“Psychotherapy is a private, confidential conversation that has nothing to do with illness, medicine, or healing.” — Thomas Szasz
This is not another article about gratitude lists, identifying your “type,” or finding the silver lining. If you are looking for simplistic advice that sounds good but works about as well as a band-aid on a bullet hole, you won’t find it here.
However, if you’re interested in learning a sustainable, science-based approach to overcoming your brain’s natural tendency to get caught in a vortex of negative emotions and thoughts, please read on.
A Little Background
(Feel free to skip this part if you want to get to the point)
Full disclosure: I am not a doctor. If anything, I’m a patient. As a lifelong introvert with a robust portfolio of personal issues and a multi-generational family history of depression and anxiety, I’ve been searching for ways to manage my emotions for the last 20+ years. To avoid boring anyone with a laundry list of experiences, let me just over-generalize and say that I’ve read and tried every expert-recommended approach. Most of it doesn’t work, and some of it is actively harmful. I suspect that this is because the vast majority of self-help books are simply the opinion of the author, along with cherry-picked research results to bolster their claims. There are, of course, a few exceptions, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
While I represent a sample size of one, I agree with Tim Ferriss that there is value in empirical observation and self-experimentation. Although, as with dieting, what works for one person may not work for another, our brains and our bodies have more in common than we sometimes believe. With that said, I present the following as my own home-brew synthesis of what I’ve found to be the most effective, science-based, research-supported strategies for overcoming difficult emotions and negative thoughts.
How To Control Your Brain
Why Most Advice Doesn’t Work
Most well-meaning advice on “how to be happy” or “change your mood” fails for one simple reason: when the brain is generating negative thoughts and feelings, it is physically incapable of generating positive ones. You can’t just slam the gears from reverse into forward. No matter how much you want it to work, it will only create noise and fight you. Just like driving a car, you have to hit the brakes and park the brain first. Then, you can shift gears. But, in order to do that, you have to understand two things:
- Why your brain generates negative thoughts and feelings.
- How to stop it.
Survival Brain vs. Smart Brain
Although we think of our brain as being one organ, it is actually constructed in layers. The outer layers — particularly the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex — form the “Smart Brain.” This is where happiness, love, empathy, joy, creativity, and other positive, advanced functions are generated. The Smart Brain is our default brain. This is what is supposed to be in charge of our minds.
Hidden under the Smart Brain, the deepest, most ancient structures in our nervous system — particularly the brainstem and limbic system — form the “Survival Brain.” The function of the Survival Brain is to keep the organism alive, and it has the power to switch off the Smart Brain and take over, whenever it senses a threat. This is why fear holds us back: in the presence of a stressor, the brain diverts resources away from anything not directly responsible for survival. In other words, we are physically incapable of creativity or joy when we are experiencing fear or stress.
Here’s how it works:
To the Survival Brain, any unmet need is a threat. This is why our Survival Brains take over so often, even in the absence of anything that would normally be thought of as a threat to our physical survival. We are complex beings, with complex needs, and to the Survival Brain, any perceived grievance is justification to seize the controls of our psyche from our Smart Brain. Just as physical pain forcibly draws our attention to physical needs, emotional pain forcibly draws our attention to emotional needs. The logical course of action is not to numb the pain or ignore it, the answer is to figure out what’s causing it, and resolve it.
Now, needs can be thought of in different ways, but Maslow’s Hierarchy is an easy way to categorize them.
- Security — Needs for physical health and safety, financial stability.
- Connection — Needs for acceptance, attention, and affection.
- Significance — Needs for respect, influence, and importance.
- Growth — Needs for creativity, personal development, and enjoyment.
Some unmet needs are obvious: if you see a car running a red light and heading for you, your need for Security is going to be triggered in a big way. Other unmet needs are more subtle. For example, if you have a big bill and aren’t sure how to pay it, that will also trigger your need for Security, even though the threat isn’t right in front of you. Moving to a new city will trigger your need for Connection. Working at a job you don’t like will trigger your needs for Significance and Growth.
Regardless of what triggers the Survival Brain, it will respond the same way. First, it Freezes (think of a deer caught in headlights). The brain does this long enough to decide whether to:
- Fight (think of a cat who doesn’t want to be picked up);
- Flee (think of a squirrel vanishing into a tree at the sound of a footstep); or
- Submit (think of a dog meekly allowing its owner to scold it).
It is vital to understand that all of our negative thoughts and feelings are generated by the primitive instincts of the Survival Brain. Like a barking dog, it does not do this to make us miserable, but rather to let us know that something is wrong.
- Fight Instinct = Thoughts that are critical, angry, or dominant.
- Flee Instinct = Thoughts of escape, avoidance, or procrastination.
- Submit Instinct = Thoughts that are hopeless, helpless, or frozen.
It is equally vital to understand that once the Survival Brain is activated, it will keep generating negative thoughts and feelings until it believes that all needs have been met. This is why most conventional psychotherapy doesn’t do much. Even if it helps you understand the unmet needs, it doesn’t switch off your Survival Brain. (To be fair, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — CBT — does help patients identify ways their “automatic thoughts” are being distorted by the Survival Brain, but the process is difficult to follow when the Survival Brain is engaged, which is exactly when it’s most needed, and it also assumes that the Survival Brain is irrational, which it often isn’t.)
