At lunch time last Saturday we arrived at our holiday home for a week of highland walks and beautiful lochs. After an afternoon of unpacking and catching up with our friends, my two boys wandered down to the edge of the loch to throw stones into the water for a game of ‘big splashes’. I didn’t particularly want to drag myself away from the adult chat around the dinner table but I knew I couldn’t see the kids playing by the water from there, so I picked up my wine glass and headed to the edge of a beach to sit on a rock and watch.
That was my first quiet moment of the holiday - when I wasn’t socialising or unpacking. As I gazed at the kids I noticed thoughts about work starting to creep in. Various categories of thoughts but still all work-related. There were planning thoughts (I must email Bob when I get home); ruminative thoughts (I wonder how Bill is managing…); worry thoughts (did I set my out of office?).
This is a really common problem that I hear people talk about all the time in therapy, we usually notice it in those moments when we are less busy and trying to rest. Typical times include: trying to fall asleep; sitting for a quiet coffee break; adjusting to maternity leave; spending time playing with the kids.
The brain setting that STOPS us from relaxing Our brains have two different settings and mine as I sat on that rock was still in Doing Mode*. This is where all our problem-solving happens, it’s essential for a lot of our day-to-day living in order to get through the tasks required of us. Doing Mode is located in our most sophisticated part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) which is capable of rational, critical thinking. If feels good to solve problems, we get a hit of that addictive neurotransmitter dopamine (which feels like a mental high-five) so our system feels rewarded and wants to solve even more problems! It will even fill the tiny gaps with mini problems like what to serve for dinner that night if it can. Take a moment after this article to watch for your Doing Mode kicking in and notice what types of little problems it likes to fill the tiny gaps with?
Some problems, especially in modern-day life, cannot be solved immediately. Not knowing how ‘Bill’ is managing is not something I can fix in the middle of the Scottish highlands. This leads to a feeling of frustration and can increase the experience of exhaustion from being in Doing Mode all the time. It’s a little bit like coming off the motorway in 6th gear and forgetting to change down into 3rd or 4th despite reaching the winding country roads. It’s not a necessary gear setting and is actually unhelpful in that moment. Being in this gear all the time increases the wear-and-tear of our system’s organs and this lights up the brain region that is sensitive to threat eventually causing us to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
The brain mode that helps us to relax
The second brain setting is Being Mode. This is when we are focussed on the sensations available in the present moment; just noticing without judgement what is available to our senses. This brain setting is located in a brain region called the insula (the area that notices body sensations e.g. the experience of touch, smell etc) and it is a nurturing place where our system rests and restores. Importantly it refills our pots of creative thinking, courage and compassion – which Doing Mode frequently dips in to in order to achieve things!
You can step into Being Mode right this moment by tuning into a sensation. Try placing your hands on your lap and feeling the sensations at your finger-tips, tune in to the feelings there for just a few moments. Congratulations! You just lit up your insula**! There are many benefits to this for your brain and system. The more you do this the more you are rewiring your brain to step into Being Mode throughout the day.
On my rock in Scotland I was able to do the same thing to re-engage with my present moment. I took a lung full of fresh air and breathed out slowly and then I tuned into the sounds of splashes and laughing (to be honest it didn’t last long as my youngest then got the older one wet so I then had to sort out an argument - so don’t be fooled by the appearance of idyllic holiday bliss!).
What helped me? Having an awareness of my ability to turn on my insula like this and knowing that it would take a few days for my Doing Mode gears to slide down from 6th to neutral was a big help. Over the next few days the planning and worry thoughts got less frequent but every time I got one I would gently thank my Doing Mode for trying to problem-solve for me, and then remind myself that I didn’t need to pursue those thoughts any further whilst on holiday. Gradually my brain got the hang of it!
Try this now
An immediate action point from this is to find a prompt from your daily life – something you do through-out the day like take a sip of water, walk through a certain doorway, go to the toilet – then straight after that make a commitment to yourself to turn on your insula by tuning into something in the present moment. Perhaps you could notice your breath entering the body for three breaths; or place your hands on the wall and notice the coolness beneath your fingertips.
Your Doing Mode will screech at you to get on with the next task and may berate you for time-wasting but this is normal (not a sign that you aren't doing it correctly). Hold in mind that you are training the neural networks of your Being Mode up and that your system will adjust to this over time.
By the way... this stuff is called Mindfulness.
If you enjoy learning about the brain then do let me know because I’m creating a free mini-course on how the brain works so you can understand why we struggle to think or speak clearly when we are stressed or upset.
* Doing Mode and Being Mode were introduced by Jon Kabit-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (Piatkus, 1990)
**Mindfulness training induces structural connectome changes in the Insula networks. Scientific Reports (2018), 8, Article No: 7929