In a recent deep study about overwhelm, I learned that it is largely a function of the midbrain, which is designed for survival. There, in the midbrain, we experience fight, flight, and freeze. This results in increased heart rate, a heightened sensitivity toward sound and movement, with decreased problem-solving and calm. By design, when in this part of the brain, we are more reactive not proactive. Overwhelm is the being stuck in this place of just trying to survive with the notion that at any point you might break. It is not a place of thriving or gratitude. Hmmm… Isn’t that what most of us with ADHD experience daily especially those for us who also struggle with anxiety?
Now, think of the prefrontal cortex as the opposite of the midbrain. When in the prefrontal cortex, we experience calm, centeredness, problem-solving, future thinking, heightened execution of executive functions, constructive communication, and most importantly gratitude. This is where we are designed to spend long periods of time- only shifting to the midbrain when necessary, for survival. Obviously, it is more complicated than I have described here, but in general terms this the anatomy of overwhelm vs gratitude.
So, how do we cross over from overwhelm to gratitude? David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, said that we do it by remembering the earliest instructions our parents gave us to cross a street: “stop, look, and go.”
Stop: Before we begin to make a shift toward gratitude, stop to consider
Where you are now?
Where you want to be?
What you hope to gain by crossing over to gratitude?
I asked my husband these questions this morning and was moved by his answers. Taking the time for this step is not only necessary, but it can also result in some surprising revelations.
Look: Look at 2-3 past experiences that have given you satisfaction and write them down. You should only allow about 15 minutes for this step. I learned this powerful exercise at the ADD Coaching Academy. So, for example, yesterday, I was effective in resolving a sticky conflict with my son (I won’t share more details than that other than to say, we were both agitated). Resolving is with understanding rather than strife was very satisfying.
Go: Now, write down what you are grateful for in that experience. For me, that meant writing down how grateful I am for my son and:
For the ability to regain my composure after being triggered
For the honest communication between us that lead to a better understanding and hopefully a life lesson.
For the connection I felt with him then and now.
I could go on and on. The point is that in doing this exercise, even reflecting on it now, I have almost been brought to tears with gratitude. So, what part of my brain is being activated now? And, what effect does that have on my midbrain, where overwhelm resides? Immediately, I have had a pattern interrupt from the busyness in my brain that eventually results in overwhelm to gratitude. My heart rate is good, I feel great and for the moment, and I am not running on that hamster wheel.
A final note:
A friend of mine posted on Instagram recently that people of little faith are controlled by circumstances and/or bodily anxieties and impulses, while someone of faith has knowledge of the “way” of things. They have knowledge of how to live well. Do you see the midbrain and prefrontal cortex at work here? Prayer is a function of the prefrontal cortex. How can this knowledge help you in each of the steps above? The Bible says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. God has given us prayer with Him as a emotional and physical way out of overwhelm. Think about that… if you do, you will find yourself across the street.
Want to try it? Click here to download the activity.