18th October 2010
Change your brain, change your relationships – Part I
I seem to have developed an obsession with neuroscience. It began some four years ago when I read a book by Dan Siegel called ‘Parenting from the Inside Out’ and most recently a book by David Rock called ‘Your Brain at Work’ .
Discovering the work of Dan Siegel and David Rock has encouraged me to learn more about the functioning of the mind and brain, enabling me to use both (the mind and the brain) to positively change myself and my relationships.
As an agent of change, I am constantly looking for ways to help myself and my clients develop awareness as a means to help us transform our lives. In a world where multi-tasking is the norm, this can be extremely challenging as it feels we have little or no time to slow down, breathe deeply and give our full attention to what is happening right here, right now - in this very moment.
Interestingly, the more time and energy I commit to understanding my brain and mind the less reactive and more present I am. I feel safer, more grounded and as a result I am more productive, effective, connected and happy – and for me that’s a really good thing!
While I am no expert I will spend the next few blog entries trying to simplify a rather complex subject and offer you handy tips on how to become more effective and connected in your everyday life.
Brain versus Mind
First things first, it’s important to know the difference between the brain and the mind.
Put simply your mind transports the messages between your brain and your body as well as between you and others. Think of the mind as a verb rather than a noun. This will help you understand the mind is something that is embodied rather than a ‘thing’ like the brain.
Secondly, get to know three key areas of your brain – the brain stem, the limbic system and the frontal lobe.
This part of the brain is about primitive survival instincts. Its function is to keep you alive in the world.
This area of the brain is responsible for telling the brain stem how it needs to respond to every single stimulus in and around you. The limbic system attempts to make meaning of experiences and determines whether something or somebody is friend or foe.
The Frontal Lobe is one of the smallest parts of the brain yet without it we are unable to change. It is the ‘braking system’ and has the power to stop us repeating familiar, unhelpful and at times destructive patterns of thinking, feeling and doing. Simply put, without activating the frontal lobe you are in a constant state of reactivity and have no ability to change (more about this in Part II).
The brain requires quiet to change and solve problems
In order to change you need to begin to quiet the brain. To do this you need to understand how your brain functions and use your mind to actively change the brain. The challenge is you have no more than one or two seconds to activate your frontal lobe before you become reactive in any given situation. So in essence you need to spend more time in a state of neutrality to allow for maximum understanding of what is really happening in your brain, giving you the greatest opportunity to change (again, I will talk more about this in my next blog entry).
To begin the process you need to:-
1. Notice your feelings
Identify whether your limbic system is experiencing the situation/other person as friend or foe. Notice the feeling that comes up as a result. This is really important as suppressing your feelings prevents you being able to engage the frontal lobe and move through the following steps and reach a point of change. That said, it is just as unhelpful to blurt out your feelings so, do an internal check first and identify whether it is appropriate to share what you are feeling – if not the important piece is to acknowledge them to yourself and use them as information.
2. Notice your stories
Next, notice the ‘story’ or label you put to the situation. By owning your ‘story’ you are beginning to put the brakes on and engage/activate the frontal lobe.
3. Be curious
Before you react, ask yourself why you are interpreting the situation in a particular way. In addition, be curious about the other persons experience and see how it is similar/different to your own.
4. Change your interpretation
This can be quite challenging as it requires you to really let go of the idea you are under threat and re-appraise the situation. One of the ways I do this is to ask myself ‘Is what I am thinking and feeling about this situation really true or just my interpretation?’ Nine out of ten times I discover that it is just my interpretation which means that I need to spend more time going back to step 3 and ask more questions to understand the intention behind the other person’s interactions. This usually helps my limbic system calm down and begin to feel less threatened which in turn allows me to re-appraise my reaction and the situation.
An exercise in mindfulness
Finally, I want to offer you a simple exercise that has helped me enormously in understanding my brain. Pick a daily routine - such as eating – and give yourself permission to be in the moment and engage with the experience. Notice what it is like to place food in your mouth. Notice the feeling when you are chewing and swallowing. Notice how your body responds to the food and the speed with which you are eating. Notice your thoughts as you eat - are they related to the eating or something else? Keep bringing your attention back to the food and your experience of eating.
Try this as often as you can. Over time you will begin to notice so much more about how you think and feel. Remember, the more mindfulness you develop the more present you become. The more present you become the greater your ability to change your brain and ultimately your relationships.
(In part II I will explore more on how to engage the frontal lobe and create new neural pathways)
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