Train your brain to shut down stress quickly (Part I)

Electrical signals of an active human brain - Train your brain to shut down stress stimulating the Vagus nerve - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Author: David Davenport – Contributing writer Healing Arts Institute | Image by Canva

In this two-part series, we are going to look at how and why your body enters ‘stress mode’ and how you can train yourself to prevent feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.

We have talked about stress before in previous articles, but today we will be discussing the role of the Vagus nerve in controlling stress in particular. The human nervous system is fairly complicated. It is divided into several subsystems, each of which controls a different component of our physiology.

When we say that we are feeling ‘nervous’, what we’re really saying is that there is some part of our nervous system which is activating. Sometimes it becomes so active, that it interferes with our normal daily lives. Not good!

Our two main nervous system categories are the somatic system and the autonomic system. While the somatic system is in charge of voluntary body movements (like muscle control), the autonomic system helps us control all the other things we don’t usually think about.

This includes things like heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, the release of perspiration, and digestive functions.

It is the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for developing our nervous jitters, so let’s talk a little more about what that is and how training the Vagus nerve can help you calm your nerves.

What makes up the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic system is divided into two components.

The sympathetic nervous system controls what you normally hear referred to as the “fight or flight” response. You can think of this as pre-installed survival software that activates when your brain thinks that you are in danger.

The parasympathetic nervous system helps to calm the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and controls the “rest and digest” functions of your body.

These two systems are in opposition to each other – balancing each other out in a yin and yang harmonious equilibrium.

So, what about the Vagus nerve? How does it help calm me down?

The Vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is one of the longest nerves in your entire body. It extends from your brain stem all the way down to your abdomen. It helps to regulate your digestive functions, and it even brings sensory information from your organs back to your brain for processing.

When the Vagus nerve activates it signals the release of acetylcholine (ACh), a neurotransmitter that binds to nicotinic and muscarinic receptors telling your body that it’s time to ‘rest and digest’.

Jittery nerves come with additional side effects

It is possible to become so accustomed to stress that you ignore those jittery signals your body is giving you. That doesn’t mean that you are immune to the effects of stress, just that you are no longer sensitive to recognizing the signs.

Chronic dry mouth, stomach pain, and fatigue are important signs that you are in a state of “fight or flight”. These are good indicators that you need to stimulate your Vagus nerve to offset these unpleasant and harmful side effects of being in distress.

Luckily, we have been learning how to do this for quite a while. Here are some simple things you can do to help stimulate your Vagus nerve and stop stress from becoming too overwhelming.

Meditative breathing

Purposeful breathing helps your mind focus on your body’s current state of being. While concentrating on your breathing, scan your body for signs of tension, discomfort, or pain. Breathe deeply from your diaphragm. Scan your body for these signs as you work your way from head to toe.

You may notice a slight increase in saliva beginning to form in your mouth after starting this exercise. This is because your Vagus nerve is activating your “rest and digest” response.

Pay attention to the biorhythms of your body

Your body will let your know what it needs and when it needs it. Often times we ignore these signals because we are busy, in a rush, or distracted by daily obligations and routines.

It is important to sleep when you are tired, to eat when you are hungry, and to relax when overworked.

It is not uncommon to feel angry or nervous when your body has not been provided with enough nutrition. Sometimes a little snack every now and again could make all the difference.

Laughter really is the best medicine

Taking the time to find something that will make you laugh or smile while engaging in stressful work will help stimulate your rest and digest response. This will help keep you calm and relaxed. Have you ever experienced nervous laughter before? Sometimes when we are confronted with an anxiety-provoking situation that flips our fight or flight mode to the on position, we start to laugh. That’s not accidental.

Your body is experiencing a sudden rush of anxiety, and your mind is subconsciously attempting to lessen the impact.

Sometimes watching a few cute animal videos on YouTube is time well spent to help you to smile, laugh, and get back on track.

It is important to note that these techniques are not meant to mask or avoid the problems that are causing your anxiety. Feeling calmer and in control will help you to work with a trusted mental health professional so that you can find the root cause.

Read next week’s blog where we discuss additional techniques to help you get a grip on your nervous impulses.


“Parasympathetic Response: Train Your Nervous System to Turn off Stress: Anxiety Skills #11.” YouTube, uploaded by Therapy in a Nutshell, 14 June 2017,

Sigrid, Breit, et al. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 9, 2018, p. 44, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044.

Tindle J, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System. [Updated 2020 Nov 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from:

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – A Look Into What It Is And How To Treat It

Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is far more common than you think, and chances are you may have experienced it at some point in your life.

On average, half of the U.S. population will experience at least one severely traumatic experience in their life. About 8% of the total population will develop some form of PTSD because of either directly being subjected to trauma or having witnessed it.

In any given year, more than 8 million adults will be suffering from PTSD.

That’s a lot of people.

As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness Month, we are going to talk about what PTSD is, how your brain copes with trauma and the things we can do to treat it. If you think you may be suffering from PTSD, you are not alone.

Weirdly, PTSD is the result of your brain trying to protect you from danger.

What is PTSD?

Weirdly, PTSD is the result of your brain trying to protect you from danger. When you are in a situation where you feel that you are under threat, your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system. You may have heard this referred to as a fight or flight response. This system tells your body to prepare itself to escape whatever is threatening you:

  • Adrenaline hormones course through your body, telling your muscles and organs that you are getting ready to experience a demanding physical ordeal.
  • Your heartbeat increases to pump more blood through your arteries so that your muscles have enough oxygen to run from what is threatening you.
  • You begin to sweat so that your body can keep cool as it exerts itself.

The problem is nothing is chasing you and nobody is attacking you. You may be alone and perfectly safe yet feel as if your life is in imminent danger.

This sensation can envelop you without warning and at any time. There is no hiding from it.

