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!

What am I Going to Eat?

I’ve been stuck in panic mode today. What am I panicking about? Food. Yep. That’s right, food. Weird, huh? I’m going on vacation to visit some of my favorite people, but there is always a nagging thought in the back of my head- What am I going to eat? Okay, it’s a shouting thought.

What am I going to eat_.png

My word for the year is “study”. It has been on my heart to study the mind.  God wants me to get my health in line. It’s been a constant learning curve for me since I was diagnosed with CFS and hypothyroidism in 2005, and Celiac disease in 2011.

I’ve read tons of articles on CFS and immune system diseases in general.  There is all sorts of advice for eating right, exercising to your ability level, getting an adequate amount of sleep and drinking enough water. All of those things are good. I need to do all of those things and so do you.

Last week, I talked a little bit on the website about falling back into old mindsets.

Sometimes our battle is not with what is happening to us, but an old mindset that keeps us trapped. The mindset that keeps trying to re-insert itself into my life is- you won’t have food to eat or you will get cross contamination and be miserable. That’s just no way to live. Fear of this sort is about something that could happen, but my body reacts as if it already were true.

Mindsets become strongholds. Strongholds form new pathways within our brains. When the new pathway forms, it eventually becomes a tree. It can become a toxic tree or a healthy tree, depending on what kinds of thoughts built the stronghold.

I’m not staying in that old mindset. I’m moving on.

We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.- 2 Corinthians 10: 5, 6

Are there some mindsets keeping you trapped? Are they stopping you from enjoying your life?

Battling Old Mindsets

Do circumstances boss you around or is it mindsets?

I’ve been wrestling with this for a few weeks. I often think that my reaction to what is happening around me is the only thing I need to be concerned about. What about you?

Being reactive in situations is a difficult thing to sort. Even when I think I am reacting in the right way outwardly, I am often unaware of my inner reaction until someone asks me how I am. Or I read an article or watch a video or hear a song, then the tears flow and I’m thinking, where in the world did that come from?

Often my trigger gets flipped and I don’t even know it. It  is hidden, like a secret switch buried deep within a secure military base. I don’t even know it is there. Outwardly, I am in ‘control’. I am renewing my mind with the Word, praying and doing all the right things. Then some event flips the switch. I don’t even know it. There are no lights flashing. No warning. It’s quiet and subtle. Then I begin to inflate like a helium balloon. Someone says something and  I pop.

I was driving on the interstate yesterday. Lori and I were meeting at the venue for The Gathering to draw our map and fill out papers. I was listening to “You were Made to Thrive” by Casting Crowns on repeat and belting it out at the top of my lungs. I had been in an emotional funk for days. I couldn’t put my finger on why. As I sang, I heard a still small whisper.

You are holding onto an old mindset.

What? No, I’m not. I’ve been reading all these books on the mind, God. Renewing it. Who Switched on My Brain by Dr. Caroline Leaf. Battle Ready by Kelly Balarie. Watching videos and listening to praise music.

You’re holding on to an old mindset.

God is doesn’t give up on us. He doesn’t back down. Like the song says, there’s no shadow he won’t light up coming after me.

Sometimes our battle is not with what is happening to us, but an old mindset that keeps us trapped.

What if you thought you could make it_.png

I have several autoimmune diseases. I won’t go into that in-depth, but suffice to say that there have been two points in my life that I was almost bedridden. I passed out at random times. I couldn’t handle much activity at all. I couldn’t travel.

During those periods, I began to think differently about what I could handle. I began to believe that I wasn’t going to make it. I literally wanted to die.  I just didn’t want to live and not be able to function. My muscles wasted away. My adrenals surged all the time. My hands shook. I had to take breaks walking up the stairs.

So, here I was driving, my body functioning well. I can do more today than I have been able to do for years. I’m not crashing. So, what was that mindset that I had slidden back into that was poisoning everything?

I’m not going to make it. This is too much for me. Everything is going to fall apart. I can’t hold myself together.

It all came bubbling back up. The old way of doing. The old way of feeling. The old way of handling life. I was expecting myself to crash. Not physically. Just mentally. Emotionally. I forgot the truth that I wasn’t there anymore. It was if I were bedridden and unable to function even though I had just left a Pop Pilates class and felt great. Isn’t  it amazing what a trigger can do? I don’t know when it was flipped or why.

