How Your Brain Works Against You

By Azzy Aslam

Performance & Change Coach. Helping you create new habits and turning them into your superpower!

2 Apr, 2018

Have you wondered why it can be really challenging or seem impossible to do the things that you know will be good for you? Will power alone doesn’t seem to be enough to get you up from that comfy sofa and head out that door for that run you promised, or pick up the book you were meant to finish this week, or even to put down that book and get that clutter cleared in the other room which hasn’t been touched for weeks. Sometimes, it feels as though there is a war is going on inside your body and your mind between wanting to do something and some massive inertia which stops you. We know all to well that the easy option usually wins. What is going on inside our brains? There is some good news, bad news and some more good news. The good news is that it is not you causing these conflicts, it is your brain! The bad news is that you over time your brain has create memories (neural pathways) and habits that you are now finding tough to fight against. The good news is that you can, with conscious effort create new habits, new neural pathways to do exactly what you want. As we know all to well this not easy and straightforward, well at least for most of of us! But first lets go back to why the brain makes us act and behave in the way we do. The key thing to remember about our brain is that it performs some very important functions and top of its list is to keep us safe and secure. What it constantly does is:
  • Keeps a look out for threats and dangers to our well being, whether they are physical, psychological or emotional
  • It keeps track of what we have done before which caused us pain, hurt, anguish etc.
  • It keeps a track of what we have done before which has kept us out of harms way
  • It keeps a track of what made us happy, contended, and safe
  • It checks our thoughts and actions with the history we have built over time to see if what we are trying to do or want to do matches the events and situations it has stored in our memory
As we build up a whole library of memories of events or situations which we found painful, or happy, they become easier to access and faster to recall the more often we access and recall them. They also become reinforced the more often they are accessed and recalled. For instance, let’s say you have been asked to give a short presentation to your team at the next team meeting. You know your subject matter and you know your team members, but giving presentations is not what you like to do. You are nervous and hope it all goes smoothly and is well received. You make a good start and then stumble over a sentence you know well and someone lets out a giggle. All of a sudden you become conscious of what happened and a little bit of anxiety kicks in. As the brain wants to keep you safe it logs this moment as unsafe as it made you feel anxious and nervous. And it certainly didn’t like the giggle let out from your colleague. Even though the overall presentation went well, that little incident is what is remembered. The brain then goes into reinforcement “chatter” mode and start to tell you things such as:
  • “see, you have never been good at this kind of thing”
  • “remember the last time you did this and it didn’t go well either…and remember the time before that…”
  • “you are just not good at these things…”
  • “see how it makes you feel….nervous, anxious….. that knot in your stomach..”
  • “that person giggled at your mistake….wonder what they really think about you….can’t be great if they giggled…”
Such internal chatter reinforces the “idea” that this not for you because it is “unsafe” and your anxiety and nervous levels become elevated. Thinking about the incident recalls the memory and the feelings that are now associated with it. The more often it is recalled the stronger the memory and the feelings become and the faster it is pulled into your conscious thought. And so the cycle repeats over and over. This is your brain’s way to keep you “safe”. Let’s not forget the brain has evolved over many millions of years and it’s primary function was to do exactly what it does – look out for dangers – it learns what works and doesn’t work in keeping us safe. Over the millions of years we have also developed and expanded what is termed “the human brain” – the neocortex – which allows us to have rational thoughts. To consider situations objectively and then come up with options and actions that are appropriate to the situation. It is this part of the brain that we need to engage and use to overcome the built-in “safety” mechanisms of our brains. If we go back to the example of the presentation, when we engage the neocortex, we can then see all the good things that occurred before, during, and after the presentation:
  • The presentation was well prepared, because you know the subject matter really well – better than anyone.
  • You organised your time extremely well when you were preparing the presentation so as your day to work was also successfully completed
  • You answered all the questions that were asked
  • You completed the presentation in the time allotted
  • You held the attention of your audience really well
  • You imparted really useful information to your fellow team members
  • You competed the presentation and nothing bad happened – to you, or anyone else! It worked!
I am sure there are many more positives to be found than the one “giggle” that became a negative and overshadowed the whole positive performance. Your brain is attuned to finding, locking-in, and holding onto the negatives and the perceived dangers. Become aware of what your brain’s preference is and consciously bring to mind all the positives of any situation to counteract the negative preference of your brain. It’s tough and with practice over several weeks and months you will notice a shift in perspective! If you need more assistance in changing your minds perspective, then call or email me and arrange a free no obligation chat. You can reach me on 07552 535767 or coach@comentra.com and you can even add a comment below.

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  1. Resolutions Don’t Work | Comentra - […] brain (limbic system) and your body will start a revolution against you. You notice this at other times […]

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