The Science: We feel this way because part of our brain is hijacked in those moments.
The Solution: Here’s how mindfulness and meditation can help train our brain for self-control.
Back in the 1960s Dr. Paul D. Maclean devised the Triune Brain model as a way to explain the brain’s evolution while reconciling rational human behavior with more primal and violent outbursts. The Triune Model suggests three parts to the brain:
- Reptilian (posterior, brain stem): the source of instincts
- Paleommamalian (mid-brain): the source of emotions
- Neomammalian (cortex): the source of rational thought
In this hierarchy, the older brain structures (reptilian, paleomammalian) are ruled by the newer one (neomammalian). The cortex regulates and inhibits instincts and emotions so that you control behaviors and responses.
When you experience extreme stress, however, this model often becomes disrupted: Your survival instincts assume control. In this scenario, the lower brain structures hijack and override the cortex. Theoretically, when stress ends, you shift out of survival mode and back into regulated mode. Sometimes the shift fails to properly or fully occur, however. When this happens, the rational mind doesn’t reclaim control and the lower brain, with nothing to inhibit it, floods you with so much stimuli that you shift into meltdown mode. Reclaiming control relies on helping your neomammalian brain resume its regulatory and inhibitory activities; the key to this is your prefrontal cortex.
Known as the seat of your executive function, the prefrontal cortex affects self-regulation, decision-making, and attention processes. After high stress, this part of your brain can experience a decrease in its capability. From lessened blood flow on the left side (the location of analytical processes) to increased activity on the right (the location of sadness and anger), alterations in your prefrontal cortex can cause stimuli flooding, emotional overwhelm, and dark mood swings.
Getting your cortex back on track (or, as one neuroscientist described it to me, “getting your drunk CEO sobered up and out from under the desk”) can be done naturally through two simple daily practices. Both processes train your ability to focus your attention, the major inhibitory effort of your cortex.
Many times the lower brain structures focus on the past or the future. Mindfulness deliberately places attention in the present moment, activating the cortex through an observational process that shuts down unnecessary instincts and emotions, while activating rational thinking.
Try this exercise two to five times per day in moments of tension and also relaxation:
- Deliberately pause what you’re doing.
- Take a deep breath in; imagine in your mind taking a step back.
- Turn inward; notice what you feel inside your body and mind.
- Suspend judgment; let anything come up. Observe without evaluating.
- Label what you notice (“I’m feeling _______________”).
- Observe the experience as if you were watching a friend move through it.
- Notice when the emotion or experience subsides.
- Redirect your attention to a pleasant or desired focus.
The process of meditation is a terrific strategy for training your brain in the area of attention because it deliberately creates neural pathways dedicated to deliberate control of your focus.An added bonus: The more you strengthen your brain in moments of low stress, the better it will respond in high-stress situations. Studies have shown that in as little as five minutes per day over a period of just ten weeks, meditation can significantly increase prefrontal activity and strength, resulting in a quieting of your overall mind and specific lower brain structures. The myth about meditation is that you have to empty your mind in order for it to be successful. In fact, your mind must wander in order for meditation to have the desired training effect.
Try this: For just five minutes every day take yourself to a quiet, safe space and close your eyes. Choose something to focus your mind on; this can be a sound, a word, an image, anything. Let all thoughts subside and maintain an attentive focus. When your mind wanders or becomes chatty, simply redirect it to your chosen focus (and know that every time you do, you are successfully training your brain).
Mindfulness and meditation are the two most effective brain trainers to support optimal prefrontal cortex functioning. The more you incorporate them into your daily experience, the more you will be training your brain to recalibrate, balance, and control.
An added bonus
The more you strengthen your brain in moments of low stress, the better it will respond in high-stress situations.
This article by Michele Rosenthal originally appeared at Rewire Me.