The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain- Adult Edition

My most popular post of all time is “YELLING AND YELLING- THE DOWNSTAIRS AND UPSTAIRS BRAIN” which focuses on the brain and children. Let’s face it friends, children aren’t the only ones who get stuck in the downstairs brain. We adults can get stuck there too. We can end up living in survival mode. It becomes our new normal. We don’t even realize that we are living super stressed. Our cortisol levels are on high alert. We’re exhausted and overwhelmed, all the time.

“Imagine that your brain is a house, with both a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like flight and fight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).” – The Whole Brain Child

The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

The downstairs brain is survival mode. No logic is applied. No reasoning. Just illogical responses. The upstairs brain, on the other hand is completely different.

“ It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts- particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world.”The Whole Brain Child

It is sophisticated as opposed to primitive. This is where your creative process lives, imagining, thinking, planning. Logic lives here. This is where we want to set up the sectional, hang the curtains, artwork, and settle down with a cup of coffee. How do we live in our upstairs brain when we are constantly faced with circumstances, decisions and interruptions?

We react. That’s natural. Innate even. We need to pay attention to how we feel when faced with unexpected or stressful circumstances.

  • Are your palms sweating?
  • Is your heart beating out of your chest?
  • Do you feel as if you are going to jump out of our skin?

Your amygdala hijacks the brainstem and takes over the neocortex. You are in the downstairs brain. Not the creative, logical, artsy upstairs. We end up being reactive instead of proactive. Our downstairs brain is like a two-year old who says, “I want what I want NOW!” The brain stem only lives in the present. This is what leads us to eat the gallon of ice cream in one sitting. We make decisions based only on how we feel at the moment without regard for the future. We yell at our husbands or children. We don’t take the trip because we are too stressed.

How do we move back upstairs?

  1. Be aware of your feelings. Acknowledge them. Pray about them. Write them down if you prefer that method. “If you bury an emotion, you bury it alive.”- Gary Oliver Get rid of the belief that we must ignore emotions. They are there for a reason. God gave us emotions to protect us. Use them wisely. Don’t ignore them. The best way to be self-aware is to acknowledge your emotions.
  2. Holley Gerth advises us in her book, You’re Going to be Okay, to stop, drop and roll when it comes to calming the amygdala. Stop. Examine your emotions. Drop your expectations. And roll. Be flexible. This is where we stop on a dime. Get ready to pivot. Things happen. A child has an emergency surgery. Our car won’t start. Our schedules are full and we get sick. Pivot. I really wanted _________ to happen, but it didn’t work out, so I will ____________. This is an important step. Don’t skip it. Think these things through.Talk to yourself if you need to. In ETC training, we teach parents to have children tell stories of events in their lives aloud. We adults need to practice this as well. It serves the same purpose- allows us to put things in their place. We walk up the stairs and face problems with logic and creativity.
  3. After we adjust and pivot, we solve the problem for the moment. Crisis averted.Now take some time to be proactive. If your schedule is keeping you stressed, can you eliminate some things? Did you run to your downstairs brain because you didn’t stop and eat or rest (guilty). Are your emotions getting the best of you because of PMS? Do you need to take some time and renew your mind? Listen to some worship music or some uplifting podcasts. We need to feed our brain good food. What we put in our brains will eventually come out. Use this scripture as a guidleine for brain food.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.- Philippians 4: 8,9, The Message

We would all love to live under less stress. We’d like to thrive instead of just survive. Hopefully these simple steps will help us pivot and spend more time in our upstairs brains!


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