Updated: Jul 7
Let's meet Marla, the protagonist of our mind-boggling tale. Marla is engrossed in a heartfelt conversation with her dear friend when suddenly, her friend interrupts and shifts the topic entirely. Whoa, that really grinds Marla's gears! Fuming with anger, she abruptly hangs up the phone, vowing to never spill her heart out to her friend again.
But wait, it doesn't end there. Marla hits the replay button in her mind, over and over, crafting an epic saga about her friend's rude behavior. In her story, her friend is painted as the ultimate embodiment of selfishness and disinterest. With each replay, Marla's anger grows fiercer and fiercer. (Psst, this repeated reaction is actually forging a solid neural pathway in Marla's brain!)
Fast forward to the next time Marla's friend calls, and boom! Instant anger engulfs Marla like a tidal wave. (Oh, hello there, neural pathway!) Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, Marla forgets her meticulously prepared "speech" and instead, her words stumble out in a jumbled mess.
Have you ever experienced something like that, where a single event triggers such a strong reaction that your ability to articulate a coherent sentence goes up in smoke?
Let's delve into the depths of our brains on strong emotions.
Picture me, the eternal wonderer, pondering why my thoughts scatter, and I transform into a bumbling fool when anger takes the reins. To satisfy my insatiable curiosity, I embarked on an epic adventure through brain-related books and articles. And guess what I unearthed? When we find ourselves caught in the clutches of intense emotions like anger, fear, or anxiety, our thinking powerhouse, known as the prefrontal cortex, quiets down. Yep, it gets drowned out by the limbic center of our brain.
Understanding this fascinating fact also shed light on why relying solely on logic to calm down often falls short.
The reason is simple: we're not speaking the language our brains understand when we attempt to calm down with logic alone. (1)
But fear not! I've discovered a simple way to determine which part of my brain is doing the talking so I can use the appropriate calming techniques. (Keep scrolling for the mindset hacks below.)
Feeling/Emotional State > Urge to react = The limbic area of our brain, responsible for processing emotions and memories.
Thinking State > Response = Prefrontal Cortex, where thoughts and actions come to life.
For instance, if I catch myself "what if-ing" a situation, pondering endless possibilities and potential pitfalls, my brain sends me a signal that I'm tapping into my prefrontal cortex, even if my thoughts carry a hint of worry or fear. This signals me to employ thought-based exercises to derail my runaway "what if" train.
On the other hand, if I'm plagued by unexplained anxiety, my brain waves a colorful flag, indicating that I'm processing from the limbic area. (2) This is precisely why logic-based exercises may not be as effective as, say, a soothing deep breathing or muscle relaxation technique. (Keep reading for more below!)
To sum it up, if we want to reach a calm and grounded state, we must converse in the language our brains understand.
Now, brace yourself for an exhilarating journey where we match mindset hacks to achieve serenity.
I've conducted extensive experimentation with the following mindset hacks, each labeled for your convenience, so you can easily find the one that speaks most effectively to your brain. By embracing these hacks, not only will you cultivate a tranquil and peaceful mind, but you'll also forge new, proactive neural pathways. Feel free to try one or try them all to discover your personal favorites.
Feeling/Emotional States (for those moments of fear, anxiety, nervousness, anger, or stress):
1. Slow breath in, slow breath out: Take a deep breath slowly through your nose and release it gradually through your nose. Repeat this technique a few times.
2. Square breathing: Inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold for a count of 4. Repeat.
3. Oxytocin breathing: To unleash the "feel good" chemical called oxytocin, take a deep breath, filling your belly with air. Then, exhale forcefully through your mouth while exclaiming "HA!"
4. Shift your posture: Sit or stand up straight, shoulders back and down, with your head slightly tilted up. This simple adjustment works wonders when you're feeling nervous.
5. Shorter inhale, longer exhale: Inhale deeply for a count of 4, but exhale for a count of 8. This technique is perfect for combatting the fight-or-flight response, as it signals your amygdala that everything is A-OK.
6. Get a hug: Embrace someone tightly or give yourself a warm hug. It releases delightful "feel good" chemicals in your brain, inducing a calming effect.
7. Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and release each muscle group in your body. For example, take a deep breath and curl your toes in and squeeze. Then as you release the breath, release your toes and move up to your calves. Move up your body until you get to your face.
8. Move: Pace around to get your prefrontal cortex singing loudly and feeling groovy.
9. Play: Take a few minutes to engage in something fun, whether it's watching a hilarious video, solving a puzzle, or playing a game.
10. Dance or sing: Let loose and bust some moves, or simply crank up uplifting music and sing your heart out.
Thinking State (for when you're stuck in an endless loop of rehashing events, worrying, suffering from analysis paralysis, or "what if"-ing):
1. Express gratitude: Look around and express gratitude for all the things you see.
2. Engage your senses: When worries about the future or past events consume you, focus on the present. Answer these questions: What do I see right now? What do I feel on my skin? What am I hearing? What am I smelling? What am I tasting?
3. Redirect: Stop the troublesome thought in its tracks and steer your mind toward something else.
4. Ask the magic question: What would I feel if I didn't feel this feeling?
5. Go quiet: Take 5-10 minutes to switch off all noise and distractions.
6. Just notice: Observe the negative thought without engaging with it. You might say, "Oh look, how interesting. There's that negative thought again."
7. Gain a different perspective: Download The Clarity Wheel to alleviate stress and uncover empowering options for any situation. When we feel empowered, we become more calm and capable of clear thinking.
No matter which mindset hack you decide to experiment with, I want to leave you with one final thought: feelings and thoughts are mere data, and it's up to us to decide what we do with that data.
So go forth, my serene friend, and embark on your tranquil adventure. May these mindset hacks lead you to the serene oasis of your dreams.
Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2019). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, & worry. Echo Point Books & Media.