A little while ago, I blogged about Rick Hanson’s Red Brain, Green Brain model and how it can help us to understand mental wellbeing and regulation. I suggested that this model is particularly helpful in understanding why so many people’s mental health is suffering during the pandemic. Briefly, Hanson suggests that it is helpful to think of the three layers of our brain as each having a distinct operating system. The brainstem corresponds to our “avoiding harms” system, the subcortex to our “approaching rewards” system, and our neocortex to our “attachment to others” system. Each system has two basic settings, green or red. When our needs governed by each system are met, that system is in the green, well-regulated state. When our needs are not well met, we’re in the reactive red zone.
This week, I want to review Hanson’s advice on what we can do as individuals to better regulate our brains’ three operating systems and to offer my thoughts on what this model suggests we might do as members of a wider community to improve our collective wellbeing.
Mindfulness Practices to Stay Green
In order to help our three operating systems stay green, Hanson suggests we develop mindfulness practices that will soothe each layer of our brains. (Recall that each brain layer corresponds to a different stage of vertebrate evolution.) So, we should metaphorically pet the lizard (brain stem), feed the mouse (subcortex), and hug the monkey (neocortex). To pet the lizard and regulate the “avoiding harms” system—which governs perhaps our most primal emotion, fear—Hanson suggests we do our best to recognize any anxiety we are experiencing, even when it is a subtle background trickle, and then to relax and remind ourselves that we are actually okay in this moment. Then do it again. And again. Hanson says that it is best to make this a regular daily practice. To help this system go green, it’s especially important to do things that calm and soothe the body. I find a regular practice of mindful breathing to be essential. Relaxing baths don’t hurt either. It can be as simple as pausing to feel the sun on your face.
Feeding the mouse can be practiced by being mindfully aware of the things in our lives that physically, emotionally, and spiritually satisfy and nourish us. It’s easy to focus on actual or potential scarcities during the pandemic, but to keep our approaching rewards operating system green Hanson encourages us to routinely and mindfully appreciate the food we eat; the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that delight us; the warmth and help others might provide us; the things we accomplish, even if they are mundane, like getting the dishes washed and put away. The list of potentially satisfying aspects of our lives is long, if only we pay attention. Of course, we live in a media-saturated environment that constantly sends us signals that we shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have. The next, new, must-have thing or experience is featured on every screen and we are ever reminded that someone else’s grass is greener than ours. Sometimes it’s best to turn these signals off.
Lastly, to hug the monkey, Hanson advises that we do our best to develop a basic sense that we are cared for. Most of us know that there are people out there who love us; they genuinely want us to be happy, to flourish, and not to suffer. Then Hanson counsels us to regularly pause each day to open ourselves to the feeling of being cared about, to savour the experience of being valued, understood, and cherished by another person. Let these feelings really sink in. Then, shift your focus to the feelings of caring for someone else. What does caring for this person—a child, a family member, a friend—feel like in your body? What do the associated emotions feel like? What thoughts arise? Soak it all in! These days, many of us are longing for an actual hug, but this practice, when done often and well, is the next best thing.
Finding a Balance When Anger is an Appropriate Response
Since the lynching of George Floyd there has been a mass, worldwide uprising against anti-Black racism. Police killings of Black and Indigenous people in Canada are waking Canadians up to the systemic racism in our country too. How could any human being not be touched by these senseless deaths? In many cases, instead of calling people who know how to de-escalate and address mental health issues caused by trauma and poverty, people are sending in the police, which becomes a death sentence for too many Black and Indigenous people.
And so we are feeling angry. It’s an appropriate response to the pain of hundreds of years’ worth of oppression, and it helps us to take action, refusing to settle for anything less than being treated as full human beings.
It’s a tricky balance to strike, though; when anger is excessive, it can become self-destructive. We are already worn down by the pandemic, and now we are in danger of having our stress hormones spike further. This can hijack our amygdala and impair our higher thinking function. At a certain point, being angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
It’s reasonable to assume we’ll be in this pandemic for at least another year or two. And I know for certain that our struggle against racism will be much longer. Just as we can’t stay in an anxious state all the time during the pandemic, we can’t keep our anger about racism in full flame without burning ourselves. We need to allow the embers of our anger to fuel us, but not devour us. This makes the work of greening our brain even more important—it will help us stay the course, avoid burnout, and continue to engage in this vital societal action against oppression.
Building “Green” Communities
I think we all know that the writing is on the wall: we must green our economy and our culture to avoid environmental crisis. But I think the pandemic is making it clear that we also need to make changes in the way our society is organized to foster “greener” brains. Reorganizing society in ways that make people less fearful of each other, that are better able to satisfy people’s needs, without constantly stoking desires, and that foster genuine connections between people is obviously an enormous, long-term project. Dismantling racism will be a vital piece of this work. In the meantime, however, I think there are lots of ways we can take action in the here-and-now to work together to create an environment more conducive to green brains.
Above all else, I think we need to reach out to others, even as we keep our distance. It seems to me that we can “pet the lizard” by getting to know our neighbours better, especially those that are different from us. After all, we often fear or mistrust what we don’t know. Connecting with others, especially through the kinds of mutual aid projects that have been popping up during the pandemic, should also help to “feed the mouse.” One would think that when we know we can ask others for help, and provide it in return, our need to feel satisfied will be, well, satisfied. And lastly, obviously, having stronger connections with other people would seem to be a good way to hug the monkey. In lieu of actual hugs, building and strengthening our relationships with others would seem to be a good way of keeping our attaching to others system green. We can attend demonstrations (masked and distanced as much as possible) to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in any of our struggles. We can donate money to causes that are working to make the world safer for Black and Indigenous people.
Much of this is made difficult by the restrictions made necessary by the virus. But thankfully it’s summertime for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, so physically distanced, end-of-the-driveway type hangouts are possible. And of course, there are virtual hangouts, emails, texts, and good old-fashioned phone calls and letters. All of this can help us to connect with others and keep our operating systems in the green.
How have you been soothing yourself throughout the pandemic? Is it coming more easily now, or is the reopening of the economy making it more difficult? Are you managing to engage in the anti-racist movement while maintaining some sense of calm? I’m sending love to everyone struggling and hope that you are spending more time in the green than in the red.
If you, your family, or your team at work are in need of support as you find the best solutions to getting and staying in the Green, get in touch here.