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

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Emotional on purpose

Non-rational corners of the brain get little respect. We are supposed to be “smart” creatures, do what “makes sense,” “think carefully.” And yes to all that. And also yes to purposefully manufacturing feelings and emotions that access the more primitive corners of the brain and have nothing to do with logic and sensibility.

Here’s what I mean.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last,” Zig Ziglar points out. “Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”

When we plan and think about how to do life day-to-day, we want to grow, stretch, learn, accomplish–and so we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the rationality-stuff, and forget to plan for our emotions.

We are emotional creatures. We do big, brave, beautiful things because we’re having deep feelings.

What gives you those deep feelings? What triggers them? Fuels them? Replenishes them when you’re running on empty?

Reading a good book? Singing along to the Les Mis√©rables score? Discovering a new poet? Getting the biggest, tightest hug? Asking your heart how it’s doing and writing the answer in a journal? Volunteering to help people in need? Laying quietly for an hour by the lake? A phone call to your best friend? Reading a story that deals with death or loss or grief and purpose? Finding a good quote to live by? Gazing at photos of Mount Ida, visualizing yourself, hiking boots, backpack, all geared up, trekking the wilderness? Joining a crowd to dance, sing, cheer, laugh, or some years just seeing a bunch of smiling faces on Zoom? Holding the little hand of your sweet kiddo as they drift to sleep?

We call them “mountain top” experiences, and they change our lives, and then, when the feels wear off, and we’ve been feelingless for a good while, and we got all rational again, and we barely recognize our once-emotional-selves, we remember those episodes and call them “mountain top” experiences again but with a sort of disapproval this time, like we had fallen for something, like how silly to get so high on feelings. Or maybe like we’re just feeling insecure and a little lost deep down now, because we can’t find our way back up the mountain.

So get emotional on purpose.

What gives you those deep feelings?

Do it,

plan it,

schedule it,

repeat it,

commit to it,

obsess over it,

enjoy it,

cry about it,

share it,

keep it sacred,

ritualize it,

commemorate it,

do it again,

do it again,

do it again.

Let’s not undervalue the truly life-changing impact of finding our feelings.

What emotions do you need today? And where could you get them? Go look, find, take them.

There is nothing silly or senseless or worthless about manufacturing vitality-giving emotions on purpose.

We’re creatures with feelings.

Feel on purpose.

2 impactful things to do every day–ONLY 2

The other day I sat down and wrote a schedule that would help me actually do all the things I want to do every day, every week. I did that a while ago, too. And before that. And again and again and again. And it HAS HELPED. Every time. But it has never “worked” impeccably. Schedules, to-do lists, planning sessions–they’ve never guaranteed lasting consistency in my life. I’ve had to keep trying again.

Like in meditation, where you keep wandering, so you keep gently redirecting your mind.

For years I saw the ebbs and flows of life as a weakness. And “weakness” meant BAD. I don’t really see it that way anymore.

Life comes in waves. In cycles. In “I’ve-got-this” weeks and “I-can’t-even” weeks. And I’m thinking, more and more, that . . . c’est la vie.

Imagine the alternative: Being ALWAYS ON. Going at the same pace through all of life. Never feeling the low times again. Never taking a break from your productivity. Never understanding the “struggle” that all your friends and family experience. Being perfectly consistent. I don’t think that’s how life works. In fact, I think the cycles help us self-regulate, and help us change with life’s seasons.

The cycles in life help us make little mini-course corrections–or sometimes not so mini. Sometimes my heart or my body or my subconscious says something like “Hey, too heavy on the socializing these days,” or “I think you might need to slow down,” or even “I think it’s time for something a little more meaningful.” And then for a while, I become a little more this and a little less that. For a season. Until it’s time to correct again.

In other words, it’s okay for life to be up and then down, back and then forth, busy and then slow, happy and then sad, productive and then relaxing. It’s okay that today-me and tomorrow-me and next-year me are each going to be a little different.

Let yourself not be always “on.”

Let yourself change. Let yourself throw caution to the wind today, stay in bed all day tomorrow, and then go conquer the world the next day.

In the context of that disclaimer, and only in the context of that disclaimer, I’d encourage you to try two little things every day. The mountain-top days and the valley-days. Two little things with big impact:

First, keep one centering ritual:

One thing that brings you back to who and where and why you are. Some days the ritual will open your eyes to exhaustion in yourself, and some days the ritual will open your eyes to an almost limitless energy. How important to know which days you need a break and which days you need to give it everything you’ve got! Some days the ritual will show you that you are at peace, and some days it will show you that you’re torn. Good! You know what you’re working with! It’s about slowing down and seeing you and your world.

Over the last several years I’ve learned that for me it’s a mixture of quiet time, meditation, and yoga. And if I can do it first thing in the morning, I will be so much more present that day. Not always more “happy” or “productive,” just more present in reality. Able to show up for my real life instead of wishing it away.

What is that centering ritual for you?

And second, keep one difficult ritual:

Being who we want to be every day, choosing our reaction to life’s roller coasters, takes strength. And not the strength to choose “positivity” every single time, or to choose “productivity” every single time. Just the strength and discipline to say, “Today, I think this is what I want or need,” and then to follow through. Don’t underestimate the power of doing one difficult thing–maybe even one “painful” thing–every single day. If you were able to do that tough thing–that thing you don’t “like” or that didn’t feel good . . . then when the consequential choices show up later in the day, the opportunities to be who you really want to be . . . you’ll remember that you are strong!

At times, for me, that has looked like really uncomfortable running training. Pushing myself past what I thought my limits were. Keeping up that pace even when it’s not “fun.” I’m not always a proponent of that, but it has had its incredibly effective place in my life as a tool for learning discipline. The correlation between the running-as-discipline and making-the-choices-I-really-want times of my life has been pretty shockingly close. Lately, it’s been wrapping up my morning shower with a blast of icy cold water and just standing under it for a while while I find my controlled, capable breath. It just proves to me first thing in the morning that today I can pick the uncomfortable option or make the tough decisions or do the scary things if I need to.

What is that difficult, strength-finding ritual for you?

Good luck, my friend, as you show up for your life and choose to be the Light you want to be in the world, every single day. And it’s okay that it will look different day to day. Just don’t lose YOU in all the waves.

~ namaste ~

P.S. And if you ever do lose you, just wake up the next morning, check in on your heart, and take a cold shower.

P.P.S. You’ve got this!

Peter Elbridge - can't be always on can be always you