Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

If you’d like some company figuring out this weird experience called being a human, subscribe below. We’re in this together.

Wishes for 2021

My wish for 2021: That it will be a year of LOVE.

In 2021, we will listen more.

In 2021, we will surround ourselves with people who look and think and sound and live and celebrate and feel and act differently than we do.

In 2021, we will work together with people who are not like us (but really just like us).

In 2021, we will “cancel” less and communicate more.

In 2021, we will be radically compassionate.

In 2021, when you and I get the chance to experience the magic of conversation, we’ll go deep–deep to the places where we remember what inspires. And deep to places where we discover that you and I actually share the same fears and hopes.

In 2021, we will use our breath to calm ourselves and learn to pause regularly and think for a minute before speaking.

In 2021, cruel, hateful speech and bullying will not be celebrated, or even accepted. In any way. Ever.

In 2021, the go-to will be understanding, not escalation. Never escalation. No more escalation. Ever.

In 2021, we will encourage the peaceful work of coming together. We will not instigate or cheer on violence and hate.

In 2021, the words and behavior of our leaders won’t make us embarrassed and nervous as citizens of a big, beautiful, diverse world.

In 2021, when we feel fears, we will explore those fears a little more deeply before we act on them. We’ll think of the bigger picture of humanity in those moments. “How can I handle this momentary fear in a way that doesn’t push humanity further into hate?”

In 2021, we will stay very honest and bold about our anger and disagreement. But we’ll lose the sarcasm and taunting and bullying.

In 2021, we will fight tirelessly for a world in which nobody will be disrespected, disadvantaged, or live in fear because of their skin color, accent, social status, shape, disability, gender, or sexuality.

In 2021, we will see every life as valuable.

In 2021, we will SEE EVERYBODY. The homeless man on the street in downtown Minneapolis. The entrepreneur who has worked 80 hours a week to give a contribution to the world, and the world to her family. The terrified but brave mother fleeing across the border with her little child. The 13-year-old dissociating in class because he’s being abused at home. The small town business owner who can’t afford for taxes to be raised. The little Uyghur girl in China who hasn’t seen her mom for a long, long time. The suburban mom who is hearing more and more stories of violent crime and would stop at nothing to protect her children. The governor making the toughest possible decisions, knowing the backlash that will come. The Black man everyone crosses the street to avoid. We will see everybody.

In 2021, we will search out the populations that, for one reason or another, can’t breathe. We won’t wait until a crisis to care about people being trampled by our world.

In 2021, we will stop thinking or acting like some lives are more important than others. Does patriotic have to mean that Americans (especially those whose families have been American for generations) should be happier and healthier than anyone else in the world?

In 2021, the god of Competition will be worshiped just a little less.

In 2021, we will stop chasing profits just long enough to make sure we’re prepared to take care of the vulnerable, the heroes, the small businesses, and the self-employed when the next pandemic happens. (And for that matter, to just take care of people in general all the time.)

In 2021, the health and safety of every human will be a higher priority than my right to only care about myself.

In 2021, I hope that social media platforms will change their algorithms that have been constantly showing each of us more and more and more of our own narrow views of reality.

In 2021, I would challenge every person in the United States to google the word “Dogmatism.”

And in 2021, I want to do hugs again, before the year is over. And have lots and lots of people over for a meal and laughter and being in each other’s space again. And I want to see smiles again when we get to take our masks off. And lots of hugs. Lots and lots of hugs.

Exhaling our way into a beautiful new year

Wishing you Love

Letting

How often do you stop struggling for a minute?

We’re halfway through 2020. What have you learned so far about just sitting with things that just ARE, no matter whether you’d like them to be or not?

Can you show up for the reality you’re actually in?

Stop and breathe for a minute.

Lao Tzu - silence is a source of great strength