Your brain is your most complex body part and science still does not fully understand how it works. Your perceptions, thoughts and emotions are equally complex. They are constantly changing and interacting and consist of many different layers. Some are part of your conscious mind while others are part of your subconscious mind.
To put it very simply there are 3 states your brain can be in the red brain, orange brain or the green brain. You can see this as a spectrum with red at one end of the spectrum and green at the other end. Where you are on the spectrum depends on the situation and current thoughts.
The red brain: a state of stress
The red brain, or the emergency brain, is designed to help you react effectively in case of a physical threat. This response is also known as the ‘fight or flight response’. When this happens your brain and body are in the best possible state to deal with a threat – hence ensuring the best chance of survival. In this state the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released, creating the following effects:
- Tunnel vision
- Stopped or slowed digestion
- Increased blood pressure and blood sugar
- Increased heart rate
- Suppressed immune system
- Tensed muscles
- Judgmental