Inside each of us is a brain that still operates using a 200 million-year-old operating system. For me, this explains so much of human behavior that I find troublesome. It’s responsible for our lowest level drivers of safety, reproduction, hunger, pleasure and aggression. Thankfully we have that pre-frontal cortex to act as the voice of reason to the emotional stirrings of the reptilian brain.
I bring this up because lately, I’ve been working with my nine-year-old daughter on her anxiety. She’s been having issues with getting to sleep, jealousy around her friends and a general low-level fear of change. She has been shown breathing techniques, mindfulness practices, positive thinking but in the end, she just cries and wants it all to go away. As her father, I wish nothing more than to carry this burden for her, yet I can’t. I look at this as the perfect opportunity to learn from the struggle and teach her lifelong coping skills. Doing so has opened my own Pandora’s Box of mental conflicts.
My discovery is akin to my daughter’s; I battle with anxiety, fear, self-esteem and jealousy from time to time. I used to suppress and resist the voice of the reptilian brain, that didn’t work out so well. Leading up to, during and after my divorce I realize how much I was relying on my reptilian brain for comfort rather than appealing to my high-level thinking. I’d advise against handing the steering wheel of a business and marriage to the reptilian brain, but looking back, that’s exactly what I did.
Now I’m no expert on neuroscience, but I do believe I have a solid basis for discussing the topic. According to several experts the more we feed certain behaviors and thoughts the more they become ingrained in our brain. The neural pathways that support these behaviors and thoughts go from being a dirt path to a superhighway of nerves. It’s relatively easy to see why habits are hard to form and perhaps harder to break.
In these last few weeks, I’ve been working hard to start new habits with the aid of the mobile app called Habit List. It reminds me and tracks my habits differently than a to-do list and so far it seems to be working. My current struggle is around breaking the old habits. Any tips there would be appreciated.
My takeaway from all this has been a renewed appreciation for acknowledging to the voice of the reptilian brain. That doesn’t always mean listening to it. Instead, I’ve been cultivating the practice of determining the root of the emotion and asking my high-level brain to make sense of it. For instance, if the emotion is jealousy, then what is that jealousy about? What is the root fear and how might I acknowledge that fear in an alternative way adds to my growth, rather than feeds the fear of the reptilian brain? The same is true for looking at anxieties and reframing the raw, guttural reaction into a well-shaped story that addresses those anxieties.
We are all a work in progress, and I wonder how the World might be different if we all were in better touch with our primal fears. I detest any societal structures that force these fears into the shadows.