Hello internet reader!
This evening, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a talk put on for Mental Health and Wellbeing Week, featuring psychotherapist Gin Lalli. She was an excellent speaker with a background in science. For my own benefit, and for yours, here follows a breakdown of the main points made by Gin – permission has been granted to repost, with credit 🙂
Two parts of our brain, or two ways of thinking are the Intelligent Brain and the Primitive Brain.
The intelligent brain…
- is our evolved brain, which lets us perform tasks such as thinking, speaking, driving… skilled tasks, as well as things that make us us
- is creative
- is rational
The primitive brain…
- is there to protect us
- has three main responses: depression (freeze), anger (fight) and anxiety (flight)
- is hyper-vigilant
- is obsessive, constantly thinking back to what we perceive as a threat
- is good at catastrophising, i.e. painting the worst-case scenario. It may think negative thoughts about the past, or about the future
- is not creative
The idea is, that the primitive brain has served (and sometime still serves) us a function. For example, as a caveman, it would’ve been very useful to feel sky-high levels of anxiety, and to run away from a frightful scenario such as a lion immediately (flight mode). Furthermore, if we had escaped a lion by one method, we would repeat the same escape tactics next time faced with the issue (remember, the primitive brain is not creative). And it would make sense for us to obsess over the perceived threat (the lion), constantly checking back to see whether it is still there. Responding to fear or a threat with anger (such as when having to fight an animal or other “caveman”) is also rational. And lastly, if the caveman was snowed in, a perfectly reasonable response would have been to go back to sleep, and wait for the situation to disappear (parallel drawn to depression here).
However, for many in modern society, we simply do not face the same threats and barriers, as we did as “cavemen”. Our primitive brain is more often than not doing us a disservice, preventing our intelligent, creative and rational brain from taking centre-stage in decision-making. By constantly being in “primitive brain mode”, we are allowing ourselves to think negative and stressful thoughts, which our brain perceives as true. Imagination is a powerful thing, and its effects weighs upon us.
Enter the stress bucket. This is where, according to Gin, we pile our worries, fears and stress. It is not good to go through life this way. So how can we manage it?
Well, we can empty our stress bucket through therapy, through meditation, through mindfulness, through positive activities (such as a form of exercise we enjoy). But, most importantly according to Gin, is good quality sleep. During the part of our sleep, which is called REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep), we are able to process our stress bucket ideas, and gain more control over them as we dream and our “intelligent brain” may take charge of the scenarios. However, for some, the stress bucket may be too full. We need to build up good habits. We need to try and not fill our stress bucket up, whilst constantly working on emptying it with the good habits mentioned above.
Three golden rules for good quality sleep (~8 hours per night):
- no caffeine
- set an alarm for when to start your bedtime routine (which should involve distancing from all electronic devices 30-60 minutes before bedtime)
- no phone in the bedroom (alternatively, turn off notifications and put on flight mode, if one has enough self control to absolutely not go on it, or feel stressed by the constant vigilance being connected may entail)
So, what are my thoughts in response to this?
My initial reaction was, “well isn’t some stress healthy?”. Gin explained that yes, some challenge stress in small levels is good, as it ensures you come on time to things and meet deadlines. Each morning, she starts her day with an empty bucket, and will put in some challenge stress throughout, and empties it again at night during good quality sleep.
Her theories put a lot of emphasis on how an individual manages and reacts to life events and stresses. While this is empowering, I believe we cannot say that some people are not more affected than others by bad things in life. Living in a war zone, in deep poverty, or in a racist environment are horrible situations, and I think it is a marker of extreme privilege to be able to say that these people should just “deal” with their stresses better. Sure, some of them will react better than others… but I would not support blaming individuals who live in adverse situations for any poor mental health it may be associated with.
Nonetheless, I think this thinking framework makes a lot of sense and is nice and rational. I hope that the next time I start catastrophising something, I will be able to take a step back and be more self-aware, and say “hang on, I see what you’re doing there” and not allow that stress to add to my stress bucket.
Getting better quality sleep is something I still struggle with. I find it very hard to switch off completely at bedtime. But here’s to trying!
Gin’s website can be found here (opens in new tab).
Gin’s Facebook can be found here (opens in new tab).
All the love in the world