This week we once again welcome Gretchen E. Downey, Prevention Expert and Best-Selling Author, as she shares her expertise on preventing suicide in – and strengthening our communication with – the teenagers in our lives. This is the second post in a two-part series:
Ruling out genetics and specific pathologies related to mental health and suicide, there still remains something incredibly wrong with the picture and we need to take a closer environmental and internal look at what might be the cause – because the two are closely linked.
The first thing we need to get familiar with is how the brain and mind operate. It’s hard to develop assets when we don’t know how our internal technologies or assets actually work. You can’t fly a plane if you don’t know how the equipment functions. You’ll crash and burn…and that’s what we’re seeing with our young people.
Education about how the brain and mind work shouldn’t be dreaded or feared. This is the very attitude that pushed us away from the golden key of our own empowerment. Our brain and mind belong to us and it’s high time we learn how to use it, regulate it and build it for our advantage… rather than letting our environment craft it for us.
The mind is one of our virtual technologies, so to speak. You can’t touch it, yet there’s something within you doing the thinking and imagining. It can be focused and directed, it can wander off, or it can work on autopilot i.e., think in a reactive and unregulated way. The brain is the organ that simply responds to what your mind is thinking. It computes the information and programs itself, the nervous system and the body according to the quality of the data it receives – good or bad.
If children learned at an early age some basics about how to regulate their own mind and how to build healthier neuro patterns in their brain, they’d develop greater abilities in self-regulation, reflection (instead of reactivity), healing, discernment and even…. emotional regulation. Shouldn’t this be part of our fundamental human education?
To gain a better understanding, here are some simple basics about how the brain works.
One of its major functions is the flight or flight response, meaning it perceives threat. It protected us from lions, tigers and bears. However, we don’t have these primitive challenges anymore. So what did we do? We made a habit of inventing all sorts of harmful fear-based and stress-filled thoughts that cause a vicious cycle of unnecessary revving up and over stimulation of the amygdala! This part of our brain is very important and necessary when we have a true emergency. However, a majority of the time we aren’t in a life or death threat….and our amygdala doesn’t know the difference. You see, it can’t distinguish what is a real threat and what is not! It just fires regardless.
Any time you build neural pathways in the brain you are “imprinting,” which is like programming or hardwiring the brain to think, react and believe in a certain way. The brain then directs the body to react, feel, and heal or breakdown according to the input. And worst of all, when over-stimulated and unregulated the amygdala (in a metaphorical sense) hijacks the electrical activity of the rest of the brain which keeps you from more effectively accessing the highest “thinking centers” of the brain (prefrontal cortex) responsible for reflection, integration and…. higher happier emotions. When a person is chronically thinking and feeling fear, powerlessness, self-hate and despair, these trigger the amygdala.
The hippocampus is located deep in the center of the brain near the amygdala. It’s the part of the brain that is responsible for holding and storing long-term information. You don’t relearn how to walk and talk each day, or ride a bike or drive a car. It’s “automatic” and the hippocampus is responsible for this programming function and storage. Think of it as the region of the brain that turns everything on “auto pilot.” If you had to relearn everything every day, life would be impossible. You can also think of it like the hard drive on your computer. It simply stores information and waits for commands from YOU to perform a specific function or task without thinking about it. Sometimes this is beneficial and sometimes not. In regards to our less desirable or fear-based stress-filled behavior patterns and programmed thoughts, it is not.
Most people are unaware of stored familial or other learning patterns that they were taught. Have you ever noticed how some families are really happy, forgiving or funny and others are pessimistic, stubborn or easily angered? More often than not, these patterns were shown to them between 0-7 years and then stored in the hippocampus as automatic “reactions.”
When a person is chronically thinking about and feeling fear, powerlessness, self-hate and/or despair, the brain builds the neuro circuitry to match the input…and these become the automatic “auto pilot” behaviors and emotions. The more you think it, the more you build it.
The good news is, our brain has “neuroplasticity”, meaning we can reshape it’s neuro-programming at any time.
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)
The PFC, located in the top forehead region of the brain, is the highest thinking center of the brain responsible for some of the highest human emotions and abilities such as inspiration, compassion, joy, love and play. This is the area of the brain that you want to activate, stimulate (light-up the electrical flow) and build up neuroplasticity in as much as possible! This brain center is responsible for creativity, problem solving, discernment and inspiration. When the amygdala is over stimulated, electrical flow to this area is impeded – which is the exact opposite of what you need to calmly create solutions and regulate your emotional responses. Teen PFCs are most electrically stimulated when they are engaged in meaningful, inspiring work…or when they are feeling gratitude and compassion.
We all have a responsibility to use this information to correct the way we parent, educate our kids in schools and choose the things we give our attention to within our environments. Whether it’s domestic violence within the home or the aggression, fear and violence we see on drama/reality shows, movies, TV, video games and the evening news, each of these are over stimulating the reactivity of the human amygdala in unhelpful ways, while at the same time shutting off access to the PFC.
Many children do not have a stable home environment, but if caregivers and teachers readily taught this information, kids would be greater equipped with tools and the ability to regulate their own emotions and outcomes to a greater degree than what is currently happening.
Things you can do to promote daily stability, feelings of happiness and well-being and PFC access (while quieting the amygdala):
- Deep purposeful breathing – Quiet the amygdala and open the pathways to the PFC.
- Nourishing your physical body – Engage in regular physical activity and healthy eating; stimulants, sugar, refined products, alcohol, preservatives and artificial colors can affect emotional and behavioural stability.
- Understand the basics about your own brain – How does it work? How can you train and build it to perform the functions that you want?
- Practice mindful awareness techniques or MBSR (mindful based stress reduction) – Help calm the mind and build positive neuro patterns within the brain.
- Practice saying, feeling and expressing love and gratitude to yourself and the world around you – Science has proven that expressing gratitude lights up the PFC to a high degree, while building positive neuro patterns within the brain.
We can be successful at building our brain to express habitual joy, gratitude, optimism and love, just as certain as we can build it to be successful at fear, powerlessness and unworthiness.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 (800)-273-TALK
- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) 1(800) SUICIDE
- Center for Disease Control – Suicide Fact Sheet
- Developing The Conscious Child – Mind Body Spirit Parenting Guidebook