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Getting unstuck emotionally by understanding that we all have two different brains: a conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt (part 4 / 6)

Published on April, 12th 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt that aired on March 8th, 2018. You can listen to the interview here: As Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell, Bill is an internationally recognized expert in mental health who has spent 25 years helping employees, patients and leaders achieve their potential. Bill has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, did post-doctoral training at UCLA, has developed programs with organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the University of New Brunswick, and is author of numerous books and articles, including regular contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Dr. Greg Wells: Bill, you have said that one thing most people don’t realize is that we all have two brains. You have talked about how this has an impact on our mental health and can cause us to get stuck emotionally. You have said that can mean we end up getting stuck. Can you explain that for us? 

Dr. Bill Howatt: We have our executive, or conscious, brain – what you can call the “new” brain. And then we have a limbic brain – the “old” brain. When you are under a lot of stress, the executive functioning kind of turns off and you get trapped in your emotions. When you are caught in them, you can be really discouraged, and it can be very hard to just pop out.

GW: What’s the link between having these two different systems in our brain and how we respond to stress or mental health challenges? 

BH: In my work as a clinician, I really saw the two brains firsthand. It’s an idea that Daniel Kahneman really breaks out for us in Thinking, Fast and Slow. There is a really fast system in the brain and a separate slower process. Many of us are constantly operating in this fast brain. The challenge is that it doesn’t actually think. It just reacts based on what it thinks it has learned. And it is linked to emotions and emotional responses. So people who are stuck in perpetual stress are in a loop where the powerful executive functioning is turning off and they are operating on auto pilot. Their life kind of goes by and they’re trapped in a routine that becomes normal.

The real challenge comes when that’s when we start to develop habits – the kind that are heat-seeking pleasure missiles to help us cope with feeling uncomfortable. We look for things that create an illusion of feeling better, like chips, pop, another glass of wine, or other soothing behaviours. Most often, we are unaware that those habits exist so we can avoid feeling the chronic stress or upset. That’s where behavioral economics gives human beings too much credit. People generally don’t make rational decisions. Just think about things that make common sense, like exercising. We all know it’s good for us. So why don’t we do it?

GW: That makes a lot of sense. I often show audiences a 60-second long video of Ingrid, my daughter, doing rock climbing. She climbs about 25 feet up, repels down and then turns to the camera with this look of pure joy on her face. I pause the video and ask the audience how that compares with the way people look on the treadmill at the gym. After the laughter, we talk about being aware of your mental state and making a deliberate shift toward enjoying yourself. If you become hyper acutely aware of the link between mind and body, you can adjust your mindset and also change your physiology.

BH: That’s excellent. I love it. If you look at the happiness research, we know that 50% comes from genes, 10% from environment and 40% from intention. So the part of our happiness we can control comes from the inside. From a neuroplasticity perspective, our brains can become very skilled at finding negativity. It’s probably why we’re the top of the food chain, because we know what fear is. So for some people, without realizing it, they actually start to wire their brain to be very negative. You just gave a great example of how a cognitive decision to change your intention can affect your wellbeing.

Often, that’s all it takes. One cognitive decision. A great example of changing your state through intention comes from studying what monks do around gratitude in regards to finding peace. Gratitude is acceptance and the acknowledgement of what you have. Not a focus on what you don’t have. When you acknowledge what you have, you can actually start re-wiring your brain to be more positive. And we are learning through epi-genetics that just by paying attention to one thought at a time, you can impact your thinking and emotions, all the way down to your telomeres in your DNA.