Change Your Mind; and Future
You can change the way your mind works; you can take charge of your future.
You can literally start re-wiring your mind today. You can make those first steps towards making more positive and healthy choices for yourself. You can lay the foundations to becoming happier, more well-balanced and more successful. But how?
How the Mind Works
The Freudian model of how the mind works will be familiar. You have a conscious mind and a subconscious. Your pre-frontal cortex is the part that interacts with the world and others and enables you to be conscious of your interactions with others. Your pre-frontal cortex helps you plan forward, analyse what worked and what didn’t and adjust your plans going forward. If we are so clever as a species, why do we sometimes get anxious, depressed and unable to function?
Your subconscious is a huge resource that provides you with sufficient wisdom and resourcefulness to enable you to be able to cope with much of life instinctively. When it works for you, life is easier because you don’t have to overthink, you don’t get anxious and you don’t get depressed.
The brain is a complex organ however. Your conscious thoughts dictate much of your present and your future, and how you manage your past. However, your subconscious mind has a primitive part called the amygdala which can scupper your best laid plans.
The amygdala - the flight, flight, depression part of the primitive mind - is essential when we are in real danger and have to act by instinct to survive. If you saw a sabre-toothed tiger appear in your garden, your primitive mind would respond by fleeing. You wouldn't even stop to think, "Didn't sabre-toothed tigers die out of 10,000 years ago?'. Like our ancestors, your fight, flight or freeze response would kick in.
However, that same fight, flight, freeze response isn’t so helpful when you have an argument with your partner, find out you are overdrawn or are made redundant. Yet you may react to these situations with the same panic as if you were really under physical threat.
You know you shouldn’t. You wish you wouldn’t. But you can’t seem to help it.
The good news is you can help it. You can literally change your mind… with a little help. There are many ways to do this. Hypnotherapy and Neuro Linguistic Programming are two very effective therapeutic approaches that can help you literally change the way your subconscious mind works. Using hypnotic language, metaphor, trance states and sometimes simply asking you to describe different outcomes, can change your mind – and ultimately your life – surprisingly quickly.
When the mind is working successfully it can assess situations, and find solutions. Your intellectual part of the mind will dominate your conscious awareness. Your R.E.M sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) usually helps you find solutions to problems you experienced during the day. You may have experienced going to bed at night feeling confused or concerned, and waking up in the morning with the ‘answer’. That’s your subconscious mind working for you.
The development of the intellectual part came about as part of a ‘genetic accident’, and enabled human beings to imagine the future. This evolutionary development enables you to be inventive and innovative, to solve problems and to imagine your future. We developed the ability to learn consciously, using our intellect, drawing from our experience and imagining outcomes. You know how to reflect back, learn and improve your plans and lives on a continuous basis. That pretty extraordinary, but it’s an ability you may be taking for granted. That’s because it can be derailed by anxiety, trauma, depression and irrational fears.
Although our intellectual brains continued to develop, our original, instinctive part remained just as active. The limbic system, headed up by the amygdala, is responsible for our most basic survival. We still need it although most of us don’t live in the dark and dangerous days where we faced constant danger; although those who have lived through war, famine or gang violence are still facing very real threats of course. Vigilance and physical strength are needed when danger is visceral and ever-present.
Most of us are lucky to live in a stable society where we are not at threat of violence, famine or other uncertain events. Threats to our survival and our sense of self are still ever present, but they are much more subtle.
Our imagination and day-dreaming – our ability to think about the future – can also create and embed fears, and these may dominate our waking hours. The limbic system becomes increasingly sensitive to our negative thoughts and anxieties. Our amygdala starts to scupper our intellectual minds and we don’t think clearly or rationally.
You can’t control your primitive mind through willpower. You have to re-programme your subconscious so that it becomes a resource that helps, rather than hinders, you.
The amygdala is located in the lower frontal areas of the temporal lobes. If you place a finger on each of your temples, you can visualise the amygdala situation about 1.5 inches into the brain. When incoming sensory information passes through the amygdala and triggers some sense of imminent danger, the amygdala sends signals to other parts of the primitive mind. Just as it does in other animals, the hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, parenting instincts and attachment behaviours, sleep, fatigue and thirst. These are not things we generally think about; they just happen. The hippocampus, also part of the limbic system, is associated with memory, emotions, and motivation. It will store all those inappropriate responses so you recall them whenever the you are triggered by anything from spiders to the boss.
