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.

Your disappearing place

Where is your disappearing place?

What place makes you remember your freedom, your self, your own breath?

Where can you truly feel “away from it all” for a soul-filling minute?

What about your own oxygen mask?

I write. That is what I do. All the time.

Sometimes I hear from a friend, or someone I don’t know at all, that my words made a difference for them–made them feel understood, not alone, inspired them. And that is why I write.

When I write, life makes more sense to me, and I feel the big feelings like thankfulness or courage or determination, and I begin to understand complicated subjects as I wade through them sentence by sentence. And that is why I write, too.

So . . . I write.

Except, not a whole lot these last few months.

The dry spells feel like “failure” and “fraud” to me. But the calmer, more thoughtful part of my brain reminds me of a big lesson I’ve been learning this year.

“Please put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.”

Why?

Because if you run out of oxygen while trying to help others breathe, you can’t help anymore.

Only by ensuring your own health first, can you continue showing up to help others.

Do you realize, once in a while, that you’ve been running around trying to help others with their oxygen masks, neglecting the fact that yours has slipped off?

And what do you do when you realize that you’re showing up for others so much that you are no longer showing up for yourself?

Have you tried just keeping that pace up? Ignoring the burning in your lungs, insistent on showing up for others, even if it means you’re suffocating? What happens then? Do you finally hit a wall? (Or do you know you will?) And does your depleted energy even help the people you’re so determined to help?

So my challenge for you today is this:

Can you remember that your own oxygen mask has to come first?

And in an exhausting year like this year, full of sad and angry and lonely people, can you still remember that your own oxygen mask has to come first?

Are you allowed to disappear for a minute?

Sit with the bad, then chase the good

Okay, I’m not going to pretend like this pandemic is a fun time, or “good.” It is awful.

I have learned something about fear and sadness–not a new thing, psychologists have said it for years and years and years: Sit with it. Accept that shitty stuff is real. Acknowledge how hard it is. Feel the feelings.

That’s not something we’re the best at, most of us. Distraction and escape are easier when bad stuff happens. But what will happen if you just . . . let it be bad?

And then ALSO . . .

Chase the good! Find the positives. Embrace the opportunity.

While the world largely closes down for a while, everyone hunkered down at home, what small gift is wrapped up in this weirdness for you? Is there actually a very BIG gift?

You’ve recently said something like “I feel stuck” or “I don’t have time” or “I wish I could” or “I’m too busy”–haven’t you?

For most of us, our stuck/busy lives just got turned upside down. There is a lot of fear and loss to sit with. But ALSO . . . you got your opportunity: . . .

. . . Your opportunity to reset. To reflect. To reevaluate. To slow down. To speak up. To calm down. To reconnect with your life person. To check in on your friends. To meet new people. To HELP in big ways. To break habits you don’t want anymore. To meditate. To journal. To exercise. To write. To read. To plan. To dream. To grow. To heal. . . .

. . . to change!

Sit with the bad, then chase the good.

What GOOD thing could this crisis hold for you?

P. S. I’ll start. For me, this has been an opportunity to slow down from what was quickly becoming a mentally breakneck pace in my daily life. And as I’ve slowed down, I’ve found energy and peace. And as I’ve watched a bunch of real people suddenly get very vulnerable while dealing with a scary and chaotic time, I’ve found a little more courage to live and love a little more openly . . . as big as finally sharing some piano and song with the world–a dream of mine–because people can use a little happy and I could do with a little showing off . . . or as simple as checking in a little more with friends. Slowing down, loving more.

What about you? What’s your “good?”

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