How To Retrain Your Brain In Response To Crisis, From An Expert
Danger, whether real or perceived, sends our brains into fight-or-flight mode as a means of protection. With the world in a general state of unease, many people are experiencing that trigger response. But if our bodies aren't in any real or present danger, how can we control our fear?
We consulted psychotherapist and energy alignment coach Padma Ali, LMFT, who broke down our automatic response to fear and shared four practical ways to help retrain our brains in response to a crisis.
The brain in crisis.
The brain's main job is to keep us safe. It makes the heart beat, tells our bodies when to eat, and when faced with crisis, automatically goes into fight-or-flight response.
"If you've had any kind of panicked response to a crisis in the past—whether it was a flat tire, a lost wallet, or something more or less severe—your reaction is now presupposed onto this crisis," Ali told mbg.
Additionally, the way you perceive the world on a daily basis will affect how you respond to the current situation. "Do you generally view life as something that's happening to you," Ali asked. "Do you feel trapped and helpless? If so, that same reaction will occur now."
We have to become active participants in our own lives in order to change the way we view the world. But how can we do that?
How to retrain the brain:
Accept your feelings; don't fight them.
"When we feel something uncomfortable," she said, "we're so trained to numb those feelings." Whether it's watching TV, snacking, or scrolling through social media, we often use those mindless activities as a way to avoid our emotions.
"You can't change how you're feeling," Ali said, "but you can change how you choose to respond to those emotions." Dance in your living room, cook a nourishing meal, or go for a walk—all of these responses will lead to healthier habits.
Be loving and compassionate to yourself.
If you're frustrated with yourself for feeling anxious and overwhelmed, stop and remind yourself that it's OK. "We're dealing with unprecedented times," Ali said, "so whatever you're experiencing is normal."
Respond to yourself the way you might hug a dog or comfort a small child, she suggested. "Most of my clients say, 'I should have done this,' or 'I shouldn't have done that,'" Ali said. "We should all stop 'shoulding' ourselves."
Similar to acceptance, meditation is a way to sit with our discomfort. "Sitting with anxious and fearful thoughts helps to quiet them," she said.
Practicing meditation now makes it easier to take actions that will support you in the future, according to Ali. "If you sit with the hard emotions, they will pass through you," she said. And if you don't, they will likely reemerge in the form of bad behaviors.
"It's like whack-a-mole," Ali said, "the emotions never go away—they just show up in a different way."
Our breath is a free and beneficial resource that we all have access to. "It's an anchor that helps to ground you in the present moment," she said.
While there are a variety of different breathwork techniques, Ali's is simple:
- Find the point in your body where your pain or discomfort is manifesting. (tight chest, headache, stomach pain).
- Place your right palm on that part of the body.
- Breathe in and out. With every exhale, focus on releasing that discomfort.
This action can help to clear your mind and ground you in the present moment rather than allowing anxious feelings and "what-ifs" to overwhelm you.
The bottom line.
"The brain likes familiarity," Ali said. "It wants to know what's happening tomorrow, and the day after." With the global pandemic, certainty is not promised, so we have to learn to live in the present with the help of acceptance, compassion, meditation, and breathwork.
"Those self-care practices right now are nonnegotiable," Ali said. "They're not a luxury; they are a necessity. We have to take care of our minds and our bodies right now if we're going to get through this."
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.