Your Bottom Brain
As a therapist who works with extensive trauma, I have learned over the years that not all regulation ( returning the body & brain to a more functional and relaxed state) is the same. There are times we are able to use compassionate self-talk and do the “thinking it through” work to reel us in from panic to composure. There are also plenty of times when self-talk isn’t enough. Why is that?
let’s talk brain:
We can think of the brain as our “bottom brain” and “top brain.” These brain parts are equally important in our daily functioning and contribute to different actions. Our bottom brain is brain we share with all living things and it functions to keep us alive (jellyfish, however, are in a weirdly different prehistoric zombie category of living creatures, but I digress. If you are bored, click this link to make the previous sentence about jellyfish make sense.) Our bottom brain ensures our heart is beating, we are breathing, know when we need to eat and communicates to us when there’s danger. Our top brain is the more evolved part where thinking, reasoning and understanding concepts comes from.
The significant difference in the parts of our brain is the bottom survival brain will always, always, always take over if it thinks it needs to. Our survival brain also contains something called the amygdala. We can think of this almond shaped powerhouse as the loving, but over concerned protective mother who is constantly calling to check in if you’re eating, wearing a coat and being safe.
The survival brain has an incredible ability to completely take over conscious reactions and shut down the top brain until it receives enough signals that it is safe. With adverse life experiences such as trauma, the survival bottom brain can go from your nice yet concerned mother who checks in but is manageable, to the smother mother who is always texting you links to horrific news articles, convinced worst case scenario is the ONLY scenario and never knocks before entering your room.
If back brain mom is taking over, there’s no amount of verbal convincing that’s going to keep her from coming in hot. So how do we re-regulate our bottom brain when it takes over? At times- if we can learn to catch it early enough-we can be our own amygdala whisperers and let our survival brain know we are safe through self-talk and other “top brain” interventions. Now, what usually happens is by the time we are aware that we are having a danger response, the bottom brain has taken over and we are in fight/flight/freeze. When we are in this state, we still have the ability to calm our survival centers through means of somatic ( body sensation) communications. Here are some of the ways to do so:
These are just some of the different ways we can give a calming hug to our amygdala. Once our survival brain receives body signals that we are safe, our “thinking” brain then goes back online and we can use more self-talk based strategies to further regulate ourselves from the bottom to the top!
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: