No matter what’s going on in your head, there’s a part of you that is separate from it. There is a part of you that is able to step back and observe what your mind is doing. Some people call this observation capability “self-awareness,” “higher self” or “innate wisdom.” I call it “inserting my frontal lobe.”
However you refer to it, this observing self is the power you have to guide your mind to help calm your brain and body.
How Your Amygdala Hijacks Your Mind
Your amygdalae are small almond-shaped masses (there are actually two of them) located deep within the temporal lobes of your brain. They are part of the brain’s ancient limbic system primarily responsible for processing memory, decision-making, motivation, and emotional reactions. Most importantly, your amygdalae control those bodily instincts related to survival. They’re to blame and thank for our primal emotions, such as fear, anger, and pleasure.
Your amygdala acts as your brain’s threat radar and alarm. It was very useful when our ancestors hunted for food –- or were hunted for food. When the amygdala sounds the alarm, your body reacts with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing your body to fight or flee. This gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage
When the brain kicks into reactive mode, your amygdala hijacks your brain and takes over. Most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to making sure you survive. Your thinking, rational brain shuts down. Even though you no longer run into hungry tigers on a regular basis, your amygdala activates today when you encounter an angry partner, unhappy boss, or rude driver.
Don’t let Your Amygdala Run Your Life
Research shows that the amygdala plays a crucial role in the formation and storage of emotional memories, resulting in what’s called “emotional learning.” While both positive and negative emotional memory storage is facilitated by the amygdala, studies confirm that it pays special attention to threats, which results in “fear conditioning.” This results in you acting according to what your amygdala has learned to fear.
Your amygdala subconsciously influences your behavior and decisions today based on past emotional learning. If emotional memories trigger your amygdala and your logical brain goes offline, your choices at that point become fear based and reactionary – not calm, logical, and goal oriented.
When your amygdala is running the show, your mind may race with anxious thoughts. and your body reacts by staying in a chronic state of stress on high alert. You may find yourself in a non-stop loop of painful memories contributing to depression. You can end up going through life trying to avoid what your amygdala remembers as ”bad” instead of taking steps towards happiness and living the life you want.
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What Is Your Observing Self?
Your observing self-has the power to take control of your brain back from the amygdala. In your brain, this observing self is really just your focused attention. It’s not thought or feeling. It’s activating frontal lobe awareness.
You have to interrupt the current brain state by activating different neural networks in your brain. You do this by consciously shifting your attention to an observing self. When you actively focus your attention on something besides the thoughts in your head, your brain’s task-positive network (TPN) gets activated. The TPN is made up of the lateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and somatosensory cortex. The TPN is engaged when you’re focused on the present experience, which is mindfulness. Stimulating the TPN calms other activity in your brain.
“You” are a combination of the thinking self, physical self, and observing self. Your observing self is always with you and available to you. It’s just usually obscured by a constant flow of thoughts. There are times when you want your thinking self or physical self to be in charge, but not all the time.
In his book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris had this to say about qualities of the observing-self:
The Observing Self is the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention. We don’t have a word for it in common everyday language – we normally just talk about the ‘mind’. But there are two parts to the mind: the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. Without it, you couldn’t develop those mindfulness skills. And the more you practice those mindfulness skills, the more you’ll become aware of this part of your mind, and able to access it when you need it.
How to Activate Your Observing Self
In his book, Harris explains that to activate your observing self all you have to do is close your eyes and watch your thoughts — with passive, non-judgemental awareness. Some other ways to “notice yourself noticing” as Russ calls it are:
Close your eyes and note all the different sounds you can hear. Now, do it again and be aware of your noticing.
Look around and notice what you can see. Now do it with an awareness of doing it.
Notice the physical sensations of your body. Feel your feet on the floor and your clothes touching your skin. Now, become aware of you being aware of these things.
Sniff the air and note any distinct smells you can smell or the physical sensation of the air going in and out of your nostrils. Now, do it again with a conscious awareness of the act
Notice what you taste in your mouth or the position and feeling of your tongue against your teeth. Do it again with awareness of you’re doing it.
Wiggle your fingers and notice how it feels to move them. Now do it again, noticing that you are doing it.
Scan your body and focus on any feeling or sensation that you detect. Focus on it. Now, observe that you are focusing on it.
Take three slow deep breaths and concentrate your attention on your breathing. Now, do it with the awareness that you’re doing it.
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