After a good cry last night and talking through some things with my team, I realized I needed a mini vacation for my emotions. I needed to think about how I  was filtering things through the old mindset and get a reset. I listened to Lauren Daigle’s , Look up Child and sang along with tears streaming down my face. I read some of Battle Ready


Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon. God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apple them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.- Ephesians 6: 13-18 The Message


Do you have old mindsets coming back to rule the roost? Have you been emotional and don’t know why? Is there something I can pray about for you? Leave it in the comments. I get it. Life throws you for a loop sometimes, even when it looks as if everything is going well.

When you have to ask your child, “Have you been drinking your water?”

I couldn’t go on the field trip that day. I sent my son along with some friends. I packed a water bottle and lunch for him. It was going to be a scorcher. And then,… I worried. I had to be somewhere else that day and all I could think of was my son. Did he drink anything? Did he eat? I’m not an overprotective, helicopter Mom. I’m a realistic one. I know my son. He will save his water so he “has it for later.” He will save his food because he’s “not really that hungry right now”. The sad truth is, he doesn’t know how to self regulate. He doesn’t recognize his body’s own needs. He doesn’t have a signal that his body is thirsty or hungry.

images (1) water

Why doesn’t my son recognize these needs and meet them? Why doesn’t he self regulate? It all stems from neglect in his first year and a half of life. Neglect impairs the brain. It stops the brain from healthy growth. The effects of neglect are worse than those of abuse. Ignoring a child (and not attaching) is more damaging than not feeding the child.

When a child is attaching normally in infancy, the parents regulate for him. mother covers him when he is cold, feeds him when he is hungry, changes him when he wet, etc.. Eventually, the child begins to self-regulate. He recognizes the need to eat and asks for food. He recognizes thirst and asks for a drink. He grabs a blanket or sweater when he is cold.

The neglected, hurt child does not, CANNOT, recognize his own needs. This is why my son does not drink his water on field trips or eat his lunch. A hurt child needs his parents to regulate for him. Here’s the hard part: we parents may be judged for telling our teen to eat and drink while we are on a field trip. We may be viewed as controlling or the helicopter parent especially from those who believe that kids will naturally work these things out (and they usually do if they haven’t been neglected).

I have one thing to say: we adoptive parents have to get over it!  It doesn’t matter what other people think about our parenting skills. Our job is to keep these kids alive and give them the parenting THEY need, not the parenting their peers need. Take it from someone who knows. My kids have had some close calls because I tried traditional parenting here and there and hoped my children would catch on to what their peers were doing. I hoped they would drink water when everyone else did or eat when everyone else did. Didn’t happen. I had teens on multiple occasions spend all day in the hot sun at a picnic and not drink or eat anything only to come home sick at the end of the day, dehydrated. I once got a call from a friend who had one of my kids thirteen hours away at Disney world. My teenage daughter was very sick and she didn’t know what to do. “Did she drink anything today?” “Well, she carried a water bottle around all day but I didn’t ever see her drink out of it.” She was dehydrated. I called it. My friend made her drink several Gatorades and I gave her husband, a doctor, permission to put an IV in her if he deemed necessary. A few hours later, my daughter was back to her good-natured self.

Dr. Karen Purvis says that hurt children walk around in a dehydrated state most of the time. Our bodies are seventy percent water. Water gives our brains the electrical energy for brain function.

“Just as an automobile needs fuel and motor oil to run properly, a child requires nutritious food and an optimum flow of neurotransmitters to keep brain circuits operation smoothly. A shortage of nutrition or neurotransmitters can disrupt the nervous system causing behavioral and thinking disturbances.”- The Connected Child

Where do we go from here? You teach your older kids who may never receive the hunger or thirst signal properly to have some strategies for life. When my youngest daughter started her first part-time job, she forgot to eat or drink all day. And I noticed the symptoms of dehydration. Muscle cramps, dizziness, loss of balance, serious stuff! So, we worked out a plan. She began taking water, Gatorade and food with her to work. She sipped her water all day. She ate peanut butter sandwiches on break whether she felt like it or not. A few years later, she still doesn’t recognize her body signaling thirst, but she does recognize the signs of dehydration. The other morning she stumbled in my room with some serious leg cramps.

“You know what I’m going to ask you, right?”

“Have you been drinking your water?”

