Three Easy Ways to Stop Your Brain from Being a Jerk
Brains are jerks.
I have lived most of my adult life fighting my brain. It tells me that I can’t do something, or that I should be afraid, or that I am not worthy. In relationships, I would call this abusive and tell the person to get out immediately. I can’t escape my brain, but what I can do is stop giving into its negative messaging.
I want to take a look a bit into what makes the brain a jerk and how we can make it less jerky. Bare with me as I get a little technical here.
The Sympathetic System
Let’s first define anxiety as a good thing. It is, after all. It is our body’s way of telling us that there is something harmful in our path. When we are in a state of anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. This is our fight, flight or freeze response. Do you know how sometimes when people get really anxious they need to use the bathroom? This is our body trying to get rid of anything within our system that might weigh us down. Releasing waste helps us run faster. It is primal and necessary in the line of attack.
Where the sympathetic nervous system is not necessary is when you are at a casual dinner with friends and the reservation got pushed back 1/2 hour.
Unfortunately, for some of us, that sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we see danger even when there is not. Our heart starts to race, we start to get sweaty, and we either run, freeze or get angry. For many with anxiety, the first response is to run; to get away from the danger as quickly as possible.
But when in a restaurant, it may not be that easy to run. After all, you made the reservation and you are waiting for your friends to arrive.
So what do you do?
Well, what you DON’T do is leave. That would just make your friends angry, which would push you into a deeper anxiety spin.
What needs to be done is to move your brain from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system.
The Parasympathetic System
As you might guess, the parasympathetic part of the brain is the opposite of the sympathetic side. Instead of stress and expel, it is rest and digest. Whereas the sympathetic system uses all the available energy sources, the parasympathetic system rejuvenates them.
When a person is using the parasympathetic part of their brain, they are in a chill out mode. They are no longer sweaty and they feel calm. You are getting more oxygen to your brain, which means that the executive functioning parts of your brain are working more efficiently.
When you are engaging “parasympathy,” as I will call it, you can take the news that your reservation has been pushed back in stride.
Put simply, when in a state of anxiety, the goal is to move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic part of the brain. Keep reading to learn three ways that you can do this.
Yes, breathe. Sounds logical. I mean, we all breathe. But the thing is that we really don’t. When we are in the throes of stress and anxiety, we actually forget to breathe. Do you know what happens when we forget to breathe? We don’t get the oxygen we need. Our muscles get tense, our stomach starts to hurt. Breath is pretty important, and you need it to calm your body.
Do you know how they say that you should take a breath in for 10 seconds, hold it and then breathe out for 5 seconds? Yah, don’t do that. Studies have actually shown that you increase your heart rate when you hold your breath. The last thing you need when trying to calm your body is to increase your heart rate, which produces the opposite of calm.
Instead, just breathe in for 10 seconds and out for 5 seconds. Do so smoothly and without pause, but do it slowly. This will allow you to relax your muscles as you exhale.
When you exercise, you are increasing your dopamine. Dopamine is the part of the brain that helps with executive functioning. Executive functioning includes things like memory recall, time management, prioritizing tasks, focus, and all of the things needed to make good decisions. There are a lot of executive functions that we use. When one of them malfunctions, it can cause distress. To learn more about executive functioning in adults, I highly recommend the book Executive Functioning in Adults.This book walks you through ways to help yourself live a productive life.
But I digress. Let’s get back to exercise.
Move. That’s it really. Move in whatever way works for you. Take a walk, ride a bike, do jumping jacks. Movement helps the brain to think better. In fact, it is suggested that people who move retain information much better. Makes me wonder why our school system makes children, who need to move the most, sit and be still for 6-8 hours a day.
Remember how I mentioned that the brain is a jerk? Well, it will try to tell you that this won’t work and convince you to stop after one try. Don’t listen to that message. If you need to, keep a hard piece of peppermint candy with you. Sometimes crunching along with the scent of peppermint can be relieving.
Then there are always grounding techniques. You can do this a variety of ways, but the easiest to remember is to do three things in threes:
- 3 things you can see
- 3 things you can hear
- 3 things you can touch
The purpose of grounding is to focus your mind on something else. Contrary to popular belief, there really is no such thing as multi-tasking. So when you are finding things to see, hear and touch, you are only focused on that and not the anxiety-producing event.
How Moving From Sympa to Parasympathetic Looks
Let’s go back to the restaurant example. You reserved a table for five at 6 PM. The host tells you that they will not be able to get you in until 6:30. You immediately start sweating. The movie you are supposed to see starts at 8 PM. If you don’t get seated right at 6, your friends will blame you for missing the movie. You are getting tense. Your heart is racing. You suddenly need to use the bathroom. You want to run but you can’t because you are the one that made the reservation and if you leave you might lose it.
Your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive.
The goal now is to move into parasympathy. Doing this will help you to relax and think more clearly.
You might not be able to get up and do 10 jumping jacks while at a restaurant. However, this does not mean that you cannot move. It is important that you get up at a walk. Go to the bathroom, run your wrist under water (this will lower your body’s temperature and help your blood to recirculate through your body. Whatever you do, do NOT remain seated.
Now your body is in motion and your blood is recirculating. Now it is time to breathe.
Take a slow breath into the count of 10 and then immediately release to the count of 5. Remember, do not hold your breath. Do this over and over until you find your body calming down.
I am not going to pretend that moving from anxious to calm is easy. It is not. Not even close. What I am suggesting is the need to try and commit to setting boundaries with your brain. Just because something hasn’t worked yet does not mean that it never will. And sometimes the things we have been using all along are the wrong things.
These three, simple things you can incorporate today. I promise that they work. Just don’t quit trying.
Another great program to try is called panic away. This program teaches the mind to stop being a jerk and to start being kinder through challenging our thoughts.