We are always looking for patterns. The intellectual part of the mind may always look to improve and plan forward but our limbic system is always on the alert for potential threats. Incoming information through all our various senses may trigger our embedded fears, our survival strategies that were once useful, but no longer are. You may have a few seconds to decide if your life is under threat, or not. Your response is instinctive. For some, a door suddenly opening or a car alarm trigger our internal panic buttons. Some deep primitive part of us is still on the alert for predators and threats.
I like to imagine my amygdala as a very small vibrating part; the hypothalamus as a tiny machine regulating the chemical responses in my body, and the hippocampus as a filing cabinet full of files storing all my bad memories and fears. This helps me create a way of instantly calming my system. If something triggers irrational fear, I imagine wrapping my amygdala in insulating cotton wool to dampen the vibration, filling my hypothalamus with calming gel to soothe my chemical responses, and I imagine the unwanted files in my filing cabinet stacking up and dissolving to clear out my bad memories.
This works for me, because our subconscious minds can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. We can all change the programmes we run to create anxieties, phobias, fears and anger using creativity and imagination. The best thing, is that such change requires no conscious effort.
Any negative experience can create sensory, negative responses which can be passed on to, and stored, in our primitive minds. Traumatic events, particularly if they are repeated, create such strong emotional reactions that the limbic system retains the memory and the pattern for recalling it. The event and associated experiences feel life-threatening in some way. Now you have installed a programme which only needs the trigger to run. This happens at a subconscious level, and sometimes is metaphorical. Any recall or trigger of the experience creates an incomprehensible state of alarm. That’s what causes your fear, phobia or PTSD response.
Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event develops trauma. Your personality, early experiences and genetics all play a part. General ongoing stress, however, will leave you vulnerable to developing unhelpful fear responses.
When anxiety/stress levels rise, and that can happen over time so we barely notice it happening, the influence of the primitive mind increases. Put under enough stress, a person can become almost constantly fearful and panicky. The source of the stress might even be your imagination, or negative thought patterns. Paradoxically, in these circumstances your primitive mind no longer serves a useful purpose and only adds to the stress and confusion by constantly looking for the cause of the danger. So the fear and panic become further embedded.
Luckily there are many ways to reduce anxiety and to move memories locked into the emotional, primitive brain back in to the intellectual mind, where you can retain control. Neuro Linguistic Programming is one discipline that uses a whole series of tried and tested therapeutic techniques to address minor traumas, anxieties, phobias and negative beliefs. Hypnotherapy is part of the NLP arsenal of tools, along with the Rewind Technique, Time Line Therapy ™ and coaching techniques. There are also, as you know, pharmaceutical solutions and you may need to consult your doctor if your fears and anxieties are out of control.
Ultimately, the way most people change negative patterns that lead to stress, fear, anxiety and depression, is to reverse the process that caused them. Thinking positively can feel impossible but, over time, with support and the right interventions for you, you can reduce stress and anxiety and get back in control.
There are, of course, real situations that cause stress. We all know that death, divorce and moving house can be some of the most stressful events in our lives and I personally always seek support when going through a major transition in life to help me cope better with the inevitable stress and anxiety that will come. Being supported will help you cope better and get over things more quickly, and make sure there isn’t a lasting impact on your health.
What about bankruptcy, redundancy or a car accident? We wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t react to these life changing events at all. But to become clinically depressed, permanently anxious or fearful are not appropriate or helpful responses. But how often, in reality, is your stress and anxiety caused by the way you perceive life’s challenging events, rather than the reality?
Anxiety, usually the initial response to stress, is a natural consequence of living in the dangerous world inhabited by our ancestors. Depression was a response to the uncertainties of the food supply in a primitive world; hunkering down, withdrawing and using minimal energy was useful. In the modern world we have adapted these responses to stress from other sources. Losing our job may feel like we will never provide for our families. Getting divorced may be interpreted by your subconscious that you will never be loved. Being overdrawn may feel like you may starve. Some people are not able to adapt as the situation improves.
Before our initial and instinctive responses to these common set-backs sends us in to a spiral of despair, we need to change our perceptions and change our chemical and primitive responses.
Knowing that you can access a set of tools to change the way you think and feel, gives you hope you can change. And even the very act of hope can change your brain chemistry and your stress levels.
The more you understand how your mind works, the more you can learn to take charge of your future. First, reflect back on all your successes, your resourcefulness and ingenuity that got you where you are today. Then, forgive your primitive mind for doing what it has evolved to do, and find ways to help it help you.
The good news is you can keep changing your mind. Starting today.