Updated: Feb 20, 2022
Our brains are a brilliant mix of instinct and insight. Those instincts keep you safe, but you need insight to access the tools to manage the fear and anxiety of our culture and your life. Every time you feel fearful and anxious your brain instantly thinks you are in danger and the brain’s instincts and habits kick in to protect you. There are times when we are actually in danger and this comes in handy. But most of the time, the danger is related to the mental chaos we feel, not a real external danger..
The amygdala is a small acorn-sized part of the brain that helps you stay safe. This small part of the brain controls fight, flight or freeze responses so you can react quickly to the danger around you and protect yourself. When the amygdala goes into action, your frontal lobe stops working (this is an oversimplification, but you get the point). That frontal lobe function is what you need to problem solve, access information, use judgement and decrease impulsivity so you can find the solutions to the problem. In the mental chaos, the frontal lobe isn’t able to do its job.
When you are in flight, fight or freeze, your brain is too busy to function at its best. Feelings of overwhelm take over, you may feel trapped, immobilized, defeated, and even ashamed as your mind starts spinning and you can't figure out how to solve the problem.The goal is to get that frontal lobe working again so you can process through the chaos.
How do we do that?
Listen to what your brain is saying.
The last time you were in fight or flight mode did it trigger negative thoughts?
You're not worthy.
You're not good enough.
You “shouldn't” have done that or you “should” have done this.
This is just your fear talking. So instead of reacting to those negative thoughts, start listening to them and counteract them with a positive thought:
“I should have done this”, becomes “I did the best I could, what am I going to do now?”
“I’m not worthy”, becomes “I am worthy of being loved”.
“You’re not good enough” becomes “I can do this and if I fail, then I will learn”.
Remind yourself of the big picture
When we are in fight, flight or freeze mode we can quickly become trapped in the moment and forget the bigger picture. At the moment everything you are experiencing feels big, so it’s helpful to remind yourself that it only feels big because you are allowing it to feel that way. To change the perspective, ask yourself big picture questions:
“Will this matter in five years?”
“What will I think about this in 6 months?”
Engage the visual part of your brain
“Centering” is a buzzword, but it works. When our brains are racing and trying to anticipate future problems, getting back to the present is one of the best things you can do. Where is your safe place? Where is the place that soothes your soul? What is an image that will help calm and center your mind next time you are thrust into fight or flight mode? It might be a beach, the mountains, your home. Close your eyes and picture that place. That amygdala will respond because you are thinking about your safe place, instead of spinning in the current state of anxiety and “danger”.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to breathing techniques as long as it’s deep in your lungs and slow. The breathing relaxes your body and gets oxygen to your brain. The simplest way? Breathe in through your nose while you count to five in your head, breathe out through your mouth while you count to five in your head. The counting re-engages the frontal lobe and the breath signals the amygdala that you are okay.
Get in touch with your senses
Next time you are in fight or flight mode bring yourself back into the present moment by identifying the following things in your environment out loud:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you smell
1 thing you can taste
By engaging with what's going on around you, instead of what's going on inside your brain, this powerful tool will help you re-engage that frontal lobe, decrease the amygdala’s energy, and help you start problem-solving.
You don't have to live with this constant heavy weight of anxiety and mental chaos. Next time your mind starts spinning try these simple but powerful tools to distract you from the mental chaos and take back control of your life.
Mattie Cummins is a brain-loving neuro-social worker/journey coach/counselor and owner of Cerebrations LLC. She specializes in helping clients with neuro-issues and anxiety live their best life through functional coaching and brain education. By empowering you to harness the power of your brain and body connection, Mattie can help you understand what is happening in your brain, rewire your thoughts and reactions, and find your best life.