Brain Schemas Or Frameworks
The brain is a wonderful organ. Often it’s efficient, practical, and probably the only thing that can truly multi-task. But in its aims to be so efficient it creates shortcuts. This is useful because we don’t have the time to sit and wait for all the computations that must happen before we can lift that cup of tea or coffee to our lips. That would be incredibly inefficient and waste time, especially if our survival depended on an action. Yes, our brains are shrewd and frugal, and adept at creating cognitive frameworks of organised information called schemas, which allow us to function more effectively in everyday life. So what could possibly go wrong?
Why Brain Schemas Developed
Well, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In its attempts to save time, and its life, our dearest brains can work against us. You’ve likely heard about the fight, flight, freeze response (f3). Many, many, many years ago our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, out on the vast expanse, vulnerable to the elements and predators. So it was useful for humans to quickly learn what the dangers were, but also to be able to act in ways that ensured survival.
Brain Schemas In Dangerous Situations
For instance, one might learn quite quickly that bear tracks are worrying, and survival requires that we get as far away from the tracks as possible. So the sympathetic nervous system activates the f3 response which results in physical symptoms, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline into the blood stream. This increases heart rate as the heart frantically pumps blood into the major muscle groups (that is, the arms and legs). This enables fight (defending) or flight (running away). Or, perhaps we sense danger, and know that the slightest movement will alert our predator so we experience tension in parts of the body, which causes us to remain as still as possible (freeze). These responses are physiological (hormonal), and thankfully do not need to be thought out and planned. They are automatic because our brains have developed schemas, which offer a much higher chance of survival.
How It Works Today
Even though in most societies today we no longer have the same threats, we still need the brain’s wonderful internal alarm system. This allows us to get out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, or walk faster when we think we’re being followed. Unfortunately however, many of the modern day ‘threats’ we encounter do not necessitate the cascading physiological response that the F3 initiates. For example, do you need the racing heart, or the shallow breathing, or tense muscles that consume you when you’re about to give that work or school presentation? Does that help you to escape, or fight back? No. All it does is make you feel anxious, and out of control. However, this happens because the primitive part of the brain and its wonderful F3 alarm system cannot distinguish between actual threats to survival and perceived threats to ego, triggering what we might now view as false alarms which only result in stress, anxiety, and even panic.
Let us use a common example to illustrate; you’re about to attend a work meeting and the last time you did, you had a horrible experience. You had to speak and felt misunderstood, unjustly criticised, and as though some of your peers wanted you to fail. The next time you must speak at a meeting, it’s very likely that your F3 response will activate because your brain has created a schema. It’s appraised this event as threatening, creating a negative association, and flooding your body with stress hormones to help you fight, freeze, or fly. The problem is, you’re not about to give your colleagues a good licking, cower behind the filing cabinet in fear of being discovered, or run screaming from the building.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
So, in this situation the F3 response has become a hindrance and makes things worse. The association created means you feel dread because you’re predicting something bad will happen. Sadly, this unhelpful thinking is likely to influence your situation detrimentally, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because by expecting a negative encounter, you influence it to happen by affecting the situation with a defensive demeanour, temperament, and subsequent behaviour (maybe by acting withdrawn or aloof). This means you are misperceived as disinterested or disengaged.
The Impact On Mental & Physical Health
But this is not all, wellbeing is impacted before you even enter the meeting. It’s possible you feel the knot in your stomach, as early as a week before the meeting, with breathing becoming shallow, and tension in your muscles. You may even suffer headaches and sleep disturbance. Psychologically you experience changes in mental health; anxiety peaks, you worry, and feel low and distracted. You’re unable to enjoy the present because you’re thinking about a future event that steals all peace and joy. Indeed, this schema, rather than being efficient as your brain intended, is anything but.
What To Do
So how might you manage the kinds of situations that can cause any number of anxiety disorders including social anxiety disorder, panic attacks and panic disorder, or other types of anxiety disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder? How might you reduce symptoms of anxiety and get a handle on your fight or flight response so you feel more in control? How might you manage feelings of anxiety so your mind, body, present moments, and life aren’t hijacked? It’s a complex problem, but thankfully the solution is very simple. This might even be called a ‘brain hack’. Yes, we can trick the brain, or get it to re-appraise situations so that we aren’t embedding unhelpful schemas.
Psychologist Carl Rogers who was the founder of the humanistic person-centred approach offers a wonderfully valuable nugget:
“Treating each encounter like a new experience”
This will require practice and deliberate effort, but I can tell you, it works! Each encounter is a new experience, the meeting you dread, has not happened so it’s new. And it won’t be the same as the last one. So let go of unhelpful associations about colleagues, situations, or even places that you’ve linked with negativity. By creating negative associations and biases, we restrict our thinking to that which happened the last time, and our preconceived ideas distort our thinking, negatively influencing the future. By letting go, and going in naïve, we relinquish the need to control the situation, and ourselves in it.
Just imagine how liberating that could be. This liberation enhances wellbeing because it removes unhelpful thought patterns which influence situations and interactions, so we are more likely to have a positive interaction and experience, reinforcing our strategy, and creating a new, more helpful schema. Furthermore, by going into situations where others might expect you to be the old, nervous, aloof, disinterested you, you are likely to disarm them, to such an extent that they might appear less powerful, making you feel less of a power imbalance, and therefore stronger and more confident.
What This Will Do
You might think this is all good in theory, but I wouldn’t write a whole article about it and ask you to try it, had I not done so myself. When I did, I was so shocked at just how efficient it is that I shared it with a friend. He tried it when going into a meeting with his new manager, who he’d experienced some earlier tension with, and was also shocked at just how powerful it is. This is why I can confidently say that Rogers wasn’t kidding when he recommended this simple, yet incredibly effective ‘brain hack’. So, before you go into a dreaded situation, remind yourself that you’ve never experienced the situation before, it is new, and you will enter it without bias, and with naivety and curiosity instead.
The Longer Term Impact
This is how one lives in the moment, harnessing a kind of flexibility that enables a way of being which reconfigures unhelpful schemas, improving experience and wellbeing. This is only possible when we consciously remind ourselves to ‘treat this like a new experience, because it is’. Say this you yourself before entering situations, or any time negative feelings creep in. Rogers said that living fully is about being open to new experiences in a non-defensive way and he observed this quality in people he viewed as ‘living the good life’, or moving towards fulfilment. But if you need help reconfiguring your anxiety response, talking therapies might help by teaching you how to better manage daily life, social situations, and of course mental and physical health, as you learn ways to change your perceptions and therefore responses to everyday situations.
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