- Emotions like anxiety, depression, and conditions like AD/HD can hijack your rational brain creating real-world problems.
- While your emotional brain is telling you that you need to feel to do better, the opposite is true: You need to act despite how you feel.
- The goal is rewiring your brain; get your rational brain back online by taking baby steps to move forward.
Different emotions tend to hijack your rational brain. When we get emotional, our rational brain—our prefrontal lobes—literally goes offline. Once that happens, your emotions run you; you do what you do based on how you feel—what I call emotionally driven. Anger is always the biggest driver, but it is usually short-lived. For more ongoing emotions like depression, anxiety, or conditions like attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), they each have their own markers: Your anxious brain tells you to look into the future, be cautious, look around corners, and prepare for the worst.
Your depressed brain is often doing the same—expect the worst—but instead of focusing on the future, it drags you into the past, beating you up with guilt and regrets, or more often adopting a “why bother” attitude where whatever you do isn’t going to make a difference. And finally, ADHD causes you to do what you do based on not only how you feel but what catches your attention—what’s stimulating or easy—and you put off the harder, boring stuff until you have that gun-to-your-head deadline.
When these emotional problems are running, it’s not long before the negative consequences accumulate. Anxiety keeps you hyperalert, fearful, easily overwhelmed, and afraid to move forward. Your depression causes you to pull back and not do—stay in bed, not try because whatever you do won’t work, and so your living reaches a standstill. Your ADHD leaves you constantly scattered—hopping from one thing to the next and never making solid progress—or your procrastination leads you to more problems—not making deadlines at work or in trouble with your partner who feels they can’t count on you. Now the anxiety and depression pile on, making it all the worse.
The bigger problem
The bigger problem is that your emotional brain tells you that you need to feel better to do better: Once you’re less anxious, depressed, or less scattered, you can do more—solve the problem because you’re not overwhelmed, get out of bed and move forward, control your ADHD brain and get things done on time. This is all true to a point; you need to address the underlying problem. This is where medication often helps: like jumper cables on a battery, jump start your rational brain and get it back online. But apart from medication or instead of medication, there's the behavioral side of the equation: if you keep doing what your emotional brain is telling you to do—skip going to the party because you have social anxiety; stay in bed until you feel better; put off that project until you are forced to deal with it—you’re keeping those emotional circuits firing in your brain, increasing their power. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you keep feeling the same way.
What to do instead: Act despite how you feel
Instead, you often need to stop listening to your emotional brain and behaviorally get your rational brain back online by doing the opposite of what your emotional brain tells you. If you are anxious about going to the party, go anyway, even for 15 minutes. If you are depressed and feel it won’t matter if you apply for that job or talk to your partner about what you don’t like, do it anyway. If you procrastinate and put off what feels hard, step up and do it for 15 minutes. This is not about the situation—the party, the partner, the project—but about rewiring your brain and breaking old habits and routines. Your emotional brain tells you that you need to change from the inside out when generally, we need to change from the outside.
Your goal is to break these old emotionally-driven habits and routines and develop new ones. Like changing your diet or building in exercise, you need to be intentional and have a plan to get you started—the equivalent of signing up for Weight Watchers, getting an exercise buddy, or looking for an exercise program that provides structure. Here you step back when your rational brain is online and map out acceptable risks for your anxiety—breaking up problems into smaller, manageable steps, going to the party for 15 minutes, pushing against your depression, getting out of bed, and applying for jobs even though you don’t feel like it; plotting out a to-do list for your projects so you don’t put them off. And if you can’t do this, get help from online resources, a therapist, or a coach to help you learn the skills.
You also need accountability—again, changing from outside in rather than inside out. You check in with your partner, therapist, coach, or best friend, who checks in on you or who you report to help you stay on track, see where you get snagged, and help you move forward.
The keys here are realizing when your emotional brain is hijacking your rational one and, rather than letting your emotions drive the train of your life, stop the train. Get your rational brain back online by moving forward despite how you feel, even if it is the smallest baby steps. It’s about rewiring your brain, doing it differently to change these dysfunctional patterns.
Taibbi, R. (2014). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anxiety, anger & depression. New York: Norton.