You begin to panic, scream, lash out, and cry…

You are in a fight for your life – at least that is what your brain is telling you.

Your brain is trying to protect you from danger, but it has become a little confused about when that danger was an actual threat.

People who suffer from PTSD are constantly reliving their ordeal of trauma, trying desperately to outrun terrifying memories that they cannot figure out how to escape.

The Effects of PTSD on the Brain

When you experience trauma, certain memories can be filed away in long-term storage to help remind you to never repeat that experience. It’s a survival mechanism.

Sometimes the brain overreacts, and you may end up experiencing those memories many times over. Even though you are not in any real danger, your brain is unable to tell the difference between a real and a perceived threat.

PTSD has a dramatic effect on the Limbic system of your brain which is responsible for long-term memory formation as well as fear learning and emotional response. While several structures comprise the Limbic system, the amygdala is the structure thought to be responsible for activating fearful and anxious emotions. Under situations of extreme stress, terror, or shock the Limbic system can become too active and store fear responses in long-term memory which hinder the quality of life and social connections with others.

A part of your brain which normally helps to regulate and calm the Limbic system is called the Pre-Frontal Cortex (which we’ll abbreviate as PFC). This part of your brain is responsible for rational thought and is generally able to tone down the activation of your amygdala. In a neurotypical brain, these two structures balance one another, but in a PTSD brain, the emotional Limbic system runs rampant.

Interestingly, a third structure is involved in emotional regulation which connects to both the amygdala and the PFC. It’s called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). It can influence emotional regulation depending on which neural system has more influence.

Relationship between the PFC, ACC, and Amygdala in PTSD - Healing Arts Institute

In other words, the ACC can help your rational-thought processes regulate the Limbic system if your PFC has strong functional connections to it. But it also means that the opposite is true. If your over-active amygdala develops atypical functional connections to the ACC, it can be more difficult to regulate emotions.

The altered performance of functional connections from the amygdala to the ACC has been observed extensively in at-risk youth. Many of these kids experience violence at home and at school, which over time instills long-term fear learning and the development of PTSD.

Who is Susceptible to PTSD?

Anyone who has personally experienced or who has witnessed a terrifying and traumatic event can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. People who are subjected to consistent stress over long periods can also develop PTSD even if they have never faced a particularly shocking event that is normally associated with trauma.

Victims of child abuse and domestic violence often describe symptoms and show signs of PTSD from long-term and sustained stress.

Some people who suffer from PTSD describe feeling guilty that their suffering is not worth the time and attention to treat. They compare their experiences with the experiences of others and decide that their trauma is not worthy of recognition.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Trauma is very personal. If it matters to you, then it matters. Period. You should never feel as if you must justify that to anyone, not even to yourself.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the Rescue

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment method that engages the rational thought structures of your brain to overcome and regulate your emotions. Remember the Pre-frontal cortex (PFC) that we talked about earlier? It teaches you how to think through your thoughts and emotions in a logical and structured way rather than remaining subservient to emotions and fear.

When your PFC makes strong connections with the ACC and Limbic system, it becomes easier to overcome and control the irrational fear responses of PTSD. This takes time and a lot (and I mean a lot) of practice.

Some medications can help ease symptoms, but medication alone is not a cure. Medical studies have shown that a combination of medication and CBT in treating PTSD is far more effective than either one alone.

Overcoming PTSD is a long and hard road, but with the help and guidance of a trained therapist, anyone can learn to control and even defeat their PTSD symptoms.


American Psychological Association. “Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Adults.” American Psychological Association, Mar. 2017,

Gold, Andrea L et al. “Amygdala-prefrontal cortex functional connectivity during threat-induced anxiety and goal distraction.” Biological psychiatry vol. 77,4 (2015): 394-403.

Marusak, H., Thomason, M., Peters, C. et al. You say ‘prefrontal cortex’ and I say ‘anterior cingulate’: meta-analysis of spatial overlap in amygdala-to-prefrontal connectivity and internalizing symptomology. Transl Psychiatry 6, e944 (2016).

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 6 July 2018,

Stevens, Francis, et al. “Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Unique Role in Cognition and Emotion.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 121–25. Psychiatry Online,

“VA.Gov | Veterans Affairs.” U.S. Deprtment of Veteran’s Affairs, 2021,

“What Is PTSD?” American Psychiatric Association, 2020,

Making Sense of an Unexpected Death: Losing a Friend

Sunset over a mountain top - clouds over the horizon. Death and grieving.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida [Op-ed]

For anyone who has ever experienced an unexpected or sudden loss of a friend or loved one, I hope this story finds you well.

There are so many emotions and conflicting thoughts that are involved with experiencing the death of a close friend or relative. It becomes even more difficult to process when feelings of guilt and a sense of missed opportunity looms over their memory.

Recently I received a call from a long-time friend. We had known each other since college, and he was part of a group of inside friends who helped to define my college years. The five of us would hang out and have the kinds of conversations that would make even a veteran sailor feel uneasy.

My friends were a defining part of my younger years.

Admittedly I was a bit of a latecomer to the group, but I like to think of my inclusion as a much-needed upgrade.

The day came when we all graduated. Years passed, and we slowly drifted apart in the way that life tends to impose. We moved away. We spoke less and we lived our lives.

The Call

I answered the call with excitement, so happy to hear from my friend. We hadn’t spoken in almost three years. I wanted to know how he was doing and how his children must have grown! Business must be doing well, and I’m sure his wife must be overjoyed after having their fifth (yes, fifth) child.

When he spoke it was with the same enthusiasm and heartfelt joy that I’ve become accustomed to hearing, except… it wasn’t. I knew something was different this time in his tone, even though he tried as best he could to hide it.

