Did you know that we have ‘two’ brains? We may have one structurally, but cognitively, we have two. There’s the “thinking” brain and the “non-thinking” brain. Our brains are wired to worry first and think second.
New York University (NYU) brain scientist, Joseph LeDoux, sums it up nicely: “connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive (thinking) systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”
The system that Dr. LeDoux is talking about is the limbic system, which is a set of structures deep within the breath that evokes the emotional response. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, is the oldest within the brain.
The thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the newest. This helps explain why, though we’re intelligent creatures, we sometimes make dumb decisions. Maybe we’ll buy something on “sale” out of fear the sale will expire, or we’ll reach for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s though we need to “weigh-in” the morning after.
The worrying brain will overrule the thinking brain every time if we don’t know to override it.
And make no mistake, it is essential to know how to overrule the worrying brain.
We’re overwhelmed by stimulation because of the fast-paced, 24/7, “always-on” society designed for us. Whether positive or negative, stimulation activates the brain’s fight-or-flight (FoF) response.
Overstimulation plus overwhelm equals bad decisions. Remember this formula: (Os + Ow = Bd).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 18 percent of American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, characterized as excessive worry or tension that often leads to other physical symptoms. ~ California Institute of Technology
Overriding the Limbic System
Suppose you could see inside your brain when your eyes meet some object of your delight (shoes, clothes, a handsome man, a beautiful woman). In that case, you’d see a massive amount of electrical activity firing from the limbic system to your cortex.
Your emotional brain is telling your thinking brain what to do.
There’s some good (excellent!) news and some bad news. The good news is that you can override your limbic system’s tendency to let emotions control your life. The bad news is that it takes time and effort.
But if you’re willing to invest that time and effort, you’ll reap some incredible rewards.
As an incentive, please take out a piece of paper and pen (I’ll do the same, I promise!)
Now, write down three benefits you can think of if emotions didn’t control your life. Take two to three minutes. Please don’t move on until you’ve written down these three benefits – it’s essential to the rest of this article.
For example, you could jot down these desired outcomes:
- Be less stressed
- Save more money
- Be more productive
Keep this list somewhere you can see it! It’ll serve as a great motivator when things get tough.
How To Stop Worrying So Much
Our goal is to reverse the brain’s default pathway from the limbic system to the cortex. To get your brain’s cortex telling the limbic system what to do!
We’re going to discuss five steps that will help you control the worrying brain if studied and regularly practiced. It helps to keep a journal, as these steps require delving into your thoughts. Writing your thoughts on paper will do two things: (1) help you remember the five steps, and (2) provide context to fleeting thoughts.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., and Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gives us a “five-step playbook” for successfully overriding the limbic system:
1. Examine your irrational beliefs.
We often have illogical beliefs that lead us to see threats where no threat exists. These beliefs involve our need to live up to life’s “musts.” Find a more realistic balance between your ideal and your actual self, and your worries will retreat.
2. Learn how to talk your way through your feelings.
In cognitive-behavioral therapy, clients learn to counter their illogical thoughts with more clear-headed evaluation. Much of this process involves substituting people’s negative ways with more neutral or positive thoughts.
3. Set your feelings aside when you make crucial decisions.
Emotional arguments easily sway us. Trial lawyers do a successful business out of appealing to jurors’ emotions, hoping they will let their sympathy for the victim outweigh their judgments about legal liability. No human will ever be utterly dispassionate in such situations, but the more you can separate logic from emotion, the more likely you’ll make fair and reasoned choices.
4. Get support from someone who can help you.
Our emotions react quickly and forcefully to specific experiences, and try as we might, we can’t rein in those feelings. This is why sponsors are so crucial to programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. That other person can serve as your “cortex” when your own is heavily influenced by an addiction that is ruling your limbic system.
5. Build confidence in your self-control.
According to the notion of self-efficacy, people can gain control over their problematic behaviors when they see themselves as able to exert that control. As you gain strength from good decisions, from conquering your worries or controlling your impulses, you gradually find that those impulses and fears dominate you less and less.
How to Stop Worrying So Much
Now that you recognize these traits, how do you fix this issue? Take a look at these tips.
1. Only focus on the things you can control.
Many of our problems in life stem from our attitudes about situations rather than reality itself. The more we try to control other people or events, the less happy we will feel. So, it’s crucial for your mental health to only focus on managing your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.
After all, there’s nothing else in this world that you have power over but yourself. Try the best you can and leave the rest up to fate, karma, or whatever you want.
There’s only so much we can do in this lifetime. You have done your part as long as you’re a kind-hearted person who treats yourself and others with compassion.
2. Simplify your life to avoid worrying.
Minimalism has become very popular these days because it makes life more simple and saves money in the long run. Accumulating material things doesn’t make much sense anyway because we can’t take them. Advertisements appeal to our emotions and make us believe we need the latest gadget, food, or beauty product to feel special.
However, once you buy something, you still don’t feel satisfied. That’s because nothing outside ourselves can ever make us feel complete.
So, more people have turned to minimalism to reduce expenses, worries, and complexities of life. Remember, we’re spiritual beings having a human experience, so material items can never bring lasting fulfillment. Only realizing your true nature can, and that’s discovered within yourself.
3. Help others.
Worrying tends to dissipate when we focus more on others instead of ourselves. Studies show that people who volunteer, for instance, have greater satisfaction and well-being. The study examined data from nearly 70,000 UK participants who answered surveys about their volunteering habits and well-being. They filled out surveys every two years from 1996 to 2014.
Compared to those who didn’t volunteer, people who had volunteered within the past year had improved mental health. The effect was especially pronounced for people who frequently volunteered (at least once per month).
We’re all in this together, and miracles happen when we break down the walls we’ve built and reconnect. We remember that we’re all humans just trying to understand life, and we get farther by helping each other.