The Gift of Presence in Challenging Times
By Rebecca Brumm, MA, LPC, CEDS
The human brain is a very useful machine. As it takes in and interprets data around you, the brain is making connections, predictions, and projections in a matter of microseconds. This ability allows us to do amazing things: catch a ball, drive a car, or even think about our own thinking! While scientists know the human brain is faster and more sophisticated than even the most advanced computer, the powerful tool contained within your skull can contribute to unnecessary suffering, especially during times of high stress. Knowing how the brain works, how it can make challenging times harder, and how to manage it can allow for more peace and clarity in uncertain circumstances.
The brain’s job is to take in a stimulus around you, compare it against what you know and have experienced, and then make a prediction about what will happen next and how you should respond. This process has been and remains vital to keeping the human race safe and evolving. Through this lens, it has been important for the brain to key in on the most dangerous circumstances and project the worst outcomes, so the response can be one that will save your life. It is even fair to suggest the most anxious brains that anticipated and prepared for the most dangerous circumstances were the ones that stuck around long enough to contribute to the gene pool.
Unfortunately, there are disadvantages to the way the brain operates. While it is wired to protect us, this means it often defaults to worst-case scenarios. What is even more challenging is when these worst-case scenarios are predicted, it is very difficult for the brain to consider any other scenarios because it becomes fixated on preparing for the greatest threat. Even when the worst-case scenario is the least likely outcome, the brain can trigger the mind and body to react as though it is actually happening. This becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, where your thoughts cause your body to react, and your body’s reaction causes your brain to become more concerned.
This is where the gift of presence can help. Thinking of the brain as a tool, resource, or machine that assists you by helping you make predictions can remind you that, like a risk management department in a company, its role is to anticipate the worst. These anticipations feed worry, and worry – especially in times where the threat is largely out of your control– contributes to further stress, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and panic. Getting out of prediction mode and connecting with the present moment helps to shift these more challenging emotions to neutrality, gratitude, peace, and acceptance.
To start shifting into presence, you first must catch you are reacting to a story your brain is creating but which is not actually happening. Asking yourself, “What in this story is true about this moment”, or “which of the things I am telling myself is actual fact” is a way you can start to gain awareness. Become aware of how your body can have a stress response simply from the thoughts it has.
Anyone who has ever watched a scary movie and then felt afraid to be out in the dark afterward will recognize the body’s response to the mind – the racing heart, tense stomach and urge to run. These body responses are cued by the mind, even without external stimuli to cause the reaction. Anxiety can operate like an internal horror film. Your mind projects its worst fear, your body starts to respond as though you are living it, and you may find yourself overcome by terror. Recognizing it is a story, or a movie, or even a prediction gives you the option to play a different internal tape.
Moving into greater presence can happen in challenging the feared prediction with what is true now. Much of the stress that results from challenging times is around the fear of loss. The interesting paradox of this is when we are lost in thoughts of what a loss will feel like, we forget in this moment we still have the thing we fear losing. One of the most heartbreaking truths about life is everything is impermanent. Nothing and no one will last forever. Being consumed with fear of losing something that will be lost steals the amazing moments where we do in fact still have it. This is again an opportunity to cherish the here and now.
While the brain is often the king of jumping to the worst, things are most often never as difficult as the brain suggests it will be. This is another paradox; the brain predicts far more suffering from circumstances than are usually endured. Just knowing the brain acts as your protective helicopter parent can remind you what usually happens is a less painful experience which often presents opportunities to find new growth and joy in each moment.
The following approaches can be used to help you root yourself back into the present moment:
Stop and notice one thing from each of your five senses that is true now. Maybe you hear the birds chirping, or taste your mint gum, or feel the ground under your feet. Reconnecting to the truths that are in your moment now can move you out of your head and into the here and now.
Ask yourself, “What is one thing I am extremely grateful for in my life right now?” Finding brightness in your life right now can shift the brain. While the brain is naturally wired to pick up on the negative, it can be trained through practice to find the positive. Taking daily inventory of ten new things you are grateful for has been shown to have antidepressant effects similar to depression medication.
Taking a full minute to count all of the lines on the back of your hands moves the brain from a place where the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, is in control, to a place where the prefrontal cortex or the “smart, human” part is again running the show. This simple, but consuming task requires a low level of brain skill that encourages a shift in the parts of the brain that are driving the bus. In times of danger, the prefrontal cortex requires too many resources and takes too much time to react to a true threat, such as jumping away from a poisonous snake. The amygdala is much less accurate but far quicker. In dangerous situations this serves a purpose, but more often than not, by the time the prefrontal cortex acknowledges the snake we are jumping from is actually a garden hose, the amygdala has already initiated reaction.
Our brains are intricate, magnificent machines which provide endless opportunities for both deep joy and suffering. Understanding, appreciating, accepting, and training your powerful mind can lead to a better experience of weathering highly stressful situations and experiences.
About the author:
Rebecca K. Brumm, MA, LPC, CEDS, serves as the Director of Operations for Laureate Eating Disorders Program. Rebecca has a Masters in professional counseling from Central Michigan University. Though she has helped clients through a variety of challenges in her practice as a therapist since 2005, she specializes in helping people work on improving their body image and overcoming eating disorders. Her expertise in this area comes from a variety of perspectives: she is a certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, a Health At Every Size (HAES) practitioner, and has served as a national health presenter for Cigna Health. Additionally, Rebecca earned the Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) credential. This credential is a designation from the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (iaedp) Foundation. It requires a rigorous set of criteria for the evaluation of education, training, knowledge, and experience in treating eating disorders. Rebecca was the second in her home state of Michigan to achieve this specialized certification that allows her to offer clients the assurance and confidence that the highest standards of care will be provided throughout all stages of treatment.
Rebecca has collaborated with one of the nation’s leading Psychophysiological Disorder expert, Dr. Howard Schubiner, to understand chronic pain and make this treatment available at in Mid-Michigan. She feels psychological interventions for pain reflect how important it is to incorporate treatment for the mind and body for total wellness. For over a decade, she has experienced how a strained relationship with the body can negatively affect the quality of life. Rebecca is passionate about helping people develop self- compassion, connection, and acceptance. She believes learning to nurture a healthy relationship with one’s body can be transformative in someone’s overall quality of life. Rebecca lives with her spouse, two sons and dog.