He went silent for a moment. That moment felt like an eternity and I sat down not knowing what to expect. I only knew that whatever was coming next would not be good.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Something is wrong.”

He sat silent for a few moments trying to find the right words, hesitant that in doing so it would make what he was about to say all too real.

“Chris died last night.” He said without any further explanation.

I felt nothing. Of course he was mistaken, and I was going to get to the bottom of it. My medical training immediately took over and I began collecting a detailed history of events. With each answer I received, my heart sunk further as the reality of what had occurred formed a very clear picture in my mind.

His passing was not the result of a sudden tragedy or unexpected event. My friend was sick for a very long time. Years even. His cause of death was likely due to internalized struggles that he attempted to suppress with alcohol. A lot of alcohol.

He never told any of us.

It was my fault…

I had suspected on occasion that he may have been struggling with depression, but never to the extent that it would eventually take his life. I only ever received second-hand updates from others in the group.

He had everything he ever wanted, at least as far as any of us knew. At least as far as I knew.

It had been more than twelve years since I had seen my friend, and almost as long since we had spoken.

It had been so long that he almost didn’t seem real to me anymore. He had become another happy memory of my youth when life was far less complicated.

Three months before his passing, he called me out of the blue. I almost couldn’t believe it was him. He seemed happy. I asked how he was, and he said everything was going well. He was lying.

He invited me to come out and see him, meet his wife and spend some time with him. It didn’t seem practical considering how busy things were at the time, and I didn’t have the first clue that things were as bad as they were. I didn’t know that he was calling me from the hospital.

I know now that this was his way of reaching out and saying goodbye. He was a man of few words.

I slowly began to fill with a sense of dread. It was heavy and cold – almost palpable. That dread slowly turned to anger.

Why didn’t he tell us? We were his friends! He could have said something – I COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING!

It was MY FAULT that I didn’t reach out, I was as guilty as the disease that took him…

The disquieting ebb and flow of guilt and anger were all I could think about.

Making sense of what happened

Slowly with time, more rational thoughts began to prevail. How could I possibly blame myself for his decisions? I will always feel partially responsible for not reaching out, but that is my burden to bear.

Ultimately, he felt that his demons were his and his alone to vanquish and I am learning to respect that decision. I do not have to like it, but I do have to accept it.

My friend left us on a Saturday night. He closed his eyes and found peace after falling asleep one last time. He now has more important things to do and has left the rest of us to continue the work of our daily lives.

Tomorrow, I will wake up grateful for having taken that first breath in the morning. I will be grateful for having had him in my life.

I will try to do more. To live more. To be more compassionate to others, and to listen more than I talk.

Chris was my friend.

I will miss him.

Written by David Davenport: Contributing author Healing Arts Institute

If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with depression, reach out to them. If you are struggling with depression, seek help. You will never find the answer at the bottom of a bottle or with substance abuse.

There is never any shame in asking someone for help.

Crisis textline: Text CONNECT to 741741 for help with depression (24 hours / 7 days a week)

Lines for Life: Alcohol help line 888-923-4357 (24 hours / 7 days a week)

Read our blog article on re-kindling your motivation when you are feeling depressed.

Five Simple Reasons Why You Should go to Therapy Today

Therapy - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida - Woman holding a smartphone and looking up and to her left.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there has been at least one time in your life that you have thought about going to therapy or seeking out a therapist. For some reason, we’ve stigmatized the entire process of seeking help for mental health challenges, and so we don’t go.

Let’s consider for a moment just how ridiculous that really is.

Your brain is an organ just like your heart, lungs, or kidneys. Aside from regulating all your autonomic and voluntary functions, it is responsible for processing all the sensory information around you.

That beautiful breeze you feel on a cool day? That’s your brain telling you that sensation against your skin is pleasant.

That sense of dread you begin to feel as a looming deadline approaches? That’s your brain telling you that ‘danger’ is on the horizon and you better act accordingly.

Unlike other organs, your brain is also responsible for regulating something that carries a strong social attachment with it – behavior.

Sometimes are brains overreact or become ‘injured’ through the experience of traumatic events throughout our lives. Sometimes we are born with neural connections or neurotransmitter imbalances that make it difficult for our brains to function in the ways we want them to.

That’s not our fault, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about.

Why do we view mental health differently than physical health?

If we sustain injuries from a car accident, we wouldn’t feel ashamed to get help from a doctor. We would seek treatment and feel better for having done so.

Why then are we ashamed to ask for therapy when it comes to healing our brain? I propose that we are ashamed because the most obvious ‘defect’ has to do with our behavior.

Not only do we spend our whole lives adjusting our behavior to the liking of others, but it also causes us significant discomfort to suggest that our behavior and worldview may be flawed.

I get it, it’s scary.

We are ashamed because the most obvious ‘defect’ has to do with our behavior.

Luckily for us, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Healing Arts Institute wants to help you #BreakTheStigma of mental health therapy!

Let’s go over five simple signs that you should watch out for, and why you should consider starting a relationship with a therapist today.

You are feeling tired throughout the day – even with a whole night’s sleep.

Feeling tired despite having had plenty of rest may be a sign of stress overload. Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, micro-stressors can accumulate over time. This can lead to mental burnout and emotional distress which will translate into fatigue, stomach pain, muscle aches, and head pain.

Feeling tired is a sign that your body is struggling, and the core cause of that struggle may actually be from an emotional or mental source.

You want to be alone more often than you normally do.

It’s completely normal for people to want to be alone, in fact, many people find social interaction to be pretty draining. That’s actually alright.

However, if you are the type of person who derives energy from being around friends and family, you want to watch out for patterns that have you spending more time by yourself. Spending too much time away from others can lead to isolation and depression.

You may want to use therapy to explore why this shift in behavior has occurred, and whether there is an underlying reason for it.

You are feeling overwhelmed by situations you are normally able to handle.

