Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Awareness of Mortality Is Always on Your Mind

How to manage the threatened feelings that a big brain creates

The human brain responds to its own abstractions instead of just relying on sensory inputs. Death is an abstraction. The future is an abstraction. Being human means knowing your own death lies in the future, even if nothing threatens your life in this moment.

Your abstractions feel real enough to trigger the brain chemicals that animals use to respond to the tangible world. Death-related thoughts trigger the cortisol that monkeys release when they smell a lion. Cortisol alerts your brain to gather evidence of impending threat. Evidence appears when you look for it because your higher intelligence serves your mammalian survival brain. More evidence triggers more cortisol.

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A bad loop results. You can end up focused on every possible threat to every human alive and those yet unborn.

To escape this loop, we use strategies that sometimes expand our sense of threat. We strive to control every detail related to threats. We distract ourselves from threatening thoughts. We build a legacy that may live on when we’re gone. These strategies are valuable but easily abused. The best solution is to use all three so we don't overdo any one of them. Here's how you can build yourself the stability of a three-legged stool. The seat of that stool is your ability to sit with your cortisol until it metabolizes instead of fueling it with more self-protection.

Control
We strive to make healthy choices to prolong life and stave off fears of decline. But after you’ve exercised, eaten your vegetables, and gone for a cancer screening, mortality fears still emerge. You might check the headlines for signs of imminent danger, and pour over health research for new tips. You might donate to charities that give you a sense of preventing harm. You might tell everyone you know what they're doing wrong. Alas, you can’t escape the feeling that the world is a dangerous place that will eventually kill you. Your list of things to worry about just seems to keep growing. Seeking control is a necessary but not sufficient way to manage existential angst.

Distraction
“Party like there’s no tomorrow” is a well-known way of distracting one’s self from threatening thoughts. Healthy distractors are widely available, too. Staying busy keeps your mind from dwelling on the things that can hurt you. But even healthy distractions have consequences when we over-use them.

Legacy
When you invest yourself in things that can outlast you, your brain releases happy chemicals. It may be children, a work of art, or a better way to get things done. The mammalian brain rewards you with a good feeling when you do things that promote the survival of your unique individual essense. Animals strive to spread their genes because it feels good, not because they have a conscious intent to reproduce. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with happy chemicals when you build your legacy, whether you consciously intend this or not. A two-edged sword results, however. Any threat to your grandchildren, your artwork, or your better way feels like an urgent survival threat. The more you invest in legacy-building, the more threats you're alert to.

Accepting your cortisol can ease it in 20 minutes
Cortisol works by creating a bad feeling, which motivates a body to "do something, fast!" Cortisol motivated our ancestors to do what it takes to avoid harm and survive. But if you rush into action every time you feel a twinge of cortisol, you can make things worse. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best response. It's hard to do nothing when cortisol is triggering your sense of urgency, but if you tolerate that feeling for 20 minutes, the cortisol gets discarded into your urine.

When you sit with your cortisol, your brain learns that bad thoughts cannot kill you. The bad loop is broken! You can tolerate a bad feeling for 20 minutes...even without the protection of a pint of ice cream. 

For more on this subject, check out my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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