By Dixie Andelin Forsyth
You know, I thought about titling this article “Staying Upstairs”, but when I thought about it I realized it’s impossible to never, ever go to the darker, more primitive part of your mind. Life happens. Difficult things assault you that you have no control over, and it’s only human to switch to “survival mode” when they do.
Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” of your brain, you’ll want to read my book Fascinating Womanhood for the Timeless Woman in the chapter called Brain Matters. In a nutshell, your upstairs brain consists of the left and right hemispheres, also known as your Rational and Intuitive minds, respectively. The downstairs is the lower brain, especially the amygdala, sometimes considered the “fight, flight, or freeze control center” of your mind, and this is where our thoughts tend to retreat when life gets stressful. Your downstairs brain is not sophisticated, because “stress” could simply mean you’re tired or hungry. But it’s your warning system and you need it to stay alive in the sometimes threatening or uncomfortable times of life.
“Think of this bunker as the type of basement where old furniture and cans of emergency beans are stored just in case.”
When something unpleasant happens, your mind takes you down to the “bunker” or lower part of your mental “house”—dragging you away from your lovely upstairs brain, which Sherlock Holmes calls your Mind Palace. Just think of your bunker as the type of basement where old furniture and cans of emergency beans are stored just in case. It’s a dusty place with insects and rodents crawling around (your negative thoughts), and there’s a moth-eaten sofa that, despite the musty smell, you might find yourself getting a little too comfortable on. Believe it or not, a lot of people spend most of their time in this basement, too caught up in their bad thoughts or memories and too comfy on that flea-bitten sofa (which could represent bad habits) to think of escaping to the upstairs where the air is clean and fresh. Staying in your downstairs thoughts means allowing fear of the future to take over, dwelling on bad memories, and a general lack of progress in your life.
Now, you also have this wonderful Mind Palace I mentioned earlier—In the upper parts of your brain—and this is where all sorts of good things happen. Music and science and art happen there, dreams for the future are formed, relationships built and nurtured, and sense is made of our chaotic world. Believe it or not, it’s possible to stay up there for a majority of your lifetime if you know a few simple methods to shape the way you think and react to what happens around you. I’m going to give you a few of those life hacks right here, though there are too many to cover in a brief article.
1. Gratitude. I’ve made this number one because being thankful for what you have is vital to your happiness. In fact, it’s impossible for you to ever be completely happy without it. You may have all the things other people wish they had, or you may get everything you ever hoped for in life, but if you’re not grateful you have it, what’s the point? Foster a mentality within yourself to constantly hunt for the things that are going well in your life. Start with the small things: “I’m able to breathe right now. Check. I have food today. Check.” Then get more complex and detailed about your gratitude: “There was one bottle left of my favorite juice at the store today, as if it had my name on it. I feel so lucky about that”. List as many things as you can think of. My husband Bob calls this his Dopamine Shower, because gratitude gives you a rush of the pleasure chemical dopamine. Who doesn’t need a few free, organic pleasure chemicals in their day? Make a habit of gratitude and you will see your life morphing into something absolutely wonderful. Side benefit: people around you will be affected by your change in the best ways. Win-win.
“My husband Bob calls this his Dopamine Shower, because gratitude gives you a rush of the pleasure chemical dopamine.”
2. Creativity. Every living soul on this earth has the ability to be creative. Whether it’s finding ways to make cheap cuts of meat taste expensive, redecorating a bathroom, transforming a lumpy patch of land into a garden paradise, sewing your own tablecloth, writing down your daydreams, solving problems at work or doing art pieces using dried macaroni, humans are constantly coming up with new ways to do things and making our environments prettier or more functional to live in. Being creative is exciting, it gives you energy and a positive outlook while empowering you to influence the world you live in. Next time you’re down, try something creative and see how quickly you find yourself upstairs, enjoying the view from one of the grand windows of your Mind Palace foyer.
3. Exercise. Sometimes all you need when you’re feeling down is to go somewhere, for a walk or a drive, just to get your blood pumping. Go dancing if you can. Join an exercise group. Hit a shopping center just to look around. Get moving. Exercise gives you a sense of purpose, gets your heart rate up, and lets you feel like you have at least some power over your life. Yes, there are side benefits like helping your heart and keeping you trim, but we’re talking about your mind right now. Move your body to help your mind feel like it’s in control.
4. Distraction. Remember how I said your downstairs isn’t very sophisticated? Think of this as an example: You could be downstairs a lot simply because you often don’t have time to eat. Thinking it’s the end of the world, you slide down to the basement and get ready to wallow there. Ever heard of the word “Hangry”, where you’re angry and hungry at the same time? That is actually a very good nickname for what happens when you go downstairs because you didn’t eat. People are not themselves when they need food. And sometimes because of multiple reasons, you literally cannot eat. You might be working with no break, dieting, or fasting for a spiritual purpose. Whether it’s hunger or some other unpleasant feeling that causes you to slide down those stairs, distract yourself with something you find interesting. Help a person in distress. Ask someone you admire a deep question and listen to their answer. Find ways to take your focus off the thing that’s bothering you, and this will either take you directly back up the stairs or buy you time until you can do something more meaningful. Or at least—back to the “hangry” scenario—until you can grab a snack.
5. Breathing. This is something I often forget. When things are especially stressful in your life and you start to worry or panic, your breathing will naturally speed up or become shallow. This can add to your feeling of nervousness and make problems seem bigger than they are. Try slowing your breathing down, counting as you inhale and exhale. Force yourself to take in and let out longer breaths, closing your eyes if you can. Use a timer or metronome if it helps. This method not only sends you back up to your Mind Palace where solving problems is much easier, but it also is a great way to help yourself sleep when you are anxious.
6. Humor. There’s a famous story of a man who was seriously ill and expected to die, but by some miracle he rebounded from his sickness to the puzzlement of his doctors. How? He credited the endless laughter he experienced watching old Laurel and Hardy films. You may not find those as funny as he did, but you can find something that tickles your funny bone and use it to conquer basement-brain mentality. Perhaps you know a person who makes you laugh really hard. Or maybe you’re good at making others laugh. Whatever you can do to lighten the mood and help bring yourself back upstairs without causing harm or destruction to the people around you, do it. You’ll find your mood lifting, and—guess what—people will even like you better! Laughter is hard to resist, so egg it on.
7. Acts of Kindness. There are so many more ways to go back to your Mind Palace, but this is the last one I have time for here, and it’s a very important one. A big marker or characteristic of being downstairs is a generally selfish attitude. When you’re down there, you’re on survival mode and it’s “every woman for herself”. But look at it this way: everyone around you is struggling, fighting a secret battle they’re not telling people about. With your understanding of the downstairs brain, you can help them take those steps upward one by one. Observe someone you care about and find ways to show how much they matter to you, how much they matter to the world. Be that person who sees the pain of others and helps to alleviate it. You’ll realize that your own pain lessens considerably when you do so.
“Be that person who sees the pain of others and helps to alleviate it. You’ll realize that your own pain lessens considerably when you do so.”
I hope you are able to find ways to stay in your upstairs more often, or even indefinitely. My husband has perfected these through so much practice that I almost never see him down. I still get worried and anxious like most of you, but these tools and techniques have saved me over and over and I don’t know where I’d be without them.
Oh wait. I do know where I’d be. I’d be in that dark, stinky basement.