Sometimes there are just too many things happing at the same time. Work, family, relationships, and finances can create stressful conditions that can make anyone feel like it’s just too much to handle.

Over time you can begin to feel as if you are being worn down little by little. The situations you used to be able to juggle successfully are becoming more difficult for you to deal with and you’re not sure why.

If you are starting to feel as if life is becoming a little too hard, it is a sure sign that you may need some guidance as to how to balance your mental and emotional state of mind.

You no longer care for the people or things that used to make you happy.

Feelings of apathy toward people or activities that used to bring you joy are a sign that your mind is attempting to remove itself from an emotionally stressful environment.

Even if you don’t feel particularly stressed, a slow and creeping lack of motivation is an indicator that something may be wrong. Don’t ignore what your thoughts and emotions are trying to tell you.

You are beginning to experience feelings of hopelessness, that life may not be worth living.

In circumstances of extreme distress, it is possible to spiral down into some pretty dark thoughts that likely don’t have a strong basis in reality. 

Once you begin to think that you don’t have a future, it can lead to negative thought patterns which can make it extremely hard to function in your daily life. Even worse you may even begin to have thoughts about harming yourself or someone else.

These are all signs that your mental and emotional state of mind is out of balance. Therapy can help correct it.

There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and you do not have to wait until things get bad before you do.

Start a healthy relationship with a therapist that you trust today.

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It’s Remarkable – Your Subconscious Mind is Always Talking. Stop and Listen.

The Subconscious Mind - Young girl is floating on the ocean late at night with a full moon on the horizon.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Image by Canva

You may not be aware of it, but there is so much more happening in your mind than you realize.

Your brain functions as an extremely complicated computer, taking in information, processing that information, and then providing you with a conclusion. Your brain is managing enormous volumes of information every single day, and all of it is being filtered through the lens of your experiences and belief systems. 

In a way, you can think of your brain as computing hardware. This hardware needs to be given instructions about how to function, in other words, it needs a software operating system.

Continuing with this tech-based analogy, I want you to think about what it is like to use your computer or smartphone. While you have a broad range of apps that you can choose to use (consciousness), there are many other processes running in the background that you do not directly control (subconsciousness).

Much like your computer, the apps you chose to run (actions and behaviors) will affect the programs running in the background (subconscious thoughts and beliefs.). The opposite is also true. Your subconscious thoughts will affect your actions and behaviors.

Our background software is always processing information and sending back output. We just have to listen to what it is telling us.

Your brain is like a computer

Like any computer your brain needs input, and this data comes in many forms:

  • Your immediate surroundings and environment.
  • The people you interact with.
  • The actions you take, and activities that you participate in.
  • Sensory information such as smell, touch, sight, taste, and sound.

All this input is processed continuously whether you are aware of it or not. Truthfully, let’s be thankful that we aren’t aware of all of it. Can you imagine how difficult life would be if we had to make conscious efforts to move every single muscle every time we took a step? Every time we took a breath? Every time we swallowed and digested food? There would be no room to process higher thoughts. All our mental energy would be focused on physiologic survival.

Similarly, many of our emotions are processed through subconscious channels. This allows us to focus on more pressing and immediate thoughts and actions.

Our background software is always processing information and sending back output. We just have to listen to what it is telling us.

Feeling uneasy around certain people or situations

We can be quick to dismiss uneasy ‘gut’ feelings when being introduced to certain people or situations. We might minimize this feeling as being the result of social anxiety, nerves, or perhaps personal biases. However, these feelings are coming from somewhere. Our past experiences and the conclusions we reach from those experiences can shape our perceptions of future interactions.

That ‘gut feeling’ you have maybe your unconscious mind warning you that you are about to repeat something unpleasant from the past. You may be picking up on signals that are similar enough to previous experiences to where your brain is registering a warning not to do it again.

You should listen to that inner voice when it is telling you that something is wrong. The next time you get that unsettling feeling when you encounter a person or situation, listen to what it is telling you.

Having recurring dreams

There are still debates among medical scientists and psychologists as to why humans (and seemingly other mammals) dream when they sleep. On the surface there does not seems to be an obvious evolutionary advantage or purpose to dreaming.

It is not until we open ourselves to the idea of subconscious processing that we begin to formulate a possible explanation for why we dream. 

Dreams may reflect our internal state. They may be a way for our minds to sort through and untangle complicated thoughts and emotions that we experience throughout the day. Recurring dreams may hold clues as to why we feel the way we do or may even reveal emotional dilemmas that we were not aware of. 

Dreams may be amusing, bizarre, joyful, or even scary. If you are having the same dreams over and over again, it may be your mind’s way of trying to communicate with you.

Experiencing an unexplained feeling of clarity

Have you ever suddenly felt an almost euphoric feeling of peace, relief, or gratitude? If you have, it could be a message from your subconscious. Under stressful or uncertain circumstances, we may make decisions that we are uncertain about. We may doubt ourselves and our ability to do the right thing.

Our subconscious mind can process information much faster than our rational conscious mind can. But sometimes there can be a delay in our emotional state, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.

New information received by your subconscious mind can result in new emotions, but we are not always in sync as to when that update occurs. 

Think of this emotional state as being anti-anxiety.

If you ever suddenly feel as if everything is going to be okay, embrace it. It may be your mind’s way of telling you that you have made the right choices. 

Recurring thoughts

Much like recurring dreams, recurring thoughts can indicate a desire to finalize an unresolved emotional block. Some thoughts can be negative and intrusive and may require the help of a therapist to help you resolve them.

Don’t ignore recurring thoughts, especially if they are hindering your personal or professional life.

Allowing your subconscious mind to better communicate with you

Practicing mindfulness can help your deeper consciousness process and communicate new information. Many of our negative emotions and intrusive thoughts are from our suborn reluctance to listen to what our consciousness is trying to tell us.

