How We Sabotage Ourselves
Our bodies are made up of a bunch of different systems. The circulatory system delivers nutrients all over the body by pumping blood through blood vessels. The muscular system is made up of all the muscles in our bodies, so we can move and live. The nervous system is the system we are gong to talk about today. The nervous system is the system in your body that collects information from the world around you and gives instructions on how to respond to that information.
How does your nervous system do that? Let’s start with how it collects information. You have five basic senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Information from these senses is collected by sensory neurons. So, sensory neurons in your eyes collect sight information and send it to the brain.
When the brain gets the information from the sensory neurons, it processes the information and sends instructions to the body through motor neurons. For example, if the sensory neurons in your skin send the message that the environment is cold, your brain might give the instruction to put on a jacket. It will also probably send the message to shiver.
So, that is the basic way your nervous system works. Information goes into your brain and instructions come out. But what’s happening inside your brain?
Your brain is also filled with neurons. You have about 100 billion neurons in your brain. Each of these neurons can connect to up to 10,000 other neurons, so information is zooming around your brain all the timOur brains have three major divisions. The brainstem controls all of our automatic body processes, like breathing or your heartbeat. The cerebellum controls balance and movement, and the cerebrum controls thinking and problem-solving. Deep inside the cerebrum is a fourth part of the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system is where our brains process memories and emotions. This is the part of the brain we are going to focus on today.
There are a bunch of different structures in the limbic system, and they all have important functions, but today we are only going to talk about one of them: the amygdala.
The amygdala is like the security guard of the brain. It collects all of the sensory information from the sensory neurons and passes iron to the correct part of the brain. If the information is important, it is sent off for storage.
But, as the security guard of the brain, the amygdala’s main job is to protect you. If your amygdala gets information it perceives as a threat, it doesn’t waste time passing on this information. Instead, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. Your amygdala believes you are in mortal danger and prepares your body to either fight to the death or run away.
To prepare your body for battle, the amygdala triggers the release of adrenaline and other hormones into your blood stream. Adrenaline makes your heart beast faster and makes you breathe faster, so your muscles get as much oxygen as possible. More oxygen means stronger, quicker muscles. Adrenaline directs all of the energy in your body to facing a terrifying threat. As a side effect you might feel a little shaky and your palms may start to sweat.
This response was super helpful when saber-toothed tigers were roaming around. Our amygdala kept us alive during some pretty scary times. But here is the problem with the amygdala.
How are you feeling now? Is anyone’s heart beating faster? Sweaty palms? Shaky?
The problem with the amygdala is it can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a picture. Your amygdala can’t even tell the difference between an embarrassing situation and a life or death situation, so it flags potentially embarrassing sensory input as serious threats.
This is why the amygdala can make our lives miserable when it is in control. The amygdala automatically turns on the fight-or-flight response, and all our bodies are prepared to do is either fight or run away. In 99% of your daily interactions, these are not the best choices.
When our amygdalas are in control, we act without thinking. We feel angry, frustrated, and embarrassed. We are more likely to act violently by pushing, hitting, turning over chairs, or throwing something. We will also use words to hurt the people around us.
This is all in the name of survival to our amygdalas. The amygdala doesn’t care about next month or next week or even tomorrow. All the amygdala cares about is surviving the next thirty seconds, and a lot of damage can be done in those thirty seconds.
Here is the good news. Eventually, your amygdala sends all important information to the cerebrum, specifically the prefrontal cortex where your logical thinking happens. And when I say eventually, I mean within a second.
Now, getting the information to the prefrontal cortex doesn’t mean the fight-or-flight reaction stops. It is really hard to turn off the amygdala once it has taken control, but it can be done. Just understanding how the amygdala works is helpful. If you start to feel your heart beating faster or your feel a little shaky in your arms and legs, you know the amygdala has triggered the fight-or-flight response. Knowing that shifts the control from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex.
The adrenaline released during the fight-or-flight response makes us breathe faster, so taking slow, deep breaths can help to turn it off. Breathing slowly also gives us time to process whatever information is making us feel threatened, so we can come up with a response that will make us feel safe and won’t cause problems for us in the future.
The amygdala will perceive a threat whenever we feel embarrassed or excluded. This makes school a scary place for it. Your amygdala is going to trigger the fight-or-flight response when faced with both academic and social challenges.
What is even more difficult is that your amygdala will react not only to outside stimuli, but your own thoughts. For example, if you are about to take a test and you think, “I am terrible at math. I can’t do this. I am going to fail this test, and everyone is going to laugh at me.” and you have a strong emotional reaction, then your amygdala will tag that thought as a threat and will trigger the fight-or-flight response. No one told you that you wouldn’t do well on the test. No one was laughing at you, but you started your own fight-or-flight response.
Once the fight-or-flight response starts, you aren’t thinking anymore, so you are going to accept these thoughts as true even though you made them up yourself.
Here is how we change it. Anytime you have an unhelpful thought such as, “I can’t do this,” you are going to replace it with a helpful, powerful thought like, “I can do this!” You can even follow up that first powerful thought with examples because your brain loves examples. So, it would sound like this in your brain. “I can do this. I learned how to walk; I learned how to speak; I learned how to ride a bike; I learned how to floss.”
At this point, you should be feeling pretty powerful. That’s why I call them powerful thoughts. These powerful thoughts prepare your brain for an exciting challenge instead of alerting the amygdala to a threat and starting the downward spiral of the fight-or-flight response.
It isn’t that the fight-or-flight response is bad. It will keep you alive when you are faced with an actual threat. The problem is, your amygdala is really bad at determining actual threats. Our own negative thoughts are added to the mix, and we end up making destructive choices out of fear.
This is especially true in social relationships at school. Our amygdalas are already on high alert at school because we are constantly being asked to do things that feel scary. Learning is scary because when we try something new, we run the risk of making a mistake and getting embarrassed. Our amygdalas hate being embarrassed.
So, our amygdalas are already preparing for trouble, and we see some kids whispering and looking at us. We immediately think they are talking about us. Are they? Maybe, maybe not, but we think they are and a thought is enough to trigger the amygdala.
We go into fight-or-flight mode. Now, how you react depends on your personality and past experiences. You might run away and feel miserable on your own. You might walk up and confront the kids. What most people do is fight back without the confrontation. You find a friend and tell them all about how mean the kids who were talking about you are.
This is one of the most destructive options because rumors start spreading, more people’s amygdalas are triggered, and it is all based on a thought you had in your head.
If thoughts can trigger the fight-or-flight response, they can also stop it. When I see people whispering and looking at me, I can choose how I respond to it. I can think, “I don’t really care about what they are talking about.”
Not reacting to attacks from others, either real or imagined, is really hard. It’s hard because our brains are designed to respond to attacks. But ignoring an attack isn’t impossible.
It is easiest to ignore a mean comment or snub when you remember that other people’s behavior and choices have nothing to do with you. In fact, people will only attack you when they are feeling bad about themselves.
So, if you want to be a part of making school a safer, happier place for everyone, if someone attacks you, instead of perceiving it as a threat, you can see it for what it really is: a cry for help. This person is feeling really bad and he or she doesn’t know how to fix it.
Now, hopefully, you have a better idea of how to manage your own feelings, so you can take control back from your amygdala. Remember that your thoughts aren’t always true, and when your thoughts aren’t helpful, you can change them. When you feel your amygdala taking over, take deep breaths and give yourself time to process your thoughts. And most of all, be kind to yourself and each other.