Let’s take a look at what it looks inside the brain: my eyes sent the image of the bear to the relay center in my brain called the thalamus. The thalamus perceived the bear as threatening and sent a signal to the amygdala which activated a set of responses designed to promote survival. This floods our nervous system with chemicals. Our heart pounds faster. Our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Muscles tighten and senses sharpen. It’s a way of protecting us.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is how our nervous system was supposed to respond. Similar to right before you give a TED talk, by the way.
Now, that message also goes to the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain responsible for attention, impulse control, problem solving, decision making and forward thinking. It’s the part of our brain that registers positive emotions and helps us work and learn efficiently.
Basically, we have the smart part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and the alarm part of our brain in the limbic system. The alarm part of our brain reacts faster and, at times, can be stronger than the smart part of our brain. In this instance, my prefrontal cortex was slow to access the information I had learned about bears because the alarm response had taken over.
If we were to look at it on a graph, it would look something like this. At our baseline, we feel calm and at ease, and our prefrontal cortex is in charge. When the alarm is triggered, our limbic system is in charge. This is a classic fight-or-flight response, or stress response. There are, however, stress responses triggered all the time in our lives that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but the chemical reaction and what happens inside our brain is the same.
Let’s talk for a second about chronic stress, like on the morning of my son Charlie’s fifth birthday party. My daughter Macy and I left the house early to get the cake and balloons before the party. My first spike came when I got into my pickup truck and realized there was no gas in the tank. So, we headed to the gas station to fill up and somehow I had earned a free car wash. So we pulled the pickup truck into the car wash bay. And the doors were closed, machines started. It wasn’t until the blowers came on at the end when I remembered the football pinata in the back of the truck. Spike number one. Actually, that was spike number 2, sorry. The gas was spike number 1.
As the blowers blew what was left of the football pinata and hundreds of pieces of small candy violently flew around the car wash bay, this was going to be tough to explain to Charlie. So, Macy and I headed to the grocery store, and we went to the bakery to pick up the Bronco’s cake that Charlie carefully picked out from the cake book a few days prior. There, the woman in her nicest voice told us they had run out of Bronco’s kits, so she used the Rockies kit and made it a baseball theme cake instead. She acted like this was no big deal. Spike number 3.
Even the expression on Macy’s face insinuated this was a really big deal. When she realized the enormity of the situation, she said she’d call another store to see if they had a Bronco’s kit, they could quickly put on a cake. While she made that phone call, Macy and I raced across the store to the floral department to pick up the helium balloons. There we waited while the sweetest and slowest elderly man ever blew up the helium balloons, one at a time. His arthritic fingers were not equipped to tie ribbons on balloons, and the process was painful to watch. Another spike.
Eventually, I jump behind the counter to help him tie the ribbons on the balloons, and we raced back to the bakery with my bouquet of balloons in hand. There the woman was writing out the directions where we were to pick up the Bronco’s kit and suddenly I hear what sounds like gun shots coming from behind me. Spike! When I turn, I realize the gunshot sound was merely the balloons rubbing up against the sprinkler system on the ceiling of the store, popping and dropping one by one.
It was about this time that Macy pulled on my shirt and whined, “Mom, I’m hungry! Why is this taking so long?” This was now my baseline. When our brains look like this, we can’t calm down, and we don’t know how to pay attention because the part of our brain responsible for those skills is completely offline.
Today I want to share tools that bring our brains back into balance, tools that keep the spikes from going so high and that bring us back to baseline more quickly. Mindfulness could be one of the single most effective ways to help us all calm down, pay attention, and be thankful. I define this practice, mindfulness, as paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s thousands of years of old knowledge that, new science is demonstrating, can improve your relationships, your performance at work, your parenting, your health, and your happiness in general.