“Yes, and go eat a banana!”

Yelling and YELLING- The Downstairs and Upstairs Brain


Yelling and YELLING

“Why are you yelling at me? You always yell at me!”

Have your children ever said this to you? How about when you are talking in a normal tone and they are yelling? Confusing, huh?

These kids seem to be hearing things differently than the rest of us. This is because they are operating in the downstairs brain. They are seeing things through the lens of hypervigilence or survival mode. Noises sound louder.  The amygdala is hard at work. It resides in the downstairs brain and is hard at work looking for danger. It produces the shot of adrenaline which we commonly refer to as flight or fight. Sometimes the amygdala’s on switch gets stuck. Then the kid gets stuck in survival mode.

“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 downstairs brain is survival mode. No logic is applied. No reasoning. Just illogical responses. When a child gets stuck here, his body shoots cortisol through the system and he lives on the edge. A simple request sounds like YELLING.  IN FACT EVERYTHING IS AMPLIFIED. A CAR THAT PASSES THROUGH THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS A THREAT. A COMPLIMENT IS TWISTED INTO A CORRECTION. You get the point. Scary, huh? No fun to live there.


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.

So, how do we help a child integrate the upstairs brain when he demands to stay downstairs? How do we turn YELLING into yelling?  Remember your child’s brain is a work in progress. The upstairs brain is still developing. It won’t happen overnight. You can help him climb the stairs once and check it out. The more he does, the more he will use it. The more he uses it, the more it will grow. Remember Connect and Redirect? That is one way. Keep practicing. (Read the disclaimer).

Here’s another suggestion. Give him assignments that require him to use the upstairs brain. Problems to solve. He has plenty. Don’t try to do it is for him all the time. Let him work it out. This is where planning, creativity and logic come into play. And I mean play. Lego building. Block towers. Drawing. Writing stories. Planning out a plot. My son who loves to write( he just wouldn’t admit it publicly, so keep that to yourself, ok?) loves story prompts. We did a semester of them usually a few times a week. I wrote the prompt on the whiteboard and he wrote the rest of the story. When he got stuck in a rut and everyone died at the end of each story, I put my foot down and asked him to think of some new endings. No one lived happily ever after, but they lived. Kids today have so little time to be creative. Soccer practice is good, but it doesn’t replace the need for creative play. The type of play that resides in the attic of the brain with grandma’s old clothes for brain food and a skit is born.

YELLING can become conversation in the upstairs brain,

  • “How did you build that?Tell me about it.”
  • “How do you think you can solve that problem?”
  • “What could you do differently?”
  • “What could you do to make your day easier tomorrow?”

Just remember, these questions cannot be asked in the middle of meltdown. You must make opportunities when things are calm and happy. It is tempting to enjoy the calm and slip away to do something else (like the dishes), but take advantage of the quiet to connect with your child and watch him work his upstairs brain!

*drawing from The Whole Brain Child



Connect and Redirect

“You love her more!”

“You never want to talk to me!”

“You only spend time with her.”

All of these accusations were hurled at me one morning after having a catch up session with one of my daughters. She had worked a weekend full of doubles and we hadn’t had a moment together. Instead, I had spent the whole weekend with the child accusing me of never talking to him or spending time with him. His accusations, to quote Spock (from Star Trek) were ‘illogical’. Why? He wasn’t using the left side of his brain. He wasn’t integrating both sides. He was dis-integrated.

“Your left brain loves and desires order. It is logical, literal, linguistic (it loves words), and linear (it puts things in order). the left brain loves that all four of these words begin with the letter L. (It also loves lists).

The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate , such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Instead of details and order, our right brain cares about the big picture-the meaning and feeling of an experience-and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories.” – Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

The temptation with a child who mostly operates in the right brain is not to connect with them. They are so busy accusing, being angry, melting down that we don’t want to deal with them until their behavior improves. Then it doesn’t. It gets worse. Remember self regulation? Not there. What these kids need is for us to connect and redirect. Logic is not going to produce any fruit when the child is deep in a right brain emotional reaction.

What can we do?

