Stressed woman
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Sometimes doing something good for yourself, like exercising or sleeping, can actually bring on more stress than you think...or want. But why? Try this three-step strategy to rewire your brain and experience more joy.
You start an exercise plan, and it's all so wonderful. Your skin glows, you lose weight, you feel great. Then something shifts and you are completely ignoring your kid to make time for your weight training—or blowing off important projects to train for a marathon. Exercise is virtuous. But now it seems to have turned against you. What happened?
In a word, stress. Take anything good—lovemaking, exercise, sleep, healthy eating—and douse the brain in stress. It goes to extremes. Most of the stress you feel comes from how you process daily life. The brain is set to either ramp up stress—and with it extremes—or to process your experiences and work its way back to joy. So the solution to extremes of behavior is to rewire the brain so its default—its emotional set point—is balance and joy instead of stress. Try three emotional brain-training strategies to get you started in rewiring your brain.

First: Check in

Stressed working woman
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By knowing your stress level and not giving yourself a hard time, your stress lessens. The whole world is stressed out. Don't make a federal case about feeling on edge! By being emotionally aware and accepting your state, stress decreases and you avoid secondary stress—that is, being stressed about being stressed.

The Tool: Check in with yourself throughout the day and warmly observe yourself. You might say: "Oh. I'm a little stressed. That makes perfect sense. Life is stressful!" You will feel a sense of relaxation and a surge of pleasure in your body.

Next: Express your emotions

Angry working woman
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Expressing negative feelings offloads stress, but if you only express one feeling—say, anger—it turns into hostility, adding to your stress. Strong negative feelings turn to productive stress dousers when you allow them to flow: first expressing anger and then sadness, fear and guilt.

The Tool: You can clear away stress by expressing four feelings. Start with anger by saying: "I feel angry that...." Then, pause and allow your emotional brain do the work, sending to consciousness what you are stressed about. Continue completing the sentences with the first thing that comes to mind: "I feel sad that... I feel afraid that... I feel guilty that..." Often, the words don't make sense, but that doesn't matter. It clears away the stress: "I feel angry that my stomach hurts. I feel sad that I am alone. I feel afraid that I am a bad person. I feel guilty that I haven't paid the bills." What happens next? The positive emotions start flowing!

Next: Love your survival circuits

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When good turns bad, it's because a specific wire in the brain—a survival circuit—has been triggered. These survival circuits that send you running to the refrigerator or reaching for your credit cards are formed during intensive stress. Let's face it: Cookies make you feel good, if only for a moment. When you are in intensive stress and you eat a cookie, your brain sees that cookie as the only thing that has made it experience good sensations, so it begins to associate that cookie with survival. Which means you don't just want that cookie, you need it!

As long as that wire is left in place, forbidding cookies just makes you want more, which stresses you out more and triggers the circuit again. In emotional brain training, you work to rewire that survival circuit.

The Tool: The first step in rewiring a survival circuit is to stop judging or controlling the behavior. When you're taking part in extreme behavior, remind yourself: "It's not me. It's just a wire." It takes awhile for that message to weave itself into the unconscious mind, but remember, the behavior is not the problem—the circuit is. Forcing yourself to stop a behavior will cause it to boomerang and be more extreme. Or that circuit will latch on to a substitute behavior that is no less extreme.

In that same moment when you don't pass judgment on yourself, you must give yourself the emotional experience that you most need: love. Feel compassion for yourself. The emotional brain circuits—those survival level drives—only rewire in response to an equally intense emotional experience and you arouse that negative feeling, then swamp it with compassion. That moment of insight into your pain and the choice to arouse equally intense positive emotions erases the circuit. The drive for the excess weakens or disappears altogether.

Changing how you process daily stress and resetting your emotional set point takes work. Emotional brain training is not a quick fix—it must become a personal practice. Yet even just using these three tools can begin to create more moments of joy in your life. And with joy, extremes fade, so good won't turn bad.

Laurel Mellin is a New York Times best-selling author and an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. She directs the national research coordinating center for emotional brain training (EBT) in UCSF's Center for Health and Community. Her most recent book, Wired for Joy, was released by Hay House in June 2010.

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