Did you ever wonder where that little voice in your head comes from, or why some situations make your heart race and your face turn red with anger and others melt your heart and make you smile?
I'm going to share with you a very basic overview of how the nervous system works so you'll know the answer to that question, and many more you didn't even know you had.
Disclaimer: I do not diagnose, treat, or prescribe for medical or mental illness with my online content. My views are my own and are not associated or representative of my employer(s). This blog is for educational purposes only and not medical advice.
Just so we're all on the same page here - not all of neuroscience is universally agreed upon. This is a simplified version that makes sense to me, and hopefully will make sense to you.
The Nervous System
The nervous system includes your brain and all the nerves that connect throughout your body. It regulates all of your organs to create life. It is the essence of our being (I think, therefore I am). Something really unique about the brain that sets it apart from all other organs is that it can intentionally decide to rewire its circuitry to create a new way of functioning.
So what is going on up there? Where are those thoughts and feelings coming from?
We’ll start with the outside, work in, and then work out again.
The outside world is continuously providing us with information. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, our senses gather around 11 million bits of information per second from the environment, yet our conscious brain is only able to process about 50 bits per second. That's .0005%! That’s like if a plane carrying 1 million dollars dropped the money above you and all you got from it was $5.
Imagine our brain overload if we had to take note of and respond to all of that information! Take a moment to look around you and catalog everything you see, then everything you feel, then everything you hear, then everything you smell... Now try to take care of a toddler, make dinner, and catch up on work emails.
Not gonna happen, right?
Luckily we have nearly 100 billion neurons each with thousands of connections to other neurons, resulting in trillions of connections throughout your nervous system. The length of your neurons stretches over 100,000 miles! That’s over 4 times around the earth. Your brain might be capable of performing as many as 100 billion operations per second!
All of those brain cells firing, it sounds exhausting! Luckily, your brain can actually be quite lazy and it prefers to set up unconscious circuits to function automatically, without you thinking about it, we know them as our subconscious and our habits.
Try paying attention to every step as you walk - is it awkward? Are you more fluid and agile when you're not thinking about it?
This subconscious brain can act within a tenth of a second to start a cascading stress response if it senses danger or flood our brains with feel-good pleasure hormones. Its main goal is to keep us safe, avoid pain, and pursue pleasure.
They sure make life easier, but these subconscious circuits are what can often get us into trouble. Keep reading and I'll tell you how, and how we can fix it to try to stay out of trouble.
Perception is how our nervous system receives all of that sensory information. The very large majority is being taken in by our subconscious brain, and about a half-second later that very tiny fraction is noted by our conscious brain.
The deep purple color that reminds you of the scar your grandmother made for you, the smell of elementary school art class, the same type of car your ex-boyfriend drove...all of these inputs could happen completely subconsciously and you may experience emotions from what seems like out of nowhere.
Now, take a moment to notice where your body is touching the surface below you, whether you're sitting in a chair or standing on the ground. You've been feeling those things this whole time, you just weren't paying attention.
We do have control over what we focus on, what we pay attention to. If you notice an uncomfortable emotion when you otherwise think you should be feeling fine, get curious explore that feeling and see where it is coming from. It may help you feel better.
As you likely experience on a regular basis, we also have both subconscious and conscious thoughts. Literature suggests that we have between 6,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day. Up to 90% of these can be repetitive, and up to 70% of them are negative.
So that inner voice that is constantly chattering at us that neural shortcut meant to keep us safe, avoid pain, and seek pleasure - it's a negative little bugger that says the same thing, over and over, in different ways. Sometimes referred to as your gremlins, inner critic, or monkey voice.
Seriously, how often does that voice actually keep you safe? Don't speak up at the meeting, you'll stumble over your words, or they won't like your idea. You may be safe from embarrassment, but you're not helping anyone by hiding your talents and keeping your voice to yourself. Avoiding rejection is such a powerful pull that I'll have a whole blog post on that in the future. I'll also share how to reframe that inner voice into an inner coach in a future post.
