Your brain is your superpower. It cares about you so much and wants to help you survive and thrive. As military wives, one of the most beneficial and productive things we can do for ourselves (and our loved ones) is learn how our brains function. Managing your thoughts becomes easier when you know how your lower brain and higher brain work. You can start practicing intentional thinking and develop new thought patterns to manage stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts more effectively. So, super scientific terminology and illustrations aside, here is what you need to know about your lower brain and higher brain to direct your thoughts in a productive way.
What is Your Lower Brain?
Lower brain. Toddler brain. Primitive brain. Cavewoman brain. There are many names for it, but they all relate to the part of your brain with the main job of keeping you alive. Now, you may be wondering what is trying to kill you that your lower brain is saving you from. That’s a good question. On an average, day-to-day basis, nothing. And that’s the trouble with the lower brain. Its main job is to keep you safe, which was very helpful when humans lived in caves amongst wild animals and had to always be alert. Now, most of us live in cozy homes or apartments, far away from life-threatening danger. But when we hear a noise in the house, we still feel that intense, dramatic reaction–as if it might be a wild animal we need to protect ourselves from or die–even when it’s not as probable.
That’s because your lower brain is an expert at its job. But sometimes–these days, more often than not–your lower brain misidentifies “danger,” leading to unproductive thoughts in our current state of living. So, what can you do when your lower brain offers you dramatic consequences that aren’t true?
How to Help Your Lower Brain Do Its Job Well
Say you’re in school, and you fail a test. Your lower brain’s reaction is to alert you to the danger associated with that, telling you: I failed this test, which means I’ll fail this class, which means I’ll fail college, which means I won’t have a career, which means I’ll fail at life, which means I’ll die.
Now, if you think logically about the situation, you know failing a test does not lead to death. But for your lower brain, it does. So, how can you help your lower brain? By practicing intentional thinking to calm your brain.
When an irrational thought presents itself, respond to your lower brain by saying:
- “It’s okay.”
- “This one isn’t dangerous.”
- “We’re going to be okay.”
- “So what?”
- “I’m going to do it anyway.”
By doing so, you’re letting your lower brain know you appreciate the effort to keep you alive, but this isn’t a life or death situation. It’s okay. Here’s another example:
Say you offer a new thought, idea, or circumstance to your lower brain, like “I’m going to start a business.” In less than a second, your lower brain will scan your entire life and compile a list of all the reasons why it isn’t safe to start a business. In conclusion, don’t do it, or you’ll die. In an attempt to keep you safe, your lower brain does its job and tells you the possibility of danger is a risk you shouldn’t take. This is not a productive way to make decisions. And fortunately, you don’t have to take action from the report your lower brain gives. But you can identify that all those thoughts of doubt are simply your lower brain trying to keep you safe. “Thank you, brain. But this one isn’t dangerous. I’m going to do it anyway. We’ll be okay.”
- LISTEN: Episode 2 – The Primitive Brain
- LISTEN: Episode 85 – Becoming Best Friends With Your Lower Brain
What is Your Higher Brain?
Higher brain. Rational brain. Logical brain. Prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that evaluates, sets goals, plans, makes decisions, analyzes. Your higher brain is definitely the more rational part of your brain, leading to more productive thoughts. For example, arguing with your husband is your lower brain trying to keep you safe. Evaluating the argument after the fact and realizing what you could have done or said differently is your higher brain at work. When we’re faced with anything negative, scary, problematic, or less than ideal, our lower brains get right to work. That’s why it’s more productive to make decisions from your higher brain that sees things a little more objectively.
Now, this doesn’t mean the higher brain is the “better” part of the brain. It just shows the importance of learning how both parts work to manage them and direct your thoughts to experience the most productive outcome. And that’s where thought work comes into play.
What Does Thought Work Mean?
Thought work means learning how to direct your thoughts to experience the most productive outcome. It isn’t about controlling your lower brain or only thinking with your higher brain. It’s about getting to know your lower brain and your higher brain and using them for what they are good at. You need to learn why your lower brain does what it does so you can respond appropriately.
Thought work–and intentional thinking–begins by befriending your lower brain. I used to fight against mine constantly. I was enemies with it before I realized what a powerful asset it is to my life. The goal isn’t to find a cure for the lower brain. It isn’t going anywhere, so you must become aware of how it works to use it in a productive way. Awareness gives you authority over the parts of your life that you can control. When you have authority over your thoughts, you can choose those you want to keep thinking about to experience the results you desire.