Where was my head?

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After a couple of remarkably chaotic days, with people in both my professional and personal life acting in uncharacteristically impulsive ways, I felt compelled to talk a bit about our brains. We’ve allsaid and done things in moments of anger or fear and later asked ourselves, “What was I thinking?” or “where was my head?” Most of us have also seen others act in ways that make us question, “Is he out of his mind?” or say, “she just wasn’t herself.” Well, the reality is, in times like these we ARE out of our minds, we HAVE lost our heads, we AREN’T thinking, and we’re NOT ourselves.

Our brains are kind of like apples – there’s the stem, the core, and the fruit. The stem of our brain is responsible for our autonomic functioning, controlling things like heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. The core is known as the limbic system. This part of our brain governs our emotions and our survival mechanisms such as fight, flight, and freeze. The fruity, meaty part of our brain is the cortex. This is the stuff that makes us who we are; the part of the brain that we have come to think of as the “mind.” It is the part of our brain responsible for conscious, complex reasoning, creativity, and logic. It is where our personality, our adult ego, resides. When we are thinking clearly, and aren’t in the grip of our emotions, our cortex allows us to make clear-minded, rational decisions that take the big picture into account. But when we’re emotionally charged ..watch out – blood gets shunted away from our cerebral cortex into the middle of our brains, the limbic system, and our capacity for rational decision making is impaired. When our brain core is activated, the limbic system sends an alarm signal to our bodies, and our primitive survival responses take over. At that point, we become like cave-people. On some basic, rudimentary level, we perceive what is outside of us as a threat to our very existence, and all we can think of is how to get out of danger. We respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing in place in an attempt to get to safety. These fight and flight responses usually guide us to hide, escape, attack, or stay in limbo, in order to keep ourselves feeling safe, but almost always, they actually serve to cause more damage than good. We do damage because when we’re in this emotional state, we are not considering the impact of our actions on our relationships or situations. We are not considering anything at all, really, we’re only trying to come out alive. Later, when we feel safe again, we come back to ourselves, the cortex takes over again, and we wonder why we did and said the things we did.

There is so much that I can, and will, say about this phenomenon in future blogs and podcasts. Luckily, there are some ways to help yourself get back into your conscious, logical self when your emotional core starts to take over. For now, just wanted to shed a little light on the fact that when you look back at a time you acted out of anger or fear and asked yourself, “Was I out of my mind?” the answer is yes, you probably were.

By Dr. Marla Cohen 01/09/2007 07:36 AM

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