Life Can Be Overwhelming: Train Your Brain to Adapt

Learning (at your own pace) to deal with the chaos around you is a great survival tool

Courtesy of TeraVector/Shutterstock
Courtesy of TeraVector/Shutterstock

Modern life can be messy — it’s not engineered to be linear. Everything won’t go according to plan. You can easily fall back into the abyss of chaos.

In the digital age, the overload of information, tasks, and social responsibilities can put a lot of pressure on your pre-frontal cortex, inhibiting the brain’s ability to focus or make better decisions.

People who have naturally strong self-regulation can handle the overload — but for millions of people who don’t, things can feel out of control.

When life feels overwhelming, don’t put too much blame on yourself. You will make things worse. Everyone goes through the constant demands of life — you are not alone and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

The good news is, you can do something about the mess that’s constantly coming at you. Your brain can be trained to self-regulate.

Our brains favour familiarity

Part of our inability to adapt when life’s messy comes down to our brain’s resistance to change — a response system that has been built in us over the course of many years.

“The more you do something the more ingrained it becomes in neural pathways, much like how a computer that stores the sites you visit — when you log onto your browser, they will pop up because you use them a lot. Change is an upheaval of many things and the brain has to work to fit it into an existing framework, ” says Dr Sanam Hafeez, a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist.

As the demands of life and career increases, we tend to want to stick to the same things even though our present circumstance requires us to adapt, and change directions. This can be overwhelming for people who can’t handle change — introducing new behavioural modes becomes challenging.

“From an evolutionary standpoint we develop these neural pathways to adapt to live, so when we encounter change our brain shifts into a protective mode,” says Hafeez.

“It has to use energy from reserves and it doesn’t know, from that evolutionary standpoint, if the change is good for us or not. It doesn’t know if this change is a one-time deal or whether it needs to re-establish a routine. ‘Will it hurt me?’ A lot of red flags go up.”

To handle the mess of life, train your brain to be receptive to other types of chaos

No matter what happens in life, you should be able to know how to react.

The more you expose yourself to habits, and situations outside your usual routine, the more your brain learns to adapt without panicking.

Your brain learns to stay calm in the midst of chaos with practice. It learns to succeed by viewing previous obstacles and successes in a certain light without sending stress too much stress hormones to your brain.

Every time you respond to a difficult situation, a specific neuronal pattern is stimulated and becomes strengthened in your brain.

Debbie Hampton explains: “When you first try to adopt a new behaviour, you have to enlist your prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain, and insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. When you’ve performed the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in your brain, the behaviour will require less effort as it becomes the default pattern.”

The more you expose yourself to new paths and experiences, the better you will prepare yourself for chaotic scenarios.

Stress is a trigger for learning and growth. Every time you make a change that lasts, no matter how small, you’re changing your brain.”

If you have trouble reacting well to the inevitable mess of life or have no clue how to cope with stressful situations, don’t wait for the next one. Start pushing yourself outside your normal behaviour patterns and prepare yourself to deal with life better.

The quickest way to deal with stress, says Margaret Moore, co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital/ Harvard Medical School, is to summon a positive emotion.

In her experience as a counsellor, the most successful people are able to cultivate a three to one balance between positive and negative thoughts: “What we’re really talking about is using your brain’s most precious resource, which is your attention, in the way that it allows you to accomplish the most and make the biggest impact on the world.”

What gets your attention engages your brain in both positive and negative ways. Be mindful of what you choose to focus on daily.

In real life, you cannot prepare for everything, but you can prepare yourself for any situation by being mindful of how you react to everything.

The human mind is the most adaptable tool there is — make it work for you. No matter what happens, you can adapt, cope, and stay calm.

When you are not ready, anything outside your comfort zone can make you feel overwhelmed, stressed out, angry, frustrated, and harmed. These feeling are internal and can be managed.

Ryan Holiday explains, “Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you — these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.”

Your reaction to life’s many situations matters more than you think. If you allowoutside events to determine how you feel, you have absolutely no control over your life.

Remember what Epictetus once said, “Who then is invincible?
The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.“

Train your brain to stay calm in the midst of chaos and you’re able to choose the smartest possible response in every stressful situation.

Originally published on Medium.

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