Many of us struggle with negative thoughts, especially if, like me, you were brought up in a household where your primary caregivers were worriers, overthinkers and generally negatively focused.
I realise that sometimes, it can seem too hard or even impossible to see any positives when life appears to be spinning out of control and I am definitely not advocating simply trying to ‘think positively’ (that never works, especially long term).
However, when you know how the brain works and why we tend to focus on what’s going wrong (or what could go wrong), it can allow you to gain control and take positive action.
Our Mammalian Brain
Our Mammalian Brain (or the Limbic Brain) developed more than 250 million years ago with the evolution of the first mammals. Although not the oldest part of the brain, it evolved way before speech. Therefore, it does not communicate in words but in feelings, emotions and pictures.
This part of the brain hasn’t changed or evolved since humans had to deal with significant physical threats, e.g. sabre-tooth tigers, attacks from rival tribes, etc. So, before we developed language, the limbic system would perceive a potential threat and instantly trigger our survival instincts, forcing us to immediately run, fight, or freeze (hide).
Today, even though there are no sabre-tooth tigers, and thankfully, physical threats are relatively rare, that same part of the brain that safeguarded our early ancestors is still protecting us. However, it’s not just guarding us against physical threats…
Negative Thoughts & The Stress Response
Anything that causes you to feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, even if it’s just a thought, an unexpected bill or an email from your boss, your mammalian brain will not be able to tell that it isn’t a threat to your physical survival and will trigger your survival mode (fight, flight, freeze). In other words, it thinks it’s protecting you from something that could essentially kill you.
Therefore, when you recognise that you’ve triggered your stress response, your brain isn’t trying to sabotage you by getting you to get away (e.g. cancel plans, go home), fight (e.g. making you angry or aggressive) or freeze (e.g. procrastinate or do ‘numbing’ activities); it’s trying to protect you from getting killed! That’s how seriously your brain perceives potential threats (physical or mental).
Managing the Stress Response
The best way to calm your brain when you’ve triggered the stress response is to address it like a million-year-old animal or a small child.
Firstly, tune into where you feel stress in your body (awareness is everything – you can’t change what you aren’t aware of). Typically, the stress response manifests in one of these ways:
As soon as you recognise that you’ve activated your stress response, put your hand wherever you feel the discomfort and say:
‘THERE ARE NO SABRE-TOOTH TIGERS’!
It seems deceptively simple, but it really does work. You may need to repeat it a few times, but when you deliberately calm your breathing and inform your subconscious brain that you’re safe, it will automatically calm down.
You may want to put that slogan somewhere easy to see, e.g. phone screen, bathroom mirror, car windscreen, etc., to remind you if you know you’re easily triggered.
I used this last week!
Coming from a chaotic family, where the stress response was in full force literally every day of my life, I can still quickly activate mine despite the significant amount of personal development work I’ve done and still do every day.
It happened just last week. I was massively triggered on the way to a meeting. Although on a conscious level, I knew everything was OK and that I was rerunning an old childhood programme, I still felt overwhelmed and panicked. My mammalian brain would not calm down, making me want to turn the car around and go home (‘flight’ mode).
Thankfully, I knew what was happening, so I pulled over, sat quietly in the car, put my hand over my heart, took a couple of deep breaths and repeated, ‘I’m safe. There are no sabre-tooth tigers – I’m not going to die!’.
Within seconds, that overwhelming panic ebbed, and I felt much calmer. I did have to repeat it when I got back underway, but it worked. All my brain needed was to feel safe, not under threat, and I could quickly get out of survival mode, allowing my critical thinking pre-frontal cortex to kick back in.
Again, I realise that the ‘I’m not going to die’ bit sounds dramatic and over the top, but you must remember that it’s precisely what your mammalian brain thinks is going to happen!
In the next post, I’ll talk about triggers, what they are and why they happen. Until then, if you haven’t yet signed up to get my LinkedIn newsletter straight to your inbox, please click the ‘subscribe’ button at the top of the page.
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