Your Limbic System Needs Your Attention…Now
Consideration for the system in charge of our survival responses.
Your brain is a 3-lb powerhouse. During times of crisis, the deliberate use of this small, yet complex system is what will fortify your mind, sustain your health, and protect your well-being.
The limbic system is perhaps the most important part of ourselves to tend to in the midst of current world events. Located in the middle of the brain, the amygdala, hippocampus, mamillary bodies, hypothalamus, thalamus, and cingulate gyrus each make up the limbic system.
If you’re extra curious about how each of these complex structures link and support brain functionality, I encourage you to conduct further research on your own. However, the most important aspect to understand at this moment is the limbic system’s primary functions, which include:
- Regulation of emotions
- Biological drives
- Formation of long-term memories (Williams & Menendez, 2015).
Why should you care?
Under “normal” circumstances, many of us struggle with regulating our emotions. I’m talking about the tough ones here: anxiety, fear, aggression, depression.
Next, biological drives include activities that serve the body’s needs. The fundamentals include eating, drinking, and sex. When emotionally provoked, these are areas where humans are prone to either over-indulging or neglecting: “I’ll have one more drink to ease the pain.” Have you ever had to remind yourself or someone else to stop, and eat? Sex with that guy I cut off last month doesn’t sound so bad right now. We’re both lonely, right?
Lastly, the limbic system plays a vital role in memory creation. It is important to note that structures within the limbic system are associated with our earliest evolutionary brain, meaning input is not processed verbally or rationally. Rather, input is processed at an emotional level (Williams & Menendez, 2015). Think about how memory is impacted by a traumatic experience. Someone who just walked off the scene of a car accident, or managed to escape a kidnapping, may have a difficult time recalling details of their experience. It is common for both minor and significant details to be obscured when the brain undergoes trauma.
You know, like I know. Stress and chaos can make the mind do wild things.
Considering all of the unexpected disruption, uncertainty, and discomfort spreading across the globe, right now is a particularly challenging time to regulate emotions, control our biological urges, and be present in our bodies.
The limbic system follows a unique pathway or loop through the emotional brain. The extent of and degree in which one reengages with an emotion-provoking situation increases the emotion’s intensity. Increasingly-intense emotions restrict us from responding in a productive, clear-headed manner.
We have to be honest with ourselves about that, and accept that we have work to do.
As biology and fortune would have it, our rational brain connects back into the emotional brain giving us the ability to interrupt destructive thought-patterns circulating throughout the limbic system.
Times are bleak, but you don’t have to spiral downward.
You have the ability to make choices. Consciously.
Over the next few weeks to months, you may feel as though you’re living through an emotional storm. If and when you find yourself feeling emotionally unstable, irrational, or uncomfortable, try the following practices to bring you back to center:
- Take 5–10 deep breaths. Only focus on the breath filling and exiting your body. Let all additional thoughts float away from you, and continue to bring your awareness back to the breath. Simple, tried, and true- don’t sleep on this.
- Put language around your emotions. Identify your feelings. Give it a name. “I feel distracted by what’s unfolding around me.” “ It’s hard to focus when you talk about _____ around me.” “ I feel insecure about the future.”
- Recognize your wholeness and strength. Remember that the particular situation you are experiencing does not define your entire life. This is not to overlook the very real implications this time has on your life and well-being, but instead an affirmation of all that was and all there is to look forward to. “There are aspects of my life that are, and will remain operating in my favor.” “As complex as this situation is, I am big enough to see it through.”
- Catch yourself. Choose a catchphrase for each time you feel yourself caught in an unproductive thought loop. Mine is “excuse me, bitch. You know better than that.” It’s a blunt, somewhat harsh, way to bring myself back to reality and avoid letting my anxieties get the best of me.
Take care of your whole Self, and continue to be a resource to others.
Williams, P., & Menendez, D. S. (2015). Becoming a professional life coach lessons from the Institute for Life Coach Training. New York: W.W. Norton.