Brain Basics

jesse-orrico-60373-unsplashThe last few years I’ve come across some pretty basic information that never crossed my path before. Maybe I just missed it somehow and everyone else already knows it, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I started coming across this concept over and over as I studied different aspects of psychology. I found it in the nutrition field, ADHD and mental health studies…it was everywhere. It affects everything we do! It’s so basic and so important, I feel like we should be teaching it to elementary students. I’ve even been teaching my four-year-old! So without further ado, here it is.

Your brain’s very most important job is to keep you alive. Of course, that’s a useful thing for it to do! But it can actually cause us problems if we aren’t paying attention and thoughtfully managing our brain. That’s because of how it goes about doing that job. Its method is three-pronged.

First, it tries to avoid pain. It is trying to keep you from being eaten by a tiger or hit by a car-and that is fantastic! As it looks for danger around you, it’s primed to notice things it doesn’t like. The thing is, many of the things my brain doesn’t like aren’t actually dangerous for me. Like dirty dishes and difficult conversations and cranky family members! Those things are actually really important to give my attention to, so I need to manage my brain and overcome its natural tendency to avoid them. What does your brain notice that you don’t like that you really shouldn’t be avoiding? 

The second way your brain keeps you alive is to seek pleasure. In fact, it wants everything in your life to be fun and exciting. Sounds great, right? It is! It’s why we do important things for human survival, like eating and sex. But just like pain avoidance, it isn’t always useful or in our best interest. The way this works is through the chemical dopamine. When our brain finds something pleasurable, it releases dopamine, which feels amazing and tells our brain, “Do more of that! It’s very important to your survival! You’ll die without it.” This is why our brains love concentrated substances like flour, sugar and fat (think pizza and ice cream!). They are engineered to release massive amounts of dopamine. No one overeats on broccoli and spinach, right? It’s that dopamine telling your brain “more, More, MORE!” It’s why video games, social media and pornography are so addictive as well. You can see how always seeking pleasure, while avoiding pain *might* start to cause problems. What can your brain never get enough of? What will you do to set limits for yourself?

The third prong is that your brain wants to save energy. It is extremely efficient and wants to keep doing what you are already good at because forging new neural pathways is very energy consuming. That’s why large tasks can feel overwhelming and trying new things can feel terrifying. Your brain is just trying to help you succeed by never failing. In the world we inhabit now though, if we never go out on a limb and try something new and hard, we decrease our chances for success. The world around us is constantly changing and if we don’t get out of our safe caves, we won’t be able to experience our best lives! In what way would you like to grow that you’ve been putting off or thinking was impossible? What is the first step you could take today to get that ball rolling? What is something you can do today to step outside of your comfort zone?

So how do you know when to avoid pain and when to embrace it, when to seek pleasure and when to regulate it, when to save energy and when to go get em??

I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these simple questions:

Is this useful?

Is it helping me grow into the best version of myself?

I’ve decided that for me, the answer to these questions in regards to dealing with difficult people (pain) is yes. Human relationships are something worthwhile that aren’t to be avoided, even when they aren’t naturally smooth and easy.

The answer to these questions when it comes to Netflix binges (pleasure), for me, is no. It’s not useful or helping me become my best self. In this case, I set limits for myself so that this pleasure doesn’t start to interfere with my personal goals.

And while it would be SO comfortable to keep doing the same thing I’ve done for 13 years as a stay at home mom (save energy-it’s not an easy job, but at least it’s what I know!), I decided to step WAY out of my comfort zone and take what I’ve learned to a whole new level. I’ve been certified as a life coach at The Life Coach School so that I can share these tools with other moms struggling with a child’s mood disorder. So exciting! And scary. But definitely useful and definitely growth-centered.

What information from your brain will you keep today? Where will you decide to override your instincts?

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