“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff” has been a popular refrain since Richard Carlson’s book came out with that title in 1996. Sounds good, right? Try telling that to your Reptilian Complex and Limbic System! These parts of the brain, body, and mind are filled with worst-case scenarios that are enough to stress out anyone. Fortunately, there are many ways to process our feelings and to relieve the stress response. After explaining how the human brain works, this Provision recommends three practices for calming down and cooling out. Why not give them a try?
In the past five weeks we have defined stress as stimulation and presented four ways to evaluate how much stress we may be experiencing in our everyday lives. If you are anything like me, you are more than ready to turn the corner to start looking at solutions. If so, then today’s your day. If we want to stress proof our lives then we have to start by stress proofing our mindset.
That’s because stress has as much to do with how we process our experiences as with the experiences themselves. Yes, it is stressful to lose your job, for example. But it’s more stressful to lose your job and panic. Stress proofing our mindset is about getting rid of the panic. It doesn’t eliminate stressful situations and stimulation. It rather enables us to better respond to stressful situations and stimulation by avoiding the cognitive, emotional, and instinctual knots that minds like to tie and tighten.
Human minds are really good at doing that because we have really big brains. The brain’s job, first and foremost, is to keep us alive and then, whenever possible, to make life physically comfortable and pleasurable for us. Given that function, it’s no surprise the brain would be especially involved in the stress response. There are always new threats and opportunities for the mind to wrap its brain around.
I say it that way because the mind is bigger than the brain and the brain is more complex than it appears. When you look at the brain, it seems to be a solid mass of convoluted material, divided into two halves. But that’s just the end product of a long process of evolution. Hidden inside that mass are distinct structures that we more or less share with other animals.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “triune brain theory” developed by Paul MacLean, M.D., in the years after World War II. MacLean identified three brains, each wrapped around the other:
- The Reptilian Complex, which includes the brainstem and cerebellum, is the oldest brain. In reptiles, it is virtually the only brain. In addition to controlling muscles, balance, and autonomic functions, such as breathing and heartbeat, the Reptilian Complex is rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic, and paranoid. It is “filled with ancestral memories”. It keeps repeating the same behaviors over and over again and it never learns from past mistakes. It is active all the time, even during deep sleep. Its job is survival.
- The Limbic System, which includes the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus, is the middle brain. It is shared with most mammals, controlling emotions and instincts, including the 4 “F’s”: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and Fornicating. Its job is the avoidance of pain and the repetition of pleasure. It helps determines valence (whether an emotion has a positive or negative charge) and salience (what gets our attention). According to MacLean, it also tends to be the seat of our value judgments. It decides whether our higher brain has a good idea or not, whether it feels true and right.
- The Cerebral Cortex, which includes the cortex, the neocortex, and some subcortical neuronal groups, is the higher brain. It is the large, convoluted mass, divided into two halves, that we probably remember from seeing pictures of the brain. In human beings, the Cerebral Cortex dwarfs the other two brains in size (it takes up two thirds of the total brain mass). MacLean refers to the cortex as “the mother of invention and the father of abstract thought”. Its job is to think and dream. The right side of the cortex controls the left side of the body; it is also more spatial, abstract, musical, and artistic. The left side of the cortex controls the right side of our body; it is also more linear, rational, and verbal. Although other animals have a neocortex, it is relatively small, with few or no folds, and it is not essential to normal functioning. Human beings without a cortex are vegetables.
So what does this have to do with stress proofing our minds? It helps us to understand the complexity we are dealing with. The Cerebral Cortex does not control the Limbic System, and the Limbic System does not control the Reptilian Complex. Evolution did not make those earlier brains obsolete. It rather added layer upon layer, introducing ever more complex systems of communication, coordination, and control. We now know, for example, that any of the three brains can take control of the body depending upon whether the situation presents an immediate survival threat (the Reptilian Complex), an emotional engagement (the Limbic System), or a cognitive-creative challenge (the Cerebral Cortex).
The stress response is, in some sense, an emotional hijack of the Cerebral Cortex by the Limbic System. If you don’t feel like yourself when you are stressed out, that’s probably because your are literally out of your mind. You are reacting from the Limbic System, even though you are reasoning from the Cerebral Cortex. Why do some people eat in response to stress? Because Feeding is part of the Limbic System! It’s how our brains and bodies • our minds • are wired.
Understanding these dynamics presents opportunities for stress proofing that might be otherwise overlooked. When we feel stressed, we can’t just think our way through the problem (although thinking will be part of the solution). We have to work our way through the problem by connecting with and calming the Limbic System.
The best way to do that is through practices that promote positive heart energy. Eating is not the only and not even a good pathway to relief. It’s far better to shift the mind through shifting the body. That’s especially true when we are having a strong emotional reaction, such as stress, since the Reptilian Complex and the Limbic System maintain their own sensor networks through the body. It’s as though they are constantly on guard, receiving direct information from the body that is not mediated through the Cerebral Cortex. The mind is truly much bigger than the brain.
Here are a few ways to shift your mindset when you are feeling stressed:
- Breathe Deep, Slow, and Rhythmically. I wrote about this a couple years ago in Provision 507, recommending the 4-7-8 breathing technique of Dr. Andrew Weil as well as other systems such as biofeedback devices and the Relaxation Response developed by Dr. Herbert Benson. These exercises can be done in response to stress, to calm things down, but they are better done preventatively. A regular routine, twice a day, of breathing deep, slow, and rhythmically can reduce stress significantly.
- Observe Contextual Circumstances. The Reptilian Complex and the Limbic System both have paranoid tendencies. They tend to extrapolate and catastrophize every threat into worst case scenarios. Observing contextual circumstances in the present moment can interrupt the stress response. Is there a clear and present danger to your survival right now? If so, then let your Reptilian Complex and Limbic System do their things. If not, then observe what is going on. Where are you? What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you touch? Such observations will bring you into the present moment, allowing your Cerebral Cortex to reengage appropriately.
- Notice Subtle Bodily Sensations. Last week at the Living Energy of Needs training event I became aware of Focusing, another practice growing out of the 1960s that can assist with stress reduction. The practice starts by taking an inventory of subtle and vague bodily sensations, including physical and emotional feelings. This will generate a felt sense of what the Limbic System is dealing with. By finding words and images to express this felt sense, the Cerebral Cortex generates a felt shift in relation to whatever is going on. Focusing can be done alone, but it is best done with someone present who can assist with the noticing process. When we’re under a lot of stress, it’s helpful to get some support.
None of these mind-shift activities, and there are many more to discover, change the external stimulation. They rather change our relationship to that stimulation, in order to make it more congruent with whatever is actually happening in the present moment, both internally and externally. By connecting in this way with ourselves and with our environments we can stress proof our lives and keep ourselves from getting stressed out.
Coaching Inquiries: What mindfulness exercises do you practice on a regular basis? How stressed out are you feeling right now? Would it be helpful to breathe, observe, or focus? Who could you talk to about your situation? Who could assist you to notice what’s going on? How could you calm yourself and set yourself right?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Thanks for sharing the article by Carl Rogers on Experiences in Communication. It is a great articulation of the living energy of needs. I have been using resources from your web site each day this week for clients. Thanks!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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