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November 3, 2021

Why I did what I did?

Most of my introspection occurs when I’m driving to work at 4a.m. I’m very aware of my thoughts and I do my best to recall my inner dialogue to further thrash out the ‘Why’ of my thought processes. Watching the watcher was the term I recall best from a book I read.

We all get these passing thoughts, however it is when I recall decisions and actions made in my past it makes me really want to delve deeper. Similar to everyone else on this planet I have made thousands of mistakes. Some are just the small ones, caught out on a lie, offended someone by saying the wrong thing, passed up an opportunity that someone else gained from to name a few. We get over those, it is the big ones that have the impact though, the ones that kick the emotions into action even when you think about them.

I find it interesting that I can get embarassed about something I did ten years ago just by thinking about it, the same way when you think about someone who betrayed you can experience anger. So neurons in your brain send signals to the amydala to fire off these emotions (or more technically release neuromodulators). Most are aware of external stimuli affecting our physiological response mechanisms, yet it isn’t as common to think how internal stimuli such as our own dialogue affects our being.

My awareness for my thoughts has definitely changed my thinking patterns, however, the main theme if I were honest is still quite a bit more negative than positive. In the mornings on my way to work I just listen to myself think. As strange as this sounds it is very entertaining. Somewhat alike to meditation, I just leave thoughts naturally occur, then I put labels on them. Most are work, as that’s where I’m headed, other are retrospective on the day or so before. Sometimes, and I struggle to understand how, a memory kicks in, of childhood or couple years previous where I made a big blunder or on rare occasions I succeeded. These I don’t label, I tease out the feelings, I try to reflect on the motives. I sometimes ask aloud ‘Why did I do that?’ Or ‘how did that happen?’.

Usually I make a judgement on it and move on, others I just park because I can’t recall enough information to come to a conclusion on my motives or a why of a decision I made in my past. Our brains are so complex that even when you think you understand them you always end up being mystified anyway. I understand that the amygdala is the feeling and emotion part of the brain, and that the prefrontal cortex controls the rationale part to put it simply. So a simple way to look at it is when a stimulus, external or internal comes into contact with our sensory system including our digestive system and thoughts the brain will send a message/neurotransmitters to create a response. Usually in the form of a neuro modulator such as dopamine,  norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline), serotonin or another response. These can make us feel a certain way such as energetic, lethargic, motivated or anxious depending on the stimulus being perceived by our senses.

More importantly do we can change the response by altering the context of the perception. This is where watching the watcher really can help trigger a better outcome for us emotionally. We control the dialogue, in studies they have surmised that emotional hijacking can take over our conscious thinking for an average of six seconds. This is when a stimulus has evoked a knee jerk reaction from our response system, an easy example is being offended by an insult. However if we can pause long enough before responding to the disturbing force, we can absorb the intial feeling of hurt and the adrenaline rush that the neuro modulators have sent to your extremities. Using the pause as an opportunity to shift the perception by changing the context of your internal dialogue.

This cycle isn’t easy, and takes practice. Obviously if the disturbance is strong enough, and you respond immediately with externalized action, which happens. I have a natural tendency to react aggressively to anyone who has ever threatened one of my values. To diverge for a moment to psychology, most people during their formative years between zero to seven build certain values and characteristics that can stay with us for our lifetime. One of my values is protection of others, usually females this I think was born through early experiences. So I find it difficult to protect my better judgement when a stimuli impinges on that value.

So for example, I pay witness to something that includes a person breaking this value, my brain will signal neurons to respond with epinephrine, this will cause adrenaline to flow to my extremities such as my hands and feet. This in essence is my fight/flight response to the situation. I’m now in fight mode and will attempt to externalize the feeling through either verbal or physical activity.

In essence our brain is the lever but strangely is also the hand that decides which direction the lever will go. So yes emotion will try to play a part, but this is where a powerful tool must be used to lessen it’s effect. Detachment is a most crucial method to avoid poorly judged or overly emotional decisions. Take yourself out of the way by forgetting about the bond, or the way you feel about the thing, person or situation your in. You can still be aware of the variables involved like the other persons body language, tone and words, but try to be analytical about it. Take apart the pieces like a surgeon, calm yourself, be alert to physiological responses. For example, if your jaw is clenched, your fists are tightened or you feel your face turning red. These are all signals to the brain as a reaction to how you Feel. Now let them pass and detach yourself. Watch, listen and use your frontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain to decipher the incoming external stimuli and ultimately make an informed decision.

This in theory looks and sounds easy however it is probably the hardest thing to master in real life. I myself fail at it at least once a day. I react harshly to an event or getting bad news. Catastrophizing happens to the best of us, negativity ways more than positivity in our minds. Even the voices inside your head that talk to one another are usually negative and positive thrashing it out. For instance, the meeting you have on Friday is the hot topic for your brain the whole week leading into it. One side is saying that it will be disastrous, while the subtle positive voice gently calls out it will be Fine!. Now sit back and watch your thoughts for a while, you can start by shouting ‘HEY’ in your mind just so your awareness can recognise that you can indeed hear those little people upstairs.

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Devon Geary  |  Contribution: 6,575