a few key elements carried out in order:
- The creation of a “Declaration of Strength.” This is a self-descriptive paragraph that outlines the most positive and empowering self-image an individual is currently able to create. Many choose to focus on personal qualities (e.g. an adventurous spirit, being an explorer, etc.) while others focus on deep personal beliefs (e.g. being unconditionally loved by God, being part of a movement, etc.). All sentences must be positive, seen as factually true and produce an emotional impact.
- The creation of a “Strength Phrase.” Most choose this by picking whatever sentence from their Declaration of Strength provides the greatest positive emotional hit. When individuals say this sentence — usually some sort of an “I am” statement — they don’t just say it, they feel it.
- Use the Strength Phrase to manually shift our mental and emotional state. This Strength Phrase can be used in numerous ways to break any fear cycle that’s present. Most report a significant physical, mental and emotional shift within two to five minutes of focused attention on it.
Probable Neuroactivity During EST
Based on the research above, it’s likely that the following is occurring:
- The act of creating a Declaration of Strength activates the MPFC and vACC by identifying self-descriptive attributes that are emotionally positive in nature.
- The Strength Phrase allows the user to manually activate their vACC in a significantly positive way.
- Maintained activation of the vACC by the Strength Phrase calms the amygdala and returns decision making to the prefrontal cortex.*
*(While the vACC may calm the amygdala, it may also be forcing the amygdala to start to react to positive emotional stimuli. While it was long thought to be the “fear center” of the brain, the amygdala also responds to positive emotions. See the fascinating research of L. Bonnet, A. Comte. L. Tatu et al. for more.)
If this theory is correct, it may explain common sensations reported by those who use EST.
While using their Strength Phrase, most report a series of physical and emotional changes. Breathing and heart rates relax. Tension releases. Many find a sense of “calm confidence” that replaces any previous feeling of being “at risk.”
However, what intrigues me most is an almost immediate change in the way people approach problem solving and decision-making.
About 75% of those I have worked with report a new ability to “magically” find solutions to their problems after using EST techniques. Given the lack of magical dust witnessed during client sessions, I’m inspired to guess that something more concrete is going on.
Our prefrontal cortex (which includes the MPFC and vACC) excels at abstract thinking, moral judgment and complex decision-making. If we have a nasty, hairy problem we want to solve, we want the prefrontal cortex at work.
Unfortunately, this region gets disengaged during times of high fear and stress. The theory is that we don’t have the time to think in periods of extreme danger. If a lion jumps out at you from tall grass, you don’t have time to plan and weigh options. You need to act. Activation of the amygdala allows this.
Until you can calm your amygdala and remove yourself from this “fight or flight” state, the prefrontal cortex will remain underused. Luckily, this seems to be the exact benefit that EST techniques provide.
Discovering Inhabited Land: Emotional Strength Training & Self-Affirmation Theory
Like those who crossed the seas to find land already inhabited by people, I most likely have stumbled upon something that already exists — just in a new way and angle.
Emotional Strength Training
EST focuses on helping people utilize a self-identity that allows them to feel stronger than any situation they may face. By reminding themselves who they are and taking action from this place, many who use EST report quick and lasting results. Most feel more calm and secure in their self-identity and state that external problems “stay external.” Their self-worth, self-value and self-esteem are no longer on the line. They know who they are and they know that they can ultimately overcome anything life throws their way.
EST is not the first therapeutic approach to achieve these results.
While conducting research for this article I came across Self-Affirmation Theory, a methodology developed by psychologist Claude Steele in the 1980s. While studying cognitive dissonance, he found that people were less defensive, more objective and more open to change when they turned their attention to meaningful parts of their lives that weren’t under threat.
For example, let’s say you and I are arguing about whether toilet paper should be placed on the roller in an over or under fashion.** If our identities are tied to our opinions, we’re going to endlessly fight. Yet if someone were to stop and ask us about parts of our lives that make us feel meaningful and important, like positive family relationships, chances are that we would relax. Toilet paper doesn’t define us anymore, now our families do. We can shift our self-identity to that and remove the sense of attack.
**For anyone keeping track, the correct answer is “over.”
Self-affirmation theory focuses on one thing above all: identity. Helping individuals curate a meaningful self-identity, especially early on in a task, produces amazingly impactful results.
Quick Interventions, Big Results
An excellent write up on self-affirmation techniques and outcomes was published in 2014 by Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman. They both command extensive backgrounds in self-affirmation studies and techniques.
Here are a few highlights:
- Students were asked to complete writing exercises about what parts of their lives mattered most to them (e.g. families, beliefs, hobbies, etc.). Those who completed this exercise had significantly higher GPAs, especially among “identity threatened” groups such among African American and Latino students.
- Women with Stage I & II breast cancer were less likely to express self-reported symptoms of illness three months after a single focused writing exercise. Those who wrote about important personal traits, such as their relationships, religious beliefs or personal qualities benefited most.
- Arab American men were able to induce prejudiced people to consider their perspective of being unfairly treated in the wake of 9/11 when they first asked them self-affirming questions, such as, “When were you really creative?”
Like EST, these interventions are amazingly efficient. Helping someone curate their identity in a positive way produces long-lasting results. If we claim, “this is who I am” and take action that validates this image, we prove and reinforce it. The longer we keep doing this for ourselves, the better our outcomes become.
Opportunities for Future Research
EST may introduce a new emotional element into the world of self-affirmation. This opens the doors to additional research, especially on the role of the vACC and other emotional regions of the brain.
Working with clients has taught me that the most effective interventions are also the most emotionally empowering. When individuals recall certain parts of their identities (e.g. their Strength Phrase), I can often predict their long-term success based on the emotional impact they report.
This suggests that vACC activation may predict the long-term efficacy of self-affirmation interventions.
If I discuss a value that’s important to me but doesn’t cause an automatic emotional reaction, is it going to be effective? Is it even possible to discuss something that’s truly important to me without an emotional reaction? Is there a threshold of vACC activation required to leave a lasting impression of “self?” These are all questions that further research would ideally answer.
Remembering Who We Are: A Cure For A Tense World
Thanks to a perfect storm of technology, economics and the wiring of our minds, we live in world saturated by fear. Proof of this abounds in the skyrocketing levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide. While many enjoy talking about how neurotic millennials are, the generation after them looks even worse.
There are legitimate reasons to be afraid. Our democracies are under attack. We’re constantly told about the threat of terrorism. A hyper-competitive society is causing our children to crack under the pressure of stress and anxiety before they even graduate. Incomes remain stagnant and fears of automation rise. We have more natural disasters, greater income inequality and fewer guarantees about the future.
We know the problems. What do we do next?
We could take the route society typically encourages us to take: numb and drug the pain. Do everything possible to distract ourselves. It’s too hard, too challenging and too scary. It’s better to escape into our smartphones where can ignore the world while also being fed more information through that screen that scares us.
Emotional Strength Training and self-affirmation techniques offer a different route. Instead of hiding, we can affirm our sense of self and walk towards our problems without remaining in a state of fear. Work can be done to solve our challenges instead of simply escaping them. We can use our prefrontal cortices to find real, lasting solutions instead of chasing the reactive short-term impulses our collectively hyper-stimulated amygdalae produce.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher, doctor, business manager or everyday parent. By helping those under your care cultivate the way they see themselves — and by modeling the same yourself — you can help break this cycle of fear.
We all want to pass a better world on to our children. Let’s start solving our problems in the best way possible.
James (JJ) Stamatelos is a professional coach and founder of the Inner Strength Movement. He’s the author of Emotional Strength Training and can be reached via email for any questions, comments or coaching requests.
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Author: J Stamatelos