You might be wondering why I am writing a piece on the brain. Well, you may or may not know that our brains are key players in terms of how we respond to life, how we handle stress, and process emotions. Our brain is a map, showing us how we learn and why we behave the way we do. Understanding your stress response system, and how our brain works, is one of the greatest tools we can have in working towards mental health, wellness, and healing.
I bet many of you are thinking ‘Oh no, not neuroscience! These big words and confusing processes are way over my head”. Well I am with you there! I am a social worker, not a doctor or scientist, therefore I am going to give you the social work version of how the brain works in a way that hopefully many can understand. I invite you to follow along playfully while we learn the brain together.
Understanding Your Stress Response System
The part of the brain we are going to focus on is the limbic system, as it controls emotions and motivations, and the prefrontal cortex. Let me break it down for you…
First, I would like to introduce Amy, your amygdala, to you. Amy is a security guard who specializes in martial arts (or a pair of almond-shaped structures in your limbic system) and she reacts to fear, danger, and threat. Amy regulates our emotional state. When you are in a positive emotional state Amy sends incoming information to Olly, the thinking part of your brain (who you will meet below) but if you are in a negative emotional state (ex. stress or fear) Amy prevents you from higher-level thinking and reasoned judgement. Instead, she reacts with an automatic response of fight, flight or freeze.
Next I would like to introduce to you, Hippo the Camel, your hippocampus. Hippo is also part of the limbic system structure. Hippo assists in managing our response to fear and threats as it is a storage vault of memory and learning, similar to a Camel who stores water. Hippo stores memories so that Amy can react quickly!
Lastly, I introduce to you Olly, (the wise owl) he will represent our pre-frontal cortex. I chose a wise owl because your pre-frontal cortex is the learning, reasoning, and thinking center of the brain. Olly is highly evolved and controls our decision making, focuses our attention, and allows us to learn to read, write, analyze, comprehend, and interpret.
Amy (amygdala), Hippo the camel (hippocampus), and Olly (pre-frontal cortex), make up ‘TEAM BRAIN’. Team brain has to work just like a team, each with their own position or job to do. I am now going to create a picture for you to further explain how they work as a team to create your emotional and behavioural responses.
Imagine a time, years ago, when people were hunter-gatherers. Life was pretty simple. Your greatest threat was usually a large animal such as a lion or bear. Your brain was designed for times like these. Amy was really good at her job. Imagine now you are in a forest collecting berries for your family. You turn around and standing in front of you is a large mama bear. Amy instantly jumps into action and responds with fight, flight, or freeze. She gets your heart pumping, and your adrenaline going – she is ready for action. You scream and run away as fast as you can. Thankfully you startled the bear and she took off. Hippo then stores your response so that you can react even better next time. In this situation you are very thankful for Amy and the role she plays on Team Brain. Now imagine a week later you are again walking through the forest collecting berries. When suddenly you hear a rustle in the bush beside you. Hippo remembers this feeling. He remembers the smell of the berries, and the sound of rustling leaves. Hippo alerts Amy who jumps into action causing you to scream and jump with fright, only to realize… it’s a squirrel. Although it was a false alarm you still appreciate Amy and Hippo as you are aware you are in the forest and there could be a bear, you want to be ready! But what about those times when there is no real threat, yet Amy has your adrenaline going and your body ready to fight, flight, or freeze?
You see, there are 2 dilemmas with how Amy works in today’s world. One, Amy doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between real threats or perceived threats. Hippo and Amy are really good at their jobs of responding to threats, but sometimes they overreact and set off a ‘false alarm’. Two, the treats most of us face today are very different from a bear in the woods. For example, we may freeze in a stressful situation such as taking a test, in which Amy doesn’t allow us to access our dear friend Olly who we need in order to pass this test. This is an example of unmindful behaviour. We react before we allow our mind to think about and process the information.
Why do I experience this fight, flight or freeze response when there is no threat? Why do I always feel like there is a threat? How do I make changes? Can I change? These are all really good questions… and I also respect your time and the length of blog posts so stay tuned for part 2 of this conversation where we will look deeper into how mental illnesses, such as anxiety, can hijack team brain, and focus on how we can use this knowledge to create mental health, wellness, and healing in our everyday lives. We can achieve this by using tools such as mindful thinking, mindful actions and by harnessing neuroplasticity. (If you are interested in reading part 2, be sure to ‘follow’ and subscribe)
Follow us on Instagram @mentallyhealthyme2