©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Fear of any type shuts down higher modes of awareness and throwsthe brain into an ancient survival mentality.
—Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Biology of Transcendence
Marilee propped herself on one elbow and said, “I swear you never told me that!” Her face was twisted with pain because of “my awful headache,” as she put it.
The patient had been admitted to the hospital after being involved in a multiple-car accident. A relatively common side effect of one test was headaches. And now, after having given the physician informed consent and having signed the hospital consent form providing permission to proceed with the test, Marilee was angrily proclaiming to one and all that nobody had told her about the possibility of post-procedure headaches.
This type of scenario is not relegated to the healthcare environment. It occurs everywhere in everyday life and can form the basis for misunderstandings, controversy, arguments, and litigation. What is happening in the brain when a person says, “You didn’t tell me that?” Especially when you are as sure as you know your own name that you did!
Knowing about the natural brain phenomenon of downshifting can not only help you understand what may be happening in these types of situations but can also assist you in implementing strategies to resolve downshifting quickly, improving the odds that communication will get through and recall occur.
Although not all researchers use the term downshifting, I prefer it because my brain can connect this information to something it already knows—an automatic transmission. When the going gets tough and you are driving a vehicle with automatic transmission, it automatically shifts down to a lower gear. When the going gets easier, it automatically shifts back up to a higher gear. Serious consequences can accrue if the vehicle’s transmission fails to upshift as expected, ranging from needing more time and fuel to reach your destination, being a potential hazard to other drivers, and increased wear and tear on the engine—if not outright damage.
A similar situation can occur in the brain. Downshifting results in an automatic shift of attention and energy away from higher brain layers toward the lower brain layers. Furthermore, it can even do so in a nanosecond and outside of conscious awareness.
Three Brain Layers (or Gears)
Metaphorically, think of your brain in terms of three functional layers—or gears. Although they interact continually, each is believed to contribute distinct functions that help you navigate along the highway of life. The drawing of the human brain at the right depicts these three layers/gears.
3rd layer or gear – Known as the neocortex (or new brain), this brain layer houses conscious rational-logical thought and executive functions, as well as subconscious thought; can perceive positive as well as negative statements (although positive instructions are easier to follow); and processes the present, past, and future.
2nd layer or gear – Known as the mammalian (or emotional brain), this subconscious layer includes the (so-called) pain/pleasure center, generates emotional impulses, directs immune system function, perceives positive statements, and processes the present and past.
1st layer or gear – Known as the reptilian (or action brain), this subconscious layer includes survival and stress-reaction reflexes, perceives positive statements and the pictures they generate in the brain, and processes the present only.
You Always Give up Something to Get Something
That’s true! Even a good thing—taken to the extreme—can lose some of its helpfulness. Just as with a vehicle’s automatic transmission, there are positive and negative consequences related to downshifting in the human brain. When downshifting is activated frequently or sustained for a prolonged period, learning and development can be impaired in children; and thinking, learning, and decision-making can become faulty in adults. Communication can be hindered if the sender, the receiver, or both are in a downshifted state. This information can be especially important for healthcare professionals, whose services are often sought by individuals in crisis (e.g., those who have experienced trauma, are fearful, or are in emotional or physical pain).
Estimates are that people may recall less than 15% of what is told to them during a crisis. When the brain is downshifted through fear, anxiety, or worry, you may be prevented from learning cognitively, react more automatically (reflexively and instinctually), and be resistant to change. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Merilee’s perception was “You never told me that!” Her brain had likely been in a downshifted state due to the recent trauma, along with some measure of anxiety about testing procedures and ultimate recovery.
In general, the brain tends to downshift in situations that involve trauma, crisis, or any type of fear—worry and anxiety representing forms of fear.
You can be proactive in learning how to prevent unnecessary or prolonged downshifting:
1. Develop a high-level-wellness lifestyle
In general, the brain tends to work more effectively when its owner is living a high-level-wellness lifestyle in balance. This can help you prevent periods of exhaustion. For every period of exhaustion, the brain tends to experience a corresponding period of depression. While depression in and of itself may not be a trigger for downshifting, it can drain your energy and increase your risk of being challenged in areas that you find difficult or energy intensive.
2. Create a loss history and engage in appropriate grief recovery, as needed
Unresolved loss can create internal tension, anxiety, and even fear. Write down your loss history. The starting date may be prior to your birth in some cases (e.g., you were not a wanted pregnancy). Evaluate your loss history carefully and engage in appropriate grief recovery as needed. Refer to Taylor’s website for information about the Grief Recovery Pyramid for survivors of loss, as opposed to the Kubler-Ross model for individuals who are personally facing death. Dealing with loss effectively can help prevent unnecessary downshifting.
3. Give up blame that is related to downshifting
Recognize that downshifting is a natural phenomenon that tends to occur automatically and is largely subconscious. It is a desirable short-term “fix” for the brain to access behaviors and reactions that it perceives are safer. Even if you downshifted unnecessarily or stayed down too long, avoid beating up on yourself. Most people (that includes you!) do the best they can under the particular circumstances with their level of understanding and the tools that are available to them. Blaming can create anxiety, which might trigger downshifting. Blame is a red herring that never fixes anything. Avoid it. Just learn from your experiences and do better next time.
4. Increase conscious awareness
Perhaps 90-95% of what goes on in the brain occurs at a subconscious or nonconscious level. You can manage only what you become aware of and can label and describe. It’s often what you don’t know you don’t know that can trigger dissention, anxiety, and downshifting. Become more observant and increase your conscious awareness of both your external and internal worlds.
5. Develop an appropriate response to conflict situations
Perceived conflict, especially if fear is involved, can trigger downshifting. Just anticipating the possibility can be enough. Avoiding conflict (when possible) is being smart. Running away from unavoidable conflict is not. The mature, responsible approach is to take careful and deliberate steps to resolve conflict in a timely manner rather than creating a metaphorical enemy outpost of unresolved conflict in your head. Managing conflict successfully may involve using tools such as reframing, forgiving, setting bona fide boundaries, raising your emotional intelligence, and changing your thought patterns and mindset, to name just a few. Metaphorically, build yourself a conflict toolkit and carry it with you inside your brain.
6. Take responsibility for upshifting
No one can upshift your brain but you. Understand that upshifting occurs through a conscious process. Develop at least two preplanned strategies, then take responsibility for implementing them the moment you recognize your brain is downshifted. Any number of strategies work well. My favorite two are these:
- Think of something humorous and choose to laugh. A sense of humor is housed in the right hemisphere of the third brain layer; laughter is in the left.
- Think of something for which to be grateful. It is impossible to be fearful and grateful at the same time and, after all, it’s fear that is most likely to trigger downshifting.
7. Develop an affirming communication style toward yourself and others
Negativity, impatience, worry, anxiety, or fear can act as a trigger for downshifting, actually delaying personal growth, learning, and needed recovery processes, if not addressed and resolved. This is especially true when new, more functional patterns of behavior are in the process of being developed and are not yet strong enough to override the older, less desirable patterns. Speak, think, and act in an affirming manner. Follow the old adage, Fake it ‘til you make it! Then watch more desirable behaviors emerge and become the norm.
You need the benefits that appropriate downshifting can provide: virtually instantaneous access to survival mechanisms and stress responses. You also can benefit from preventing inappropriate downshifting and from avoiding staying downshifted longer than absolutely necessary.
Using this natural brain phenomenon appropriately can help you live life more safely, smoothly, and effectively.
That’s good for everyone. And every little bit helps!