Read more about Mindfulness here and associated breathing techniques here.


Bargh, John A, and Ezequiel Morsella. “The Unconscious Mind.” Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science vol. 3,1 (2008): 73-9. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00064.x

Carey, Benedict. “The Subconscious Brain – Who’s Minding the Mind?” The New York Times, 30 July 2007,

Martinez-Conde, Susana. “Subconscious Sight.” Scientific American Mind, vol. 19, no. 2, 2008, pp. 48–53., Accessed 3 May 2021.

Psych2Go. “6 Signs Your Subconscious Is Trying To Tell You Something.” YouTube, uploaded by Psych2Go, 31 July 2020,

Breathing Techniques that Will Dramatically Improve Your Life

Woman laying back on sofa, breathing deeply, wearing headphones.
Written by David Davenport: Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

Did you know that you can literally change your state of mind, body, and focus by learning how to breathe properly?

I know, I know…

You’ve been breathing for as long as you can remember, and I shouldn’t be telling you how to live your life. But trust me, this is for your own good.

Last week we talked about mindfulness and how it is important in reducing depression and anxiety. Mindfulness training helps to bring your mind into the present moment. Breathing is an extremely important component of mindfulness, and so this week we are dedicating a whole article to do just that.

The calming effect from deep breathing is not mental, but rather has a physiological explanation.

The science behind how and why we breathe

Our breathing is regulated by a mostly automated process that allows us to bring oxygen into our bodies and release carbon dioxide. We need the oxygen to help our bodies produce a much-needed energy molecule called ATP, and we breathe out the carbon dioxide by-product from that very process.

Unlike other automated systems, we can take control of our breathing. In the past, you’ve likely been told to breathe deeply when you are getting a little worked up. You may have even caught yourself taking deep breathes when you are feeling nervous or angry. The calming effect from deep breathing is not mental, but rather has a physiological explanation.

When you breathe in deeply, you are pulling down on your diaphragm muscle. That action sets off a chain of events that stimulates an extremely important nerve—the Vagus Nerve. This is the nerve that is responsible for your ‘rest and digest’ state and works to calm you when your sympathetic nervous system has become too active.

In other words, learning about deep breathing techniques will help you to invoke the systems of your body that can turn off your fight-or-flight mode. This is what is meant by ‘belly breathing’.

This is how you can begin to achieve a more mindful state.

Let’s learn a few techniques that can help you calm your nerves and become more focused.

Woman standing with hands on chest, breathing deeply.

Diaphragmatic breathing technique

The diaphragm is the primary muscle used in breathing. It is located just below your ribcage and contracts in a motion that pulls downward. When it does, your chest cavity expands allowing for more air to come in.

So, to get the fullest breathes possible you want to pull down on your diaphragm.

  1. Sit up straight or lie on your back.
  2. Place one of your hands just below the ribcage (where your diaphragm is), and the other hand on the upper part of your chest.
  3. Breathe slowly through your nose and envision your diaphragm being pulled down towards your feet. Let your belly extend, paying attention to the feeling of your hand moving outward with it. The hand on your chest should remain still.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Slowly exhale through your mouth, again paying attention to the feeling of your hand as it slowly moves back to its original position.
  6. Wait a few seconds before taking another breath and repeating the process at least 3 times.

Once you are comfortable with practicing diaphragmatic breathing, there are some things you can do to make the technique even more effective.

4-7-8 technique

  1. Place your hands in the position for deep breathing as mentioned above.
  2. When inhaling, slowly count to 4.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale for 8 seconds, making sure to push out as much air as you can.
  5. Repeat at least 3 times.

Once you are comfortable doing this, you can incorporate the next step:

Upper chest ‘roll’ breathing

  1. Position yourself for deep diaphragmatic breathing and go through 10 cycles.
  2. On cycle number 11, concentrate on filling your upper chest with air after you have extended your belly as far as you have been able. You should pay attention to the hand on your chest rising as you do this. As you inhale, your belly hand should rise, then your chest hand should rise.
  3. As you exhale through your mouth, your chest hand should lower followed by your belly hand.
  4. Repeat several times and perform a body scan as discussed in our mindfulness article.

Deep breathing can help you become more focused, reduce stress, lower anxiety, and has even been linked to reductions in processes that produce pathological inflammation. Once you incorporate these techniques as part of a routine, you will be on your way to experiencing the benefits of a more mindful life.


Gerritsen, Roderik J S, and Guido P H Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 397. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

Harvard Health Publishing. “Learning Diaphragmatic Breathing.” Harvard Health, Mar. 2016,

Moore, Keith, and Arthur Dalley. Clinically Oriented Anatomy. 4th ed., Philadelphia : Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999.

“Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation | Michigan Medicine.” Michigan Medicine: University of Michigan, 2020,

Living in the Present is not as Easy as you Think

Mindfulness - Woman concentrating while seated at her table - Healing Arts Institute
Written by David Davenport – Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

What if I told you that I know of a way to improve memory, lower anxiety, reduce pain, and even help with improving your overall state of physical health?

Normally a claim like this might be followed up with a request for your credit card number and a 30-day money-back guarantee, but I assure you this is nothing of the sort.

I propose that there is a clinically proven way to realize these benefits and more without a doctor’s prescription. You do not have to spend a single penny.

It’s not a pill or a dietary supplement, but it can regulate the genes that are responsible for the way your body metabolizes sugar, how you fall asleep, and the processes that are involved in inflammation.

Do I have your attention yet?

This ‘secret’ is a well-studied and evidence-based technique chronicled in studies conducted by Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic. It has been known for centuries but has only recently found its way into mainstream practice.

It may be the simplest thing you ever learn how to do, and yet one of the most difficult things you will ever try to master.

