The Brain Science of Stillness in the Midst of Chaos

By Audrey Seymour

These are definitely trying times – I know for myself, each time I think the political and global situation can’t get any worse, it does. It’s very easy and natural to feel reactive in response!

Yet, if we allow ourselves to get thrown into reactivity, we cut ourselves off from the very resources we need to respond with what will best address these mounting challenges.

Taking the time to remember how the brain works makes this territory much easier to navigate.

When we are in reactivity, we have downshifted to our reptilian brain which provides our instinctual responses to ensure survival.  What gets lost is the relational aspect of the mammalian brain and the conscious thought and self-awareness of our neocortex.

For example, getting into a heated argument with someone who holds an opposing point of view will amplify reactivity and increase the polarization. Making someone wrong will also throw them into their unresourced reactive brain. Rather than convincing someone of your point of view, arguing will have the opposite effect because their reactive brain will see you as a threat.

What’s needed in times like this is to upshift back into the resource-rich mammalian brain and neocortex. To quote neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher Rick Hanson from his brilliant new book Resilient, we need to use tools to shift from the “red zone” into the “green zone.”

You’re probably familiar with most if not all of these tools; the trick is remembering to use them when you most need them!

Here are a few of the most effective upshifting tools:

  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system with belly breathing, and extend the exhale to be twice as long as the inhale.
  • Tune into the parts of your body that are feeling strong and resourced. If emotions are running high, your arms and legs can be a safe haven as they don’t generally carry an emotional charge unless you have an injury.
  • Bring your discerning neocortex back online by tuning into your environment, and naming the objects, shapes and colors that you see such as “triangular green tree” or “brown rectangular desktop.”
  • Gather a collection of soothing imagery that you can bring to mind to quiet your nervous system when needed. Scenes of moving water are very effective, such as waves on a beach or a flowing waterfall.
  • When talking with someone with whom you disagree, bring both of you into the mammalian brain by focusing your awareness on the relationship between the two of you and what you have in common. Remember to acknowledge something positive about them so that their reptile brain will perceive you as a reward rather than a threat.

What are your favorite resourcing tools, and which ones will you keep on hand for challenging times?