To give the Survival Brain credit, it doesn’t judge the relative importance of your needs the way you do. Needing a hug may not seem valid to you, but to your Survival Brain, the need for Connection is a 100% priority. While YOU might be dismissive of your needs for sleep, love, creativity, stability, nutrition, or relaxation, your Survival Brain is going to activate, and stay activated, until you either give it what it wants (which, inconveniently, is far more difficult to do without being able to use the Smart Brain) or shut it off.
Switch Off The Survival Brain
Because the Survival Brain takes over from the Smart Brain when it perceives an unmet need, and because the Survival Brain is physically incapable of generating positive thoughts and feelings, the only way to feel better is to switch off the Survival Brain, and switch on the Smart Brain. The only way to do this is to short-circuit the Survival Brain by consciously shifting your attention away from your thoughts.
If this sounds like mindfulness meditation, you’re right. But, in this case, the goal is not to meditate, it is simply to divert resources from the Survival Brain. Remember: the Survival Brain has taken over; it’s in charge of your mind, and it’s taken the Smart Brain off-line. You can’t fight it, so in true Zen fashion, the only way to defeat it is to withdraw from it.
Bad feelings live in bad thoughts. This is the fundamental principle of cognitive therapy, and it’s right as far as it goes. However, while CBT attempts to overcome bad thoughts with good thoughts, neuroscience indicates that any energy you pour into your brain while the Survival Brain is in charge will be used by the Survival Brain. You simply cannot “muscle” the Survival Brain out of the driver’s seat. You have to starve it out by withholding mental energy.
If that sounds too mystical, please remember that we actually have a very prosaic name for mental energy: we call it “attention.” Indeed, we refer to “paying attention” because it is vital and precious. It is also the most powerful weapon we have in the fight to control our own minds. When the Survival Brain is in charge, we must pay attention to something else. Researchers have concluded that the most effective “something else” is bodily sensation. The sensation of your breathing, your heartbeat, the feeling of your fingertips touching each other, the sight of clouds in the sky … You have five senses. Pick one, and make it your universe until your Survival Brain relinquishes control to your Smart Brain.
This can be difficult to describe, but if you’ve ever been aware of an undesirable circumstance in your life, without being upset about it, then you’ve experienced a taste of what it’s like with the Smart Brain is in charge, rather than the Survival Brain. It’s MUCH easier to figure out how to meet your needs when you can use the more developed parts of your brain to tackle the problem.
With that said, here is the three-step process I’ve developed for myself. This summarizes countless hours of reading, research and experimentation. While nothing is foolproof and 100% effective, I have found this to be far simpler and more effective than any other single approach.
- Catch. You have to catch the Survival Brain in action. When you don’t like the way you feel, ask yourself, are you in Fight, Flee, or Submit mode? Every negative thought and feeling can be traced to a primitive function of the Survival Brain. Remind yourself that your Survival Brain has taken over from the Smart Brain, and is bathing your brain in survival hormones. Consciously become aware that this is happening.
- Identify. The Survival Brain activates in response to an unmet need. Are you upset about something associated with Security, Connection, Significance or Growth? Identify the grievance that triggered the Survival Brain and name it. “My credit card bill triggered my Survival Brain’s need for security.” “That conversation with my mother triggered my Survival Brain’s need for significance.” “Working non-stop this past week triggered my Survival Brain’s need for enjoyment.”
- Divert. In order to switch off the Survival Brain, you need to divert energy from it. You need to interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings by focusing on a physical sensation. Pick something, and focus all your attention on it. Make it your universe. Shirzad Chamine, author of “Positive Intelligence” (and to whom I am indebted for the idea of focusing on a physical sensation in order to short-circuit the Survival Brain), has a couple of free audio tracks on his website that can help you with this.
Consider your Survival Brain’s grievance again. Consciously think about alternate solutions, opportunities or perspectives. Is there another point of view? Is there room for compassion? What could make the situation better or more manageable? If your Survival Brain re-engages, repeat steps 1–3.
Let’s be honest: if it were as easy as staring out the window for a moment, nobody would be struggling with emotional challenges. Unfortunately, Survival Brain activity isn’t just synaptic connections, it’s also physiological: the Survival Brain uses hormones to make you pay attention to its grievances about your unmet needs. When your brain is bathed in survival hormones, it takes at least 20 minutes for them to metabolize. This means that it takes some sustained effort to withhold attention from it.
As an added challenge, since most of the higher brain functions — like rationality and compassion — are governed by the Smart Brain, any process for switching off the Survival Brain has to be practiced often enough to be AUTOMATIC. If you’re very upset — particularly if you’re angry — you won’t be capable of following even the simple “Catch, Identify, Divert” process I’ve described here, unless you’ve practiced it enough to make it a reflexive habit (read my article on that topic here).
However, this is NOT a pass/fail proposition. Each time you divert energy from your Survival Brain by shifting your attention away from it, you weaken its grip on the controls of your mind. Shirzad Chamine recommends focusing on a bodily sensation for 10 seconds at a time, every few minutes. This can be as simple as really tasting that sip of tea, or consciously trying to move each of your toes without looking at them. The more you practice shifting your attention, the easier it will be to do it when you need to kick your Survival Brain out of the driver’s seat.
Shifting your attention is good by itself, but when preceded by recognition of your unmet needs and instinctive impulses, it’s even better. Remember: the Survival Brain is simple. It wants you to Fight, Flee or Submit. Figure out what it’s trying to make you do, and why, and you’ll have a much easier time getting the Smart Brain back behind the wheel.