Q. What is downshifting?

A. Downshifting is a mixed-metaphor term that addresses a natural brain phenomenon. Some writers actually use that word (e.g., Leslie Hart, Marie Barron, Joseph Chilton Pearce), while Robert Sylwester prefers the terms reflective versus reflexive. I like the word downshifting, as it is an easy way to help you wrap your hands around the concept.

Briefly, the brain can be described in terms of three functional layers that, in turn, can be compared to gears in a vehicle. When you are driving a vehicle and the going gets tough, the automatic transmission shifts to a lower gear to help you get through. A similar situation can occur in the brain. In situations of trauma, crisis, or in the presence of any type of fear, the brain tends to downshift automatically as it attempts to access resources that promote personal safety or that are perceived to be safer. This natural phenomenon results in an automatic shift of attention and energy away from the thinking-brain layer toward the lower brain layers, and it can do so outside of conscious awareness. The emotional-brain layer (2nd gear) responds to signals of danger from both the action-brain layer (1st gear) and the thinking-brain layer (3rd gear). Signals of danger that might be perceived from the thinking-brain layer include evaluation, criticism, and anxieties created in one’s own imagination.

When an individual is feeling insecure, anxious, undecided, and tense, the focus of attention can become divided among the three brain layers. Each brain layer has its own agenda, in effect. Thus the person may think one thing, feel another, and act from impulses that are completely different from either of the other two.

Even a good thing taken to the extreme can become deleterious. For example, you would not want your attention and energy focused primarily toward the lower brain layers for prolonged periods of time. The good news? Your brain is so complex and capable that you can think about and implement preplanned strategies to help increase conscious awareness and high-level thinking—even when your brain is temporarily in a downshifted state.