And no, it’s not meditation…

At least not meditation in the traditional sense – I’m talking about mindfulness.

We talk about mindfulness a lot here at Healing Arts Institute. I figured it was about time that we finally go into more depth about what it is, and how you can begin to benefit from it.

“Mindfulness is essentially the ability to train your mind so that you are more aware of your current surroundings and your state of emotions.”

What mindfulness is (and what it is not)

Mindfulness is essentially the ability to train your mind so that you are more aware of your current surroundings and your state of emotions. Without even being aware of it, we often obsessively fixate on past events or worry about the future.

This creates two big problems.

  1. We spend too much emotional energy on things that we may not have any control over.
  2. We work ourselves into a near-constant state of depression, anxiety, and emotional stress.

As smart as we are, our brains have a difficult time telling the difference between a real and perceived threat. If we spend too much time worrying about future events, our brains will keep our bodies in a heightened state of alert. That means stress hormones, weight loss (not the good kind), nerve pain, and digestive issues.

Ruminating over the past isn’t much better. We tend to develop depressed emotional states.

Practicing mindfulness is not something we have to schedule into our day. It’s not some weird addition to our routines or personalities. Mindfulness is often associated with meditation, but that’s only partly true.

Mindfulness is a way of life that helps us to focus on the here and now – after all, that’s where we live.

How you can live a mindful life

Wherever you go, there you are

Next time you find yourself taking a walk, sitting at your desk, or enjoying a beautiful sunny afternoon, don’t allow your mind to wander. Pay attention to everything around you – the sun on your skin, the sound of your footsteps on the sidewalk, and the scents around you. Pay attention to the colors and objects you are seeing at that moment. You don’t have to have an opinion or appreciation for any of it, just be aware that they are there.

Breathe. Focus on every sensation.

When you find your mind wandering and the nervousness creeping in, bring yourself back to the present and focus.

Scan your emotions

I will bet you rarely take the time to make yourself aware of how you react to stress, but your body knows. Negative emotions tend to manifest physically as muscle tension.

When you find yourself sitting at work or at home, give yourself a quick body scan.

Close your eyes and concentrate on your toes. Slowly work your way up each part of your body and see if you can recognize the presence of tension. Chances are you may notice muscles that are tense or sore. People tend to concentrate tension in the same parts of their bodies. 

Once you notice where your tension manifests, it becomes easier to recognize when you are entering into an emotionally stressed state.

Being aware of your body’s reaction to stress can curtail many of the negative emotions associated with it.

Be aware of what you are feeling

Irritability and anger are common emotions for people who are not tuned into their emotional state. They are our base reactions when we are feeling confused or in an unfamiliar situation.

By slowing down and identifying our emotions as we experience them, we can train our minds to recognize adverse or negative emotions.

When we become more aware of when we are feeling, we become better equipped to calmly handle the situations that create them. As you go about your day, give yourself a quick survey. Identify any emotion that you are experiencing at that moment.

If you are having difficulty expressing or identifying certain emotions, reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, or trained therapist might help to start you down the right path.

Healing Arts Institute trains and employs only the most qualified licensed therapists to help you in your healing journey. We will work together at your own pace to discover your best self and to live your best life.


Knox, Richard. “Harvard Study: Clearing Your Mind Affects Your Genes And Can Lower Your Blood Pressure | CommonHealth.” WBUR.Org, 6 Apr. 2018,

“Mindfulness Exercises.” Mayo Clinic, 15 Sept. 2020,

Moore, Catherine Psychologist. “What Is Mindfulness?” PositivePsychology.Com, 17 Mar. 2021,

Powell, Alvin. “Harvard Researchers Study How Mindfulness May Change the Brain in Depressed Patients.” Harvard Gazette, 9 Apr. 2018,

“What Is Mindfulness?” Mindful,, Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.

Exciting New Study Confirms Science Behind Healing Arts’ School Programs

Mindfulness is at the core of Healing Arts Programs - Smiling child in front of blackboard
Written by David Davenport – Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

Exciting new research in the field of neuropsychology has revealed a connection between mindfulness training and a dramatic improvement in task-oriented attention. What makes this study interesting is that it was conducted with an experimental group of sixth-grade children. 

For the first time, a study has made a positive correlation between mindfulness and improved cognitive function with this age group.

Healing Arts Institute was founded to help children perform better in school, improve social conduct, and reduce the frequency of behavioral challenges commonly found with children in income-challenged communities. Our school programs and therapies incorporate similar mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques discussed in this study.

Although we have known for some time that mindfulness training improves cognitive control in adults, evidence was lacking when it came to the developing brains of young children.

With the publication of these research findings, we can say with complete confidence that our methods of helping children in Broward county schools are extremely effective.

What is cognitive control?

Cognitive control refers to the ability of focusing on tasks without becoming too distracted. Children are especially prone to inappropriate behaviors and daydreaming when they become bored because the parts of their brain that control focus is not yet fully developed.

There is a balance between the central executive network (CEN) and the default mode network (DMN) of our brains. The CEN is active when focusing on a task, making decisions, or solving a problem. [3] By contrast, the DMN is active when we allow our minds to wander. A highly active DMN is associated with difficulty concentrating, inappropriate social responses, and reduced emotional control. [1] The CEN and DMN activate in opposition to one another, meaning that when one is more active, the other is less active.

Children tend to have higher DMN activity, but that changes as they grow older. [2]

Mindfulness training has been shown to improve the cognitive control of children by increasing the activity of the CEN and reducing activation of the DMN.

This is possible because of the ability of the brain to create new neural connections in a process called neuroplasticity.

Mindfulness, children, and neuroplasticity.

We discuss mindfulness often here at Healing Arts.

