My mind Neville had a LOT to say about feeling flat for a whole week last week. He was irritated by it. He was running a lot of analysis to determine the root cause of the flatness so we could “fix it”.
Maybe I was getting sick? Maybe it was because I hadn’t slept enough (New Secret Man and I can’t seem to stop staying up too late talking – worse problems, I know!) Maybe it was because I had too much on my plate and was getting overwhelmed? Maybe it was because it’s been such a long time since I’ve had a proper break?
Maybe the never-ending, excessively strict lockdown was finally bringing me down along with the rest of Melbourne?
Maybe all of those things – but answer or no answer, one thing was clear: Neville, as usual, was not helping.
Then I felt shame for having such minor problems to feel flat about, and Neville ruminated on that a bit too.
Then I remembered what I teach my clients to do in these situations.
Then I forgot and went back to overthinking it.
Then I remembered again.
Then I forgot again.
And so the flat week went.
In our brain, we have two networks that I’d like to tell you about, because I don’t think there is a person alive who wouldn’t benefit from understanding this.
These two brain networks (my faves!) are the default mode network (DMN) and the interoceptive network, both of which I teach about in my Bloody Good Life program.
Neville (the mind – the chatty voice in our head) is the default mode network (DMN).
The DMN is a network all over our brain that is active when we are engaging in mind wandering or self-referential thinking.
Anytime our mind is wandering around the place distracted (“Mmm maybe I’ll have pizza for dinner…”); anytime we’re thinking about ourselves and our story (I, I, I, me, me, me…), and anytime we’re judging and attributing meaning to things (“What an asshole”… “I hate this lock-down”… “I love camping”…) we are activating our default mode network.
The key is in the name – it’s our default mode.
When we are mind wandering/ activating the DMN, we are in what neuroscientists refer to as “narrative focus”.
Then we have my mate, the interoceptive network. This is the network that fires when our attention is focussing on internal signals from our body, which are sent from interoceptors all over the body up to the brain to let the brain know how everything is going.
Muscle and organ movements, pain, temperature, pressure, heart beating, bladder full/ empty, emotions – all these things are sending data up to our brain all the time.
When we’re focussed on our internal sensations (without judging them as good or bad), we’re in what neuroscientists refer to as “experiential focus.”
But most of the time, let’s be honest, we’re too busy caught up in our Nevilles (narrative focus) to notice what our body is up to.
The interesting thing is that the interoceptive network and the default mode network act a bit like a see-saw – as activity in one network goes up, the activity in the other network goes down.
To oversimplify it for clarity’s sake – we’re either in experiential focus (sensations) or narrative focus (stories).*
*(There are other places our attention can be – like our external 5 senses, Neville will tell you that story another day.)
Here’s the clincher –
YOU are the one that gets to decide which side of the seesaw to focus on.
When you find yourself ruminating and stuck in worry and stories and judgements (like I did last week), put your attention into the sensations in your body with curiosity and non-judgement.
Bam, your interoceptive network fires up, and your Neville fires down!
The curiosity and non-judgement here is key.
If you put your attention in your body and start judging or trying to control the sensations you notice (“ugh, I hate this feeling in my chest… I wish I could get rid of this anxiety”) – the moment the judgements kick off is the moment your Neville/ default mode network fires up again..
You then head out of experiential focus (do not pass go, do not collect $200) and back into narrative focus. Often in the form of rumination, judgement, worry, analysis – which tends to make things a LOT worse.
It’s worth repeating – judging your emotions and trying to get rid of them makes them WORSE, not better.
So – back to my flat week:
The more Neville tried to analyse, judge, and get rid of the feeling of “flatness”, the worse I felt.
He came up with some plausible causes for my flatness, but none of them helped me feel any better – and all of them kept me in narrative focus (in this case, a circular dialogue of Neville going on and on about being flat…
“I’m so flat, wah wah, what does it all meaaaannnn???”
Neville, try as he might, is not of much help in these situations.
Over and over, I took the advice I give to my clients and brought my attention back into my body, and over and over the addictive pull of Neville drew me back into his whims.
Until eventually, enough was enough, and I doubled down on practicing mindfulness as I went about my day.
(I go into more detail about this technique I use for managing uncomfortable emotions in this blog post here: What to Do When You Accidentally Fly Off the Handle (AKA How to Wrangle Dicey Emotions)
The flatness didn’t disappear, but the rumination and worry about it eased off.
And wouldn’t you know it, the next day, I woke up feeling back to my usual self.
No matter how long you practice this stuff, there is always room for forgetting, suffering, remembering, and then forgetting again. Even when mindfulness is literally your job.
No need to beat yourself (or your Neville) up for “failing” to be present…
You’ve just got to keep swimming.*
*By swimming, I obviously mean putting your attention in your body to activate the interoceptive network whilst simultaneously deactivating the default mode network, thereby putting you in state of experiential focus ????