Your amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, acts as the brain’s threat radar and alarm. It’s constantly scanning your environment for signs of danger, ready to activate reflexes to keep you safe. When it sounds the alarm, your body responds with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight or flee. When this happens, most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to making sure you survive.
Your thinking, rational brain shuts down. Any degree of stress affects your basic brain systems of attention, energy, and memory. Basically, your brain eliminates all unnecessary functioning preparing you to fight or flee. This trait was an evolutionary advantage when our ancestors hunted for food – or were hunted for food.
An Evolutionary Advantage Is Now a Disadvantage
In the modern world, our brains are more stressed and reactive than ever. Anxiety has become the most prevalent mental condition in the United States. However, these days your amygdala sounds the alarm for common occurrences, such as a rude driver, a work deadline, or an argument with your partner, like they were life-threatening events. Not only does this reaction damage your brain and physical health over time, but it can also make it very difficult to successfully function in whatever situation triggered you.
In other words, your brain is more stressed than ever, but you don’t fight or flee anymore with the situation getting quickly resolved. Today, you have to stick around and figure out how to smooth things over with the unhappy client, or exchange insurance information with the driver of the other can in an accident or figure out how to accomplish all the things you still have to do that day with your child home from school sick.
In those cases, you have to be able to calm your brain and proceed rationally. Heck, it would be great to be able to continue calmly, intelligently. and successfully, if possible. It is possible. Here’s how you do that.
How to Calm Your Brain When It’s Not an Emergency
OK. Something happens, and your brain is screaming “red alert”. What you do next determines how the rest of the story goes and how you experience the situation. You can react subconsciously out of habit and respond with anxiety, anger, or panic. I can tell you from personal experience that can make a situation go from bad to worse very quickly. Reacting emotionally only feeds and reinforces the stress response in your brain, encouraging more of the same, and doesn’t do anything to help you successfully navigate the situation.
However, there are times when responding subconsciously, like in an emergency – when taking the time to think could be deadly, is best. We’ll talk about that later. For now, let’s assume it’s not a life or death situation.
Switch the part of your brain in control.
You can consciously choose to help yourself through it – whatever “it” is – and let the frontal lobe, your thinking brain, take control. Deliberately shifting control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe is really what is happening in your brain with mindfulness. When you are mindful, your frontal lobe “talks to” and influences other areas of your brain to insert rational thinking and calm them down.
The situation then becomes a tool with which to work for your growth and learning. This choice builds and reinforces the anti-anxiety pathways in your brain and calms the amygdala. It also allows you to choose your response rather than just knee-jerk react. I guarantee you that it will also make the experience much more manageable. How you handle yourself does not change the circumstances one bit, but it does change the way you experience them.
Slow your breathing.
Slowing your breath is the quickest way to calm your brain and body. It’s kind of like your remote control. You don’t have to think about breathing. It’s subconscious. However, at any moment, you can consciously change how you are breathing which simultaneously alters your emotions and nervous system function.
Research has determined that slow breathing directly calms your brain through what’s known as the “breathing pacemaker.” The breathing pacemaker is a group of neurons at the base of the brain stem which directly connects to the arousal center in the brain. These neurons can either tell the brain there’s an emergency or tell it that everything’s OK. When you intentionally slow your breathing down, these neurons don’t send the panic signal.
How to Control Your Breathing
Controlled breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, pranayama breathing, or relaxing breathing. Whatever you call it, taking long, deep breaths slows your heart rate and activates your calming parasympathetic nervous system. You can practice slow breathing anytime and anywhere. The basic mechanics of controlled breathing vary slightly with each philosophy, but most teachings include three basic parts:
- With a closed mouth, inhale deeply through your nose for a count (usually three to six), making sure your abdomen expands.
- At the top of the inhalation, hold your breath for a certain number of counts (usually two to four).
- Exhale completely through your mouth or nose for a count longer than the inhalation.
Support yourself with your self-talk.
Even though your inner voice is probably freaking out – maybe even panicking, now is the time direct your mind and encourage and support yourself with your self-talk. This helps to calm the limbic system and switch control to your frontal lobe. You can say things like:
- “I can handle this. I can figure it out.”
- “Things can turn out OK. I’ve been through tough situations before and they ended up OK.”
- “Take it one thing at a time. All I have to do is figure out the next best step.”
How to Help Your Brain Perform When It Is an Emergency
According to the article “This is Your Brain on Stress” being able to perform well in a crisis is more important than ever for two reasons:
Reliability can kill you.
Back in the good old days, the reliability of most anything we used or did was far less than it is today. Engines conking out after takeoff? Pilots used to call that Tuesday. Today, it’s a rarity. Now think about what happens to our preparedness as the likelihood of something bad happening shrinks. Unless we practice what hardly ever happens, our ability to respond when it does happen tends to slip away. Reliability can kill you.”
Emergencies are more likely to “come out of nowhere” now.
Also, the systems we use today are more complex. There are seldom moving parts in plain view that allow us to see when things are about to go wrong. When complex systems lack transparency, dire situations can ‘come out of nowhere.’ Driver-assistance technologies that help us steer, maintain our distance from the car in front of us, and alert us to impending collisions have started to become standard equipment. Our cars might fail to recognize something in the road (such as Canada geese) or steer us out of our intended lane. Ironically, the systems that were designed to lessen our workload might require us to remain in a state of increased vigilance in order to survive these increasingly infrequent events when they do happen. The Internet of Things promises to make our homes, our workplaces, and entire cities like this.”
Too Much Thinking Can Be Deadly in a Crisis
Too much thinking can be detrimental – even deadly – in some cases. In these instances, you’ll want to let your lightning fast limbic system be in charge. For example, imagine a Marine on the front lines of combat in a war zone with bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding. Trying to calmly assess the situation before acting could be deadly. An airplane pilot could crash while they think about multiple options and arrive at one the information says is best in an emergency situation.
The reactions of trained professionals are based on unconscious skills which can be impeded by inserting frontal lobe thinking. In such cases, thinking too much about the processes involved or using more time, thought, or attention can slow down and disrupt your brain’s performance disastrously. The kind of unconscious intelligence needed here is thought to be located in the anterior frontomedian cortex of the brain and is not the same as impulsiveness. It is a form of evaluation below conscious awareness. In a life or death crisis, you do not want your thinking brain to be in charge.
To help your brain perform in a crisis, it’s best to practice for one.
In the book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske write:
New York City firefighters receive over 600 hours of training and a multitude of written exams before they are eligible for assignment. By the time they encounter their first fire, a lot of what they need to do is so practiced and ingrained they could practically perform their job in their sleep. …this is no different for FBI agents…(650 hours of training), doctors (an average of 11 years), and many other professionals that call for performance under pressure.”
For this reason, gymnasts, professional tennis and basketball players, and many more put a lot of time into practicing. With enough repetition, their brains don’t have to think consciously about every detail in the moments when they need to perform their best. They can rely on the quick, intuitive decisions of their unconscious brains.