In our previous three blogs we looked at the three parts of the human brain:
1. The Amygdala, or reptilian part of the brain, the part of the brain that keeps us safe and alive,
2. The Paleomammalian Brain, or the Limbic System, that allows us to feel emotions, and
3. The Neomammalian Brain, or the Neo-Cortex, that allows us to reason, plan, and worry.
In this final blog, we will begin to answer the “So what?” question. Why should we care? How does know about these various parts of the brain help us deal with difficult decisions and powerful impulses?
Again, please remember that this is a hopefully helpful oversimplification of a very complex and only recently understood way of looking at what it means to be human.
Okay. So, what’s a person to do when faced with an overwhelming urge or temptation? First, recognize that your body and your brain are complex chemical factories. Neural pathways have developed over time to transmit these chemicals to various places in the brain and body and, once they arrive at their destination, they produce actions. This is neither “bad” nor “good.” It is just is.
Second, recognize that these pathways can be changed over time. This is why “task oriented” recovery therapy has been shown to work. It literally reroutes the unhealthy pathways into new and more adaptive thoughts and behaviors.
Third, learn the signs of neural hijacking so you can at least realize when you are being taken for a ride.
• Increased pulse
• Hyper-focus on your desired object
• An awareness of that still, small voice that says: “This is not right. You can do better.”
• Awareness that you are acting out your particular ritual
• Some people get an “adrenaline chill” and feel cold when they are being hijacked
• Remorse and shame after acting out
Fourth, if you find yourself getting hijacked, call your sponsor and have him or her assist you in identifying the cycle and disrupting the ritual. Disrupting the ritual gives your cortex a chance to get a word in edgewise. The hormones start to dissipate and your rational brain slowly regains control. Sometimes regaining control is as simple as that.
Fifth, expect the addiction to talk back to you. It will bring back all the excuses, rationales, and justifications it has used in the past. “I deserve this.” “I’ve been so good so long.” “Everyone is doing it.” “It won’t hurt just this once.” etc. Learn to laugh at those lies and learn to talk back to your addiction.
Sixth, replace your current routines (which are likely full of triggers to act out and easy access to rituals) with new routines. Go to Twelve-Step Meetings, take up a charitable cause, take a class, get some exercise, do something different that decreases the down time and replaces it with something rewarding and positive.
Seventh, if you haven’t had a physical exam by an M.D. in a while, go get one. Be honest with your doctor about any physical symptoms you may have been having. Hormone imbalances and/or drug interactions can wreak havoc in your brain. An honest, thorough exam can’t hurt and it may help a lot.
Finally, be aware of the famous H.A..L.T. acronym. If you find yourself Hungry, Angry (or Anxious), Lonely, or Tired you are in the danger zone for getting hijacked. Those are the emotional places where hijackers live. Practice self-care and learn ways to avoid those HALT neighborhoods. I actually prefer the acronym TABLE (Tired, Angry/Anxious, Bored, Lonely, Entitled) because when we are experiencing any of these emotions the “table has been set” before us and we naturally expect a feast to follow. We’ve been set up to indulge our appetite.
These blogs are only information: teaching, not preaching. Knowing about the nature of the brain will not, in and of itself, change how a person chooses to act. That is a decision based in the human will, the human soul, or whatever language a person may choose to describe who the “my” in the phrase “my brain” is. Humans are more than a mass of cells and chemical processes.
It is important to live in that tension: where does what we call the “brain” leave off and the “mind” (or soul, or spirit, or will) begin, and vice versa. These are difficult questions and very clever people have wrestled with them for millennia. We will not solve them today. But it is still important for us to confront them thoughtfully. This short paper may serve as a jumping off point on your own journey.
And let it be a journey, not just an interesting fact you throw in your drawer. Put it in your luggage and, whenever you find yourself going to new place, take it out and look at it. I promise you will see it, and yourself, in a new way.