Studies of stress management and brain research have documented the advantages of emotional balance and cultivating the relaxation response. Most of the programs designed to promote the relaxation response focus on meditation or mindfulness. But there are other mental and emotional experiences that trigger the relaxation response. Gratitude, compassion, love, forgiveness, beauty, laughter and other forms of joy all trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, the off switch to the fight or flight response. They also show up as brain activity in the left prefrontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, whereas worrying, planning attack or revenge, and other forms of problem solving analysis show up as activity in the right prefrontal lobe. Intentionally cultivating thoughts of gratitude, compassion, etc. helps grow synaptic connections in the brain that make it easier and easier to remember those joyful experiences, and in the process promote self-calming.
So an intentional practice of balancing our emotional life with relaxation to reduce stress is like an emotional fitness program that involves exercising our left prefontal lobe. The physical as well as mental health benefits of such emotional fitness are truly wonderful, and the practice of exercising your left prefrontal lobe is way more fun than situps or pushups.
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