In the same that our perceptions could trigger the stress response or pleasant flood of feel-good hormones, so can our thoughts. So those 70% negative thoughts are not doing us any favors.
Maybe it's time to rethink that gremlin.
Up until this point, all of this is happening in your head. We've worked in, now let's work out again. No one benefits from, no one learns from, no one remembers you for anything hidden in your head. The quote says happiness comes from a life well-lived, not by one well thought about, right? And to borrow another quote, this one from my favorite author,
"To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
It's time to look at our actions, our legacy, the entire purpose of our existence.
Just as before we have subconscious and conscious actions. Remember walking without paying attention? How about the times you get to work and you don't remember driving in? It's likely you actually did a superb job navigating the route. When you stop to think as you drive in you may wonder - did I miss a turn? am I on the right road? how did I get here? When that reflexive circuit grinds to a halt and your conscious brain takes over there is a brief disconnect as you take it all in.
Then there are the times you're driving in a new city, in a rental car, in the rain. Nothing about that is going to be automatic. And that's going to be a lot more stressful.
Why is it more stressful, you ask? These reflexive, bottom-up neural circuits are easy, quick, and efficient. They don’t consume much brainpower and your brain prefers them. They're the efficient check-out person at the grocery store - you'd pick that line too.
Unfortunately, these reflexive circuits don’t change themselves, even when they aren’t serving you well. Maybe that check-out person is efficient because they're not actually checking to see if the item is scanned and rather than weigh and type in a produce code they just toss your veggies down the conveyer belt. Quick and easy for you, but it's not going to keep that grocery store in business.
So if you want to change your life, your legacy, how you're remembered, the impact you have on this world, the extent to which your talents shine, you're going to have to change your actions, by changing your thoughts and your perceptions.
You’ll have to change what you pay attention to and focus on - choose to see what moves you forward in life and brings you joy. Choose to think better of yourself, others, and the world, and choose to act in ways that spread kindness and love.
Making these changes isn’t easy. Anytime you step outside your routines and have deliberate thoughts, actions, and focus, you’re signaling to your brain that something is different, you’re going against the grain.
It creates a little mental friction because you’re suppressing your reflexive responses. Stress hormones are released, sometimes to the point where you can feel them.
Think of the last time you were having a disagreement with your significant other and you knew you needed to bite your tongue and let them have the last word. You knew it wasn’t worth being right but you were right and you wanted to say something so badly. Your face started to get red, your heart was pounding, your palms were sweating...Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it!
You were suppressing your reflex to argue the same way you always do, to turn off your filters and automatic responses, trying so hard to be deliberate about listening, and reflecting, and validating but IT. WAS. SO. HARD.
Next time around it might still be that hard, but the fifth time, the eighteenth time, your heart may not even speed up. With time and effort, you can take something that’s challenging and deliberate and make it more reflexive. You can change your circuits - this is neuroplasticity.
We can decide what we want to change in our brains and which circuits we want to rewire. It takes awareness, action, and accountability.
That's where I come in. I'll help you build your awareness and uncover your gremlins to create the change you want in your life.
Are you interested in coaching to help you with burnout? I have a program a program for you! I work side by side with other moms and healthcare professionals to help calm the chaos in their minds and lives to overcome the overwhelm and conquer burnout.
My program gives you an organized, step-by-step process, an accountability partner (me!), and lots of self-care tips and self-learning activities to help you change those feelings of overwhelm and stress into joyful and intentional living – with more time, energy, success, confidence, mindfulness, and overall well-being.
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Here's the video format of this blog post
Markowsky, G. (2017, June 16). information theory. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/information-theory
Tseng J, Poppenk J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun. 2020;11(1):3480. Published 2020 Jul 13. doi:10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9
“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there—buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.”
Ragunathan R. How Negative is Your "Mental Chatter"? Psychology Today. October 20013.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sapient-nature/201310/how-negative-is-your-mental-chatter.