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Category: Free to Choose

Reclaiming our Power to Choose by Escaping the Low Brain

June 28, 2023

Lead Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

I’ve always been fascinated about the human brain and why we do what we do. Recently, I have been delving into studying more specifically about the structures of the brain and how that influences and is influenced by our experiences and our choices. I’ve learned a lot about how the natural reaction to traumatic events can send us to our survival brain. Our response then is “fight, flight, or freeze.” This natural brain function does an amazing job of keeping us alive. However, when we are not actually in danger, this same response can impede our ability to choose.

When we get stuck in the survival brain, or the low brain, we see life through the eyes of fear and tend to be anxious, depressed, scrutinizing, defensive, and reactionary. This can cause negative effects to our health, our relationships, and our well-being. It can be empowering to realize that even when we are in this low brain state, we get to decide if we want to stay there or if we want to journey back to our higher brain.

In our high brain, we have the capacity to reason, to see things from different perspectives, to be creative, and to act with compassion. This can lead to a much more rich, full, and rewarding life.

Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize in our low brain survival mode that we still have the power to choose. It all begins with awareness though. We can be aware of the thoughts we are having, the emotions we are feeling, and the sensations in our physical bodies. If we are out of touch with how we think and feel, this can be a hard skill. It is definitely something that improves with practice. Being aware of what’s going on inside of us is the first step of the journey back to our higher brain.

by Karen Gwilliam

The second step is choosing to accept what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Oftentimes we judge ourselves or feel judgment from others about what we “should” be thinking, feeling, or experiencing, rather than holding space for what a reality actually is. This judgment can lead to shame and to avoidance or denial. That reaction will lead to sliding back to the low brain though. As we choose self-compassion and accept things for what they really are, we take the second step back to our high brain.

The third step is claiming our agency and taking accountability for where we are. This step opens up the possibility of choosing a different path. When we take accountability for how we are responding, we naturally are claiming the ability to choose to respond differently. That is empowering. It moves us from victimhood to the power of choice. I love brainstorming with others possible options of how to respond in a given situation. 

It can actually be fun. I recently brainstormed with a group of campers at a young women’s camp about the different possibilities for dealing with the frustration of waking up to a rain-soaked sleeping bag and a leaky tent. Some solutions may be crazy and not very realistic, but brainstorming all the options loosens our attachment to the belief that it can only be one way. Our goofiness can actually lead to innovative thoughts and creative solutions to challenging problems.

The fourth step back to our high brain is action. We can talk all we want about possible solutions, but the situation only changes when we take action. Sometimes it’s scary to choose a different path, to set a boundary, or initiate a new experience. This is how we embody our power to choose though!

Choosing to ascend these four steps restores our energy to our higher brain. The world looks different from the high brain. We see ourselves, others, and our circumstances in a different light. Problems still exist. We still face setbacks. We still experience negative emotions. But the difference is that those things don’t control us. Our power to choose propels us instead.