Essentially mindfulness is the ability to bring your mind’s attention to your immediate environment and focus on what is in front of you at that moment. Mindfulness helps detract from activating parts of your brain that are associated with worry and anxiety – like the amygdala. [2]

Neuroplasticity is the capability of our brains to form new neural connections. We can therefore form new thoughts, behaviors, and associations. Although we used to think that our neural connections could not be changed, we now know better.

Our brains can reform and reinforce new neural connections throughout our lives, giving us the ability to reshape how we see the world in positive and healthy ways. [6]

Mindfulness training helps children focus.

The study conducted by Dr. Clemens Bauer et al. took two groups of children and tested their ability to remain focused using the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) assessment. One group of children were provided with 8 weeks of mindfulness training, while the other group was given 8 weeks of training in computer coding.

While both groups performed equally well with the SART assessment at the start of the eight weeks, the mindfulness group outperformed the coding group at the end of the 8 weeks. They showed an increase in CEN activity and a decrease in DMN activity with a better ability to focus.

Even more interesting, the mindfulness group was able to maintain this ability over time and preserve their attention indicating that the effects of the training were long-lasting. [1]

Dr. Bauer stated in his findings, “I envision a future where mindfulness will be part of the school curriculum as is math or literature.”

Healing Arts’ Mindfulness School Programs have already helped hundreds of children.

Our flagship Awesome Kids Program (AKP) is designed with mindfulness training at its core to help children navigate their daily lives and perform better in school. We already have a proven track record of delivering our life-changing program directly to schools throughout Broward county. Now, we have even more evidence to show how well it works.

Read more about how growing up in poverty affects children.

Healing Arts Institute will continue to lead the way in delivering mindfulness programs to school children in underserved communities free of charge. We envision a bright future for our kids, and it is our tireless mission to reach as many as possible.

To learn more, please visit us at

Contact: Dr. Thelma Tennie LMFT to schedule a presentation to learn how Healing Arts can transform the lives of your students.

  1. Bauer, Clemens C. C., et al. “Mindfulness Training Preserves Sustained Attention and Resting State Anticorrelation between Default‐mode Network and Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Human Brain Mapping, vol. 41, no. 18, 2020, pp. 5356–69. Crossref, doi:10.1002/hbm.25197.
  2. Bauer, C. C. C., Caballero, C., Scherer, E., West, M. R., Mrazek, M. D., Phillips, D. T., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces stress and amygdala reactivity to fearful faces in middle-school children. Behavioral Neuroscience, 133(6), 569–585.
  3. Borders, Ashley. “Rumination, Cognition, and the Brain.” Rumination and Related Constructs, Academic Press, 2020, pp. 279–311.
  4. Ellwood, Beth. “School-Based Mindfulness Training Is Linked to Neural Plasticity and Improved Cognitive Control among Sixth Graders.” PsyPost, 23 Mar. 2021,
  5. Shaffer, Joyce. “Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 7, 2016. Crossref, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118.
  6. “Neuroplasticity.” Physiopedia, 2021,

Stop Chasing Happiness: Try These Simple Things Instead

Happiness is something you create - woman smiling on a sunny day.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

Conveying our idea of happiness to others is difficult because we all have different expectations of what it means when we say that we want to be happy.

Happiness and the emotions that we associate with it can feel elusive to us because what we are seeking is not actually happiness.

Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds but hear me out.

When often we say that we want to be happy. What we are expressing is the want for fulfillment and a lasting satisfaction from our daily interactions and activities. We want to take pleasure in our day-to-day lives and the people with who we share them.

Of course, pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, but we can say with a high degree of certainty that pleasure can be a component of happiness.[3] The difference is that pleasure is by definition shallow and short-lived in its duration. Constantly chasing pleasure is not the same as achieving that feeling of fulfillment and lasting satisfaction.

That’s not to say that once we find lasting satisfaction, we will never feel negative emotions. There will always be times when we feel angry, sad, or nervous. The idea here is to learn how to start down the path that leads to lasting happiness over time and have the tools to hold on to it for longer.

Here are five areas that you can start working on today to help you live a happier life!

Develop and strengthen social interactions

Our brains change as we interact with our environments and the people who are part of them. As we engage with the things and people around us, we also begin to think differently.[2] When we surround ourselves with positive people and have positive interactions, we are more likely to release serotonin neurotransmitters. These tiny molecules are partly responsible for feelings of pleasure.

Studies have shown that animals are just as important to our brain health and feelings of happiness as other people. Having pets can dramatically improve your outlook on life, boost immunity, and strengthen your social bonds with other people.[4]

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is something that we talk about a lot at Healing Arts. Mindfulness is essentially being aware of your environment and your emotional state. It can become so easy to get lost in your own head. 

When this happens, you are unknowingly allowing subconscious thoughts to snowball small inconveniences into (perceived) huge dilemmas.

People who allow their emotions to be dictated in this manner can experience intense feelings of anxiety. They are essentially unaware of the root cause of these emotions.

This does not lead to happiness.

Mindfulness means living in the present. Challenge negative thoughts and don’t give in to feelings of despair because your emotions are telling you to.

Stop. Breathe. Clear your mind. Focus

Learn about gratitude and how to muster it

Gratitude has been linked to the facilitation of feelings of well-being and emotional stability. When we are grateful for our lives, we also develop a greater awareness and sensitivity of the people in them.

By fostering an awareness of why we should be grateful, we are detaching from toxic emotions and negative thoughts. We are helping to facilitate a more holistic understanding of who we are and what is important.[1]

Developing lasting gratitude and the positive effects that it has on our brains does not come quickly.

We should incorporate and foster gratitude into our daily lives as best we can and in any way that will sustain us. Some suggestions for doing this include:

– Writing down the things you are grateful for and make it a regular exercise. If you are having a hard time feeling gratitude, begin with feeling grateful for the clothes you are wearing or the food you eat. Add to the list a little at a time. Read your list often and meditate on how you can feel grateful for the things on your list.

