Your brain can get out of balance for all kinds of reasons maybe you are under a lot of stress, or something physical , such as a virus is affecting your immune system and changing your mood. But as we saw , a common reason that our brains get out of the balance is that we get locked into spirals between types of thinking and feeling.
This happen partly because humans have evolved to be able to think , reason, plan, imagine, anticipate, and ruminate , more than any other animal. This is good in that it allows us to solve complex problems , anticipate future difficulties and create wonderful things too – it gives rise to science, medicine and mobile phones.
But these human abilities can also cause us all of kinds of difficulties .
Here’s an example to show how . Consider a zebra running away from a lion. After ten minutes or so the lion gets exhausted and wanders off. The zebra will very quickly calm down , return to the herd and start eating again.
However, in contrast , if this was to happen to a human, relief would be associated with beginning to anticipate , imagine and ruminate :’ Oh gosh [or some other four letters word], can you imagine what would have happened if I had been caught by the lion ? I can just picture myself now being chocked to death and eaten alive agony… ‘ Intrusive images might come into their mind over and over . They might wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking , ‘ What will happen tomorrow if the lions are still about? And what about my children ? And what about …’ Unlike the zebra , they would be going into a state of shock partly because of the constant holding it in mind.
Now. in one way this is our threat system trying to forewarn us, but in another way it is going to trap us into constantly worrying about the lions, holding our body in a state of high tension and anxiety . Our zebra does not have any of these problems! So human are constantly thinking , quite naturally , ‘What if … ?’ and suppose ….?’ And because we are creative we often come up with the worst scenarios. We can also look back on things and think , ‘If only I had … ‘ or ‘ If only I hadn’t ….’ These are perfectly natural and normal ways of thinking , but they can also be very troublesome indeed if we don’t take steps to notice them and get out of the loops.
Here’s another reason why paying attention to what goes on in your mind is so important – it is to do with how our imaginations and our thoughts cause our bodies to change. Imagine that you are hungry and you see a meal ; this will make your saliva and stomach acids flow. But if it is late at night and you just fantasize about a meal, the same thing will happen.
In other words , the image you create in your mind stimulates a particular part of your brain and body. Lying in bed and having erotic thoughts can also do things to your body. This is because your imagination is stimulating an area of your brain called the pituitary, which releases hormones. So, make no mistake , your thoughts and imagination can literally act as a probe into your brain, stimulating hormones and brain chemicals . Clearly you don’t want your repetitive ruminative thinking and fantasies to be stimulating the threat/stress system , because if you do that you will end up pushing stress hormones into your body.
When you think about it this way it’s not surprising that thoughts and imagination can be so powerful. But it has important implications for all of us. If we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in our minds, we can get locked into thoughts that set off an unhelpful system. A classic threat-system stimulator is self-criticism : it puts your body into a constant state of tension, until eventually you feel exhausted and terrible.
Now once again that’s not our fault. But what if we notice this and make a deliberate decision to switch our attention to stimulate a part of our brain that is more conductive to our wellbeing? We can certainly stay in the threat system if we want to-there is no law against it, as they say-and it can have a very strong pull: It doesn’t mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with us.
It’s how our brains and body naturally work. And if you have had unpleasant things happen to you in the past , the threat system will more easily claim your attention. The question is , do we want it to do that? Or would we rather train our minds , as best we can, to shift oiut of the threat system into the doing or soothing system?
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