Insights: Forward Thinking

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Ever had one of those days, weeks, months or years where it just felt like you could not get yourself back to your norm?

Not a fun feeling for anyone. Often we find ourselves resisting, fighting and protesting these times, hoping it will all just fall back into place. This resistance does not work. In fact, all it does is make it more difficult.

When life does not go according to our plans, the first thing to do is stop. Yes, stop. Slow down. Take stock of where we are.

Most of us go into a fight, flight or freeze mode. This mode usually keeps us stuck as we are coming from the amygdala part of the brain—also known as the reptilian brain because reptilians do not think through their reactions. They just react out of fear and live in this survival mode.

Is that how you want to live life, just surviving minute by minute, day by day?

I want more—I want to embrace all I can from life. This requires my frontal lobe to function, and if we function from the frontal lobe, we cannot be reacting in the amygdala.  These two parts of the brain cannot work at the same time.

So we have a choice: either come from fear and survival, or come from the frontal lobe where we can think through our choices, look at larger options and make proactive decisions.

Exploring life, living our dreams, means frontal lobe use. When we get overwhelmed it is easy to make our choices from the amygdala. We need forward thinking (frontal lobe thinking), this allows us to look at the larger picture.

Let me give you an example.

My friend, Sarah, had lost her job and was over whelmed with looking for a new one. She shared how stressed she was cutting out doing anything else except looking for a job. When I asked how well this was working for her, she burst into tears.

The therapist part of me could not help but come out and share this same idea with her, telling her to get out of her amygdala and into her frontal lobe.

Look at the larger picture, I told her. What do you really want? What would this look like? How do you start moving towards that picture? And in the meantime how do you take care of yourself?

Addressing these questions, it was amazing how different the picture was. From the amygdala Sarah was just going from job interview to job interview and hours on the computer, thinking about moving to other cities that she had little interest in living in and jobs that were about survival not flourishing.

Remember the amygdala is not about flourishing, just survival.

The picture was so different when we looked at what she actually wanted. Her face lit up and the tears ceased as she talked about living by the beach and having a position that makes a difference, that she is passionate about, and less about the money.

It was easy for Sarah to start going back into fear with the “what ifs” and “can I really have this” and “do I deserve this.”

I did not need to say anything, I just give her a look. She knows this look and what it means. Her response was, ‘I know, I know… why can’t I.’

Sarah decided to not take the safe jobs. She did not move to a city she did not want to go to, and is confident that she can create the larger picture. She knows that the only way she can create this is through remaining in her frontal lobe.

Where we come from in the brain can change the direction of our lives. The great news is we get to choose.

Dr. Zavala can be reached at [email protected] or

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