Your Own Brain is Sabotaging You

What I’m about to discuss is by no means a new concept — I’ve seen this previously labelled as the Lizard Brain, the Chimp Brain and the Caveman Brain. However, if you haven’t come across this topic previously it can really help shine a light on why we all frequently make decisions, or say things, that in hindsight (or even at the time) make no sense.

The culprit is a small part of your brain called the limbic system, a layer squished evenly around the middle. It has various responsibilities including emotion and the formation of memories, but what makes it particularly interesting is that it was one of the earliest parts of the human brain to evolve. Hence the “caveman” tag, because in many ways that’s what it still is — a remnant of an age when anything and everything was out to kill you. It is a defence reflex against potential threats, fast to react and constantly paranoid. It’s what stops you from getting run over when you step onto the road and catch the glimpse of a van hammering round the corner — it detects a threat and before the rest of you has even worked out what the threat it is, it’s telling your legs to move and starting to raise your heartbeat. Perhaps the van then turned off down the junction, or perhaps the limbic system just saved your life.

The problem though is that your limbic system doesn’t just react to physical threats but perceived threats as well. Things like embarrassment, risk of failure, the unknown. Meeting new people, taking on extra responsibility, speaking in public — these are all potential triggers to wake it up. It is the voice in your head that asks “what if I’m not good enough” and “what if they laugh at me”. And because it is so fast to react, it often grabs hold of the controls before the saner parts of your being are able to, and can then refuse to let go.

Obviously the severity of this effect varies from person to person, depending on what they got in the genetic lottery combined with previous life experiences (and can continue to change throughout their life). At one end of the spectrum you have those lucky enough to be able to suppress these irrational fears with ease, and at the other end is where you find anxiety disorders. If the rest of the brain is unable to talk down the limbic system from DEFCON 1, it can completely flood your system with unneeded adrenaline, resulting in a panic attack. Most people however, find themselves floating somewhere in the middle—affected, if not completely hindered, by this internal conflict. It is often still more than enough though to stop people from pursuing activities they know will actually better them — networking, asking someone out on a date, going for a promotion. It is the wall which defines the perimeter of your comfort zone.

Knowing and understanding why this is happening though, is the first step to beating it. If you’re ever feeling a sense of dread about a situation, yet there is no physical danger — then you need to accept that your brain cannot currently be trusted. There are then two choices: argue your brain back into order, or ignore it. The former can be done by presenting yourself with questions such as “What is the worst thing that can actually happen here?” and “Will this even matter in five years time?” Shining the cold light of logic and truth on the situation is often enough to remedy things. The latter approach sounds simpler but is often the harder to do, especially when the limbic system is already in full control and your nerves are shattered. Ultimately, a combination of both approaches is most effective.

Of course there’s a third option, which is just to give in to your limbic responses. This is the path of least resistance — side-stepping whatever it is that’s upsetting your mind will make those undesirable feelings disappear almost immediately. The problem though is that this subconciously reinforces that avoidance behaviour is the best approach to this situation and so the next time you are faced with this scenario, you’ll find it even harder to take on, because your limbic brain hasn’t been shown that things didn’t work out as bad as it was expecting. You may be fine with this though and that’s okay.

Personally, the anxious side of my brain usually comes out to really play at night time. This is not uncommon at all —with your body only half-awake and it dark outside, a perfect situation for the limbic system to be on high alert. With no sabre-tooth tigers to worry about though, it looks for other possible threats, even if they are not immediate. Time to start worrying about that thing you said that time (which no one else remembers). I will often make a decision one day, then wake up in the night convinced that I’ve made a terrible mistake and fret terribly about it, finally drift back to sleep and wake in the morning wondering why I was so worried. This double-life proved exhausting for quite a while, literally losing sleep over things that I didn’t need to be worrying about. I found that the “arguing with your brain” method didn’t cut it when the rest of my mind was already exhausted, so instead I went full on for the “ignoring it” approach.

Music proved to be my ally in this effort. Not Rammstein or HEALTH you understand, but listening to something gentle and non-engaging proved to be enough to drown out Mr Limbic whilst not so much as to stop me from dropping off. Wearing earphones whilst lying on my side proved painful at first, but after some experimentation I found light-enough earphones for the job. These days my sleep is much better thankfully, but I still keep the headphones by my bedside and a playlist prepared. Should I find myself woken during the wee hours or if I suspect there’s something big enough on my mind that will provide a a seed for worrying, then I go straight for this approach.

Obviously, different approaches will work for different people, and one person’s snowflake may be another’s iceberg, but understanding is always the best first step to finding a solution. And remember, the limbic system is not your enemy at all, but an important part of what’s keeping you alive. It’s just very efficient at it’s job and sometimes a little over zealous. A bit like me.

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