  1.  Connect with the Right.Acknowledge their feelings. They might not seem logical or real to you, but they are to them. Use a calm tone of voice. Touch them on the shoulder or hug them (if they are not in sensory overload). Use your right brain to connect. Remember, you are the adult. You can integrate both halves of your brain.
  2. Redirect with the Left. Use your left brain to help them. If a child cannot self-regulate, be their regulator. Strategize. Plan. In the situation with my son, I could say. “Would you like to play a game later?” or “How can we spend some time together? Ideas?”

I’m not talking about letting a child manipulate or control. I’m talking about helping them regulate, integrate, recognize emotions and feelings and apply some logical steps. It would not have done any good if I said, “You are just jealous!”

Connecting and Redirecting is a process that must be repeated over and over again. Then one day…..there will be a moment, a pinprick of light when he uses the right/left brain together. Again, this is not a magic potion to be used once. Repeat often for good results.

*Disclaimer- Sometimes a child is past the point of no return and you cannot connect and redirect when all they need is a long nap, a nourishing meal, or they are just finished with being out running errands.

Interested in more info? Check out this book!

Manageable Meltdown Monday and the Brain


Most parents are experts on their child. They know his favorite color, favorite movie, food, and so on. But when it comes to what is going on in their brain, they are at a loss. I’ve been there. Busy dealing with outward behaviors and trying to manage them instead of figuring out what is going on inside.

Years ago, we were packing up to go to a state part about forty minutes away for some amateur rock climbing and hiking. One of my sons did  everything and anything to make the trip go away. Fits. Meltdowns. Hitting. Not helping pack. I was shocked. This kid loves the outdoors!  I managed to get him in the suburban and he had a great time after feeling out the place.

So, what was going on in this kid’s brain? Why did he oppose something he loved. Control? Yes, but where did that control come from? Did he feel powerless? Yes. But why? Let’s look at what was going on in the brain.

“Most of us don’t think about the fact that our brain has many different parts with different jobs. For example, you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues. You also have a “reptile brain” that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a “mammal brain’ that leads you toward connection and relationships….”-Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

A hurt child and children who have suffered breaks in attachment are using only part of the brain. Their brains get stuck in “reptile brain” or survival mode. Everything is dangerous. They are hypervigilant. Change, even good change, like going out for ice cream make them react as if they are stuck in the middle of a forest during a forest fire.The flight or fight hormones are raging. The child cannot self regulate because he is not integrating that part of the brain into his decision making process. His brain is dis-integrated. The goal is to help the child integrate all parts of the brain.

This post is just one suggestion to help integrate. There is so much new information on the brain, It’s exciting and overwhelming. I am only offering a bit at at time, so we can chew on it together. We can practice together.

Right now, your child’s brain is constantly being wired and rewired through experiences. How can we help them integrate other parts of the brain, the logic side? Talk. Listen. Rehearse experiences. Let them tell the story. After the state park meltdown, my son and I had opportunities to talk about what we did that day, hiking, climbing, picnicking and the bees that swarmed around our sweet drinks. He has a place to put that memory and pull it out next time we go to the park.

“Are we going to the place that has Rock City? Are we packing a lunch? Should I wear my hiking boots?” I can almost see the gears turning in the left brain. Like the old computers booting up, he is reaching to grab onto the past experience. When he has it in mind, he has a framework to build on. He stress is lessened.

My allowing and I say allowing, because sometimes I would like quiet instead, my once nonverbal son, former cleft palate patient is a talker. After a busy few days, he wants to talk, to tell me the story of his life. He needs to. He needs to put it out there to rewire his brain, to de-stress and get out of survival mode. One of his tells, “I had fun. I didn’t  think I would like it.” or “It wasn’t bad. Did you like it mom?” in reference to whatever event we just attended. He has definite dislikes too, He likes to tag along on my Barnes and Noble coffee dates if a certain cousin is attending or he has money to buy a book. Otherwise, he would rather stay home. That is using the logic part of the brain to make a choice. Yeee-HAWWW!

What about Mondays?

On Mondays, I need to allow time in the morning for him to talk about the weekend. Sunday evening doesn’t cut it. I know. Mondays are busy. We want to get back on track. We have schedules and our kids need schedules, but if we want our kids to make progress and integrate their brains, re-wire them, we must make time to let them tell their stories.

“…children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of their experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”-Daniel J. Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

The tip for this Monday? Let your child talk. Let him talk about his experiences, his feelings without correcting. Listen.

Want to read more about the whole-brain? Click on the book below and order a copy!