Here’s a thought: if your brain were a beautiful, super-powerful car would you hand it over to be driven by someone prone to random aggressivity, irrational panic and seizures? And yet we do exactly that and the results can go something like this:
Neuroscientists talk about our brain being made up of four parts:
- The Reptilian Brain, buried deep inside our skull and responsible for dealing with life-threatening situations through one of three responses: flight, fight or freeze
- The Paleolimbic Brain which is responsible for survival of the group, and is where self-confidence and trust reside
- The Neolimbic Brain which is who we are, home to our deepest motivations and raw emotions, our likes, dislikes, memories and learning. This is where we spend most of our time and much of what it does becomes automatic
- The Prefrontal Brain which is a marvel of evolution, the supercomputer,home to adaptation, creativity, innovation, intuition, spirituality, serenity, calm.
Our reptilian brain served cavemen pretty well. Its’ three responses of fight, flight or freeze ensured our survival. It hijacks our brain when we need to get ourselves out of danger. 30,000 years later there are not so many predators, but our reptilian brain still kicks in when it perceives danger. Today our equivalent to the hairy mammoth or a pack of wolves is stress. And the stress equivalent of fight, flight and freeze translate in to aggressive behaviour (fight), anxiety (flight), and helplessness (freeze).
Each part of our brain has a key role to play. We still need that reptilian brain to be activated when say a car shoots a traffic light and rushes toward you. What we want to avoid is for that part of the brain (also referred to as the amydalla) to be kicked in to high gear because of stress and lead us to being irrationally aggressive (snapping at someone because we are stressed), anxious for no reason (we are probably the only species to worry about things that will most likely never happen), or helplessness (where we feel powerless to do anything at all).
You can try these things to retrain your brain, calm the lizard and have more access to your wonderfully adaptive and creative supercomputer of a prefrontal brain:
- Breathe. I know, I know, I’ve said it before…but it is your most powerful, portable and accessible weapon you have against stress. When you feel stress coming on pause, slow time, draw in 3 deep breaths. It is tempting to dismiss this because it is so simple, but trust me it works.
- Relax the muscles of your jaw. When you relax the muscles of your jaw it sends an automatic response to the vagus nerve, your breathing becomes deeper, and all of those stress responses (heart rate going up, sweating, blood pressure) become lessened so you feel calm.
- Your brain is ‘plastic’ and can be retrained. Instead of experiencing ups and downs like a roller coaster ride you can train it so smooth out the down slides. Make it a priority to integrate something relaxing in to your life whether it is meditation, yoga, a walk outside or a hobby you love. This will make the lizard think twice before it hijacks you with stress.
For those of you interested in learning more about the brain there is a fascinating free 30 minute course on Udemy by Gregory Caremans “Meet your brain: an introduction to neuroscience.”