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It’s Not a Fair Fight for Thoughts! What To Do About It.

"The connections going from the fear-generating amygdala to our cortex are thicker and denser than the ones going from the cortex to the amygdala (neurons are unipolar and go in only one direction), with the effect that negative affect is generated faster and more intensely than our cognitive response - it is simply not a fair fight for cognition".

Jeffery Zimmerman

Our brains are wired to protect us for survival, and sometimes this means our emotions hijack our thoughts. Our brains love us and want to keep us safe. This means that one of the things our brain does is to be continually monitoring our external and internal environments for danger signs. Neuroscientists call this danger detection ‘neuroception’. It happens at light speed and without conscious awareness. And depending on your past experiences and current life circumstances and life context your neuroception can be ‘faulty’ with false negatives. That’s when your brain’s neuroception indicates that there’s something to be fearful of when there really isn’t.

Neuroception is a fantastic survival device and if you’ve ever been walking along a path and spotted a snake, leaped out of the way, and then realised it’s a stick you will know how instinctual, automatic and unconscious this process it. And just how amazing this survival response is in a situation of real danger. Neuroception is about safety and danger and when danger is sensed the amygdala springs into action.

The amygdala is the special part of the brain that’s like a fierce warrior and it springs into action to protect you when there is a neuroception of danger, and also when you have stress, worry or anxiety. It fuels your body to make you feel strong and fast and be able to face challenges. This can lead to feelings like a racing heart, nausea, sweaty skin, dizziness, or being teary or angry. The problem is that sometimes your amygdala springs into action when it doesn’t need to because there’s been a neuroception or perception that there’s danger when there isn’t. And because of the ways brains are wired, for survival as a prime directive, it can feel like it’s not a fair fight for the thinking part of your brain that would like to tell your amygdala to "chill out – it’s all okay", or to problem solve with calm and clarity if there is something that needs addressing.

If you can imagine how hard this is for us as adults, imagine how much trickier it is for children and teens e.g., with school exams, social situations, putting pressure on themselves to achieve or fit in.

And so, it’s really helpful for us to learn about how our brains work and how to help our brains to get the feeling and thinking parts working together … and then it’s incredibly helpful for us to teach our children about this.

If you’d like a fantastic resource to help your children learn about their brains, I recommend Karen Young’s book “Dear You: Love From Your Brain”. And a great associated resource is her book “Hey Warrior: A Book for Kids About Anxiety”.

A great step by step process to help with looking after your brain and making it a “fair fight” by supporting your calm, clear thinking is:

  1. Develop self awareness of how your body is feeling (and help your kids develop this), and emotional literacy. Think of emotional literacy as emotional intelligence and body intelligence. Learning to notice and describe what is going on inside our bodies, (this is called interoception), is the first step to learning how to describe how we are feeling, which is necessary for taking care of ourselves and for developing regulation – that ability to become settled when stressed, distressed or anxious. Imagine if you could help your kids develop this type of self-awareness and self-care. Find out more about interception here

  2. Develop a coping tool kit to support your central nervous system and help your amygdala to ‘chill out’. E.g., Journalling, strong steady breathing, grounding techniques, connecting to nature, listening to music, practicing self-compassion, moving your body, reaching out to a friend, reading uplifting quotes, watching uplifting YouTube clips (cute baby animals are always great). Learn some great breaking hacks for calm here

  3. Learn how to tend to your nervous system. Tending to your nervous system is a great concept and in a nutshell, it means connecting to yourself and looking after yourself in terms of your brain-body connection. In a busy world where there are multiple demands on our time, we are pulled in different directions, and we are often invited to multi-task and cram in as much as possible it is easy to forget to pay attention to self-care, and to lose touch with ourselves. To “tend to your nervous system” means to take a moment to tune in to yourself, work on developing your awareness of how you are feeling, notice what you need, and then act on what you need. Ask yourself, “What is it I need?” Is it water, food, a good stretch, some fresh air, movement, sleep, music, fun, connection with others, quite time…. If you learn to connect to your nervous system – your brain and body – it will tell you what you need. You just have to listen. Your nervous system is important – you can only be as resilient as your nervous system is capable of being. So looking after your nervous system is a great way to enhance your wellbeing and capacity to respond to what life throws your way, as well as being there for your loved ones and getting through the day to day activities of life in ways that feel more satisfying and joyful. If you’d like some ideas on how to look after your nervous system, check out this ebook I created “Firing on all cylinders” And to develop your skills in connecting to yourself read about mindfulness here

Finding ways to develop our interception, develop our coping toolkit and tend to our nervous systems are great ways to level up and make it more of a ‘fair fight’ for cognition – the thinking part of our brains. And it’s a fantastic gift to help our children learn to do the same.

And one final tip for parents and carers. Our brains are literally shaping our children’s brains and doing this moment to moment, thanks to these amazing things called mirror neurons. This means that our brains can support our children’s brains to feel calmer. If you can look after yourself well enough to keep the thinking part of your brain working well with the feeling part, and keep your amygdala warrior in check, then your brain is in a perfect state to connect with your kids through the mirror neurons to help their amygdales chill out. That’s why it’s so incredibly important that you look after yourself, your brain, and your central nervous system, so that you can use yourself to support your young person. You can find out more about how human connection shapes neural connection here

And so, what will you do to even up the thinking and feeling responses to make it a "fair fight" and live more intentionally?


Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

Photo Attributions

First Photo via Canva

Snake Photo via Veecteezy

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