Many of us have at least some familiarity with the “busy brain” feeling of being overwhelmed. We all have days when instead of catching up, our task list seems to grow ever longer. A new work project lands on our desk even as we rush to complete the previous one. A young child or elderly parent falls sick, with the caretaking burden falling squarely on our shoulders. And then comes the last straw: the transmission on our old reliable car fails, incurring an expense we can’t afford.
With all that is on our plate, we feel revved up and in overdrive, perhaps on the brink of a panic attack. Thoughts go around and around, but instead of resting somewhere, they continue cycling: How will I catch up on the job? Take care of my children? Fix my car? Pay my bills?
What’s literally going on in our body and brain when we experience these sensations of a busy brain? What does it mean for our brains to be “revved up,” in overdrive, or, most crucially, unbalanced? A tour of the brain will help us begin to answer these questions.
The cerebral cortex, or the bulk of your brain, houses four lobes: the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe, the parietal lobe, and the occipital lobe. For the purposes of our discussion of balancing the brain, however, the frontal lobe, or the part located at the front of your brain is absolutely crucial.
The part of the frontal cortex closest to your eyes is called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. This is the executive control center of your brain; think of it as the “governor” or the “CEO” of the brain. It manages your attention, concentration, short‐term memory, organizational ability, impulse control, planning, judgment, learning, motivation, problem-solving, and goal setting. Quite a list. A well‐functioning PFC is crucial to your ability to rewrite the negative stories you tell yourself. Importantly, the PFC holds the limbic system in check, which helps the brain and maintain its balance.
The limbic system is the seat of your emotions. Found in the center of your brain, beneath the cortex, it is a more “primitive” brain area compared to your organizational, learning, and impulse‐controlling PFC.
Major components of the limbic system include the anterior cingulate, the basal ganglia, the amygdala, and the thalamus.
The anterior cingulate is your brain’s gear shifter. When the anterior cingulate is too active, you become “stuck.” Problems that involve the anterior cingulate include negative ruminations, obsessions, compulsions, and addictions.
The basal ganglia sets the rate of your body’s idle, much like a car engine. If it’s running too high (and this can be the result of your genetics), you’ll likely feel chronically anxious, worried, and keyed up. Excessively active basal ganglia are often accompanied by panic attacks and unhealthy avoidance of conflict.
The amygdala, an almond‐shaped area (amygdala means “almond” in Latin) is involved with basic survival issues. It is the equivalent of a primitive emergency alarm system. It quickly assesses threats and then triggers a fight‐or‐ flight reaction. Problems arise when high levels of stress create “amygdala overactivation.” Your executive function center, the PFC, can even be hijacked and shut down when the amygdala is in overdrive. The result? You’ll be overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, or terror, and your brain won’t be able to call on your PFC—the thinking part of your brain—to help you calm down.
Finally, the thalamus is involved in appetite, sleep, bonding, and sexual desire; this part of your brain colors your emotions. Conditions that are related to a problematic thalamus include depression, bipolar disorder, and even premenstrual problems.
I’ve described the busy brain as an unbalanced brain. The balance referred to here is that between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system. When the brain is unbalanced, the evolutionarily more modern PFC is either too strong or too weak to counter the more primitive limbic system.
On the one hand, if there is too much guidance, too much control by the PFC, you have somebody who is ruled by his head and not enough by his feelings, passions, and urges. Think of Mr. Spock from Star Trek. He is in such mastery of his emotions that he some‐ times fails to bene t from the insight others naturally derive from their passions or gut. When the PFC dominates, the brain is unhealthy and unbalanced.
On the other hand, if the limbic system is too strong and/or the PFC is too weak, you have an individual who is ruled by her passions and urges and controlled too little by her head, by rationality. This would be an individual with overwhelming feelings and impulses but insufficient rationality to select goals and guide behavior. The Anti–Mr. Spock. Someone out of control, in extreme cases maybe even someone manic. Most—but not all—instances of a busy brain fit this second pattern, a PFC or governing system that is not strong enough to control the limbic system.
Critical imbalances between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex adversely affect mental and emotional stability. When the limbic system is too strong and/or the PFC too weak, the PFC is not strong enough to control the wild horses of the limbic system and the herd runs amok. How do we rein in the wild horses if the prefrontal cortex isn’t doing its job properly?
You may have heard that meditation has a positive impact on the brain, a finding supported by research and verified by brain scans. Similarly, in learning to rewrite the negative stories we tell ourselves, we can also have a positive impact on the brain: we can strengthen the control of the PFC over the wayward limbic areas, bringing the brain into better balance. Simultaneously, by learning new models of relationships, we may calm our hyperarousal and create new patterns of behavior.
You can learn more about that first step – rewriting the negative stories we tell ourselves – here. Get my 11 tips for managing negativity, which will help rebalance a brain that is out of balance or leaning toward the negative.
Get Dr. Anibali’s 11 tips for managing negativity, which will help rebalance a brain that is out of balance or leaning toward the negative.
Dr. Annibali’s full guide to balancing your brain is available in his book RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN: Calming Your Thoughts, Healing Your Mind and Bringing Your Life Back Under Control
Reprinted from Reclaim Your Brain: How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Back Under Control by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, December.