– Praying can be a valuable therapeutic tool in developing gratitude.

– Spend some time showing kindness to others (more on this in the next section).

Set a little time aside to be kind to others

Giving some of your time to others is one of the most rewarding activities you can engage in and brings together all the elements that we have discussed up to this point. It helps to strengthen social interactions. Volunteering helps you to become more aware of your own life circumstances by helping someone in need. It makes being grateful for your life much easier when you can guide someone else out of despair.

You don’t have to rearrange your entire schedule, just find a little time each week to be selfless for the benefit of someone else.

Volunteer with an established organization, social group, or local non-profit like us. There are so many out there who would love to have a helping hand, even for a short while!

Set a lot of time aside to be kind to yourself

Self-care is among the most important aspect of finding sustained happiness. Too often we associate being good to ourselves with being selfish. Some of us even feel as if we do not deserve it.

That’s ridiculous!

We cannot fulfill our desires and our life’s purpose if we do not care about the physical and emotional state of our own body and mind.

Exercise, nutrition, and the occasional spa day may be the perfect way to recharge and replenish.

Don’t take yourself for granted.

Explore new ways to find excitement in life, even in the little things.

To read more about helping you find meaning and fulfillment, read our blog article ‘Defining a Meaningful Life – 5 Steps to Building Your Inner Resilience’.

  1. Brown, Joshua, and Joel Wong. “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good Science Center – UC Berkeley, U.C. Berkeley, 6 June 2017,
  2. Gilbert, Jane. “Social Interaction and Brain Health.” Hometouch, 13 Apr. 2019,
  3. Kringelbach, Morten L, and Kent C Berridge. “The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure.” Social research vol. 77,2 (2010): 659-678.
  4. Healthy Brains by Cleveland Clinic. “6 Pillars of Brain Health – Social Interaction.” Healthy Brains by Cleveland Clinic, 11 May 2020,

Choose to Challenge (and Overcome) Mental Health Stigma

Overcome mental health stigma. Mother hugging her daughter, smiling.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

We don’t like to talk about mental illness.

Most of the time we pretend it doesn’t exist, we avoid discussing its effects, and therefore end up propagating the effects to the people closest to us.

The truth is we treat people with mental health challenges much different than if they had a physical illness.

Why though?

Our brains are like any other organ. Sometimes things go wrong, and our brains can get hurt. Sometimes it’s genetic, sometimes it’s from trauma or stress. Whatever the cause, our hurt brains can change our behaviors and emotional states.

We wouldn’t hesitate to seek a doctor’s help if we seriously injured our physical bodies. But the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health conditions prevents almost HALF of all people with depression or anxiety asking for professional help. [3]

As a society, we can’t go on like this. But there are a few simple things that you can do to begin chipping away at the stigma of asking for help.

Cultural Stigma Can be a Real Problem

As if it weren’t challenging enough to address the taboo of mental illness, some communities will shun people who they perceive to be suffering from mental or emotional challenges. [4] This outdated point of view is still too prevalent in African American and Latino communities which makes it even more difficult for people who are suffering to speak up.

Healing Arts Institute treats many clients from these underserved communities. It is part of an unfortunate reality that we are fighting to correct every day.

Support People that You Know Are Suffering 

There is no feeling that is more desperate than that of isolation. People have an uncanny ability to adapt to adverse conditions. Sometimes that means pretending that everything is alright, even if they are desperately suffering on the inside.

We oftentimes hear about people who have taken their own lives who we thought were happy and well-adjusted individuals. Don’t hesitate to show compassion towards anyone that you believe may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental challenges.

Strive to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Always encourage others around you to do the same.

Talk Openly About Mental Health

Don’t be afraid to bring up topics of mental health with your friends and family. You might be surprised how many of them will open up to you with their own experiences. People will be silent as long as they feel marginalized. The moment they realize others are willing to accept them, it could change their entire worldview.  

Social media for all of its faults is an amazing avenue to reach out and connect with others struggling with mental illness. The internet provides an anonymous haven from ridicule and judgment allowing people from all walks of life to share their stories. [2]

Treat People with Mental Health Challenges No Differently Than if They Had Physical Injuries

We wouldn’t shun someone if they broke their leg or twisted their ankle. We wouldn’t be afraid of someone who is recovering from surgery. Why then are we so quick to do so with people grappling with depression or other mental health challenges?

Our brains are the physical organs responsible for our emotional and behavioral health. And like any other organ, sometimes things can go wrong. We should always remember that effective treatments are available to help people when they do.

If You Are Struggling, Don’t Give in to Shame

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are incredibly common. If you are struggling with one of these, don’t think that you’re alone! You are not the problem, and there are millions of others just like you who are going through similar difficulties.

Be brave.

Reach out to whoever you can and let them know that you need help. Tell a friend, a trusted family member, anybody who you trust.

Don’t live another day thinking that you have anything to be ashamed of! You don’t. And you don’t need to justify that to anyone.

Healing Arts Institute trains and employs professional therapists who can help you or someone you love who is having trouble with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental challenges. We specialize in delivering culturally competent therapeutic care to our clients in a safe and welcoming environment.

Visit us today and ask how we can help.

  1. “Addressing Stigma.” Center for Addiction and Mental Health, 2021,
  2. Betton, Victoria, et al. “The Role of Social Media in Reducing Stigma and Discrimination.” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 206, no. 6, 2015, pp. 443–444., doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.152835.
  3. Greenstein, Luna. “9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2017,
  4. Seeman, Neil. “Use Data to Challenge Mental-Health Stigma.” Nature, vol. 528, no. 7582, 2015, p. 309. Crossref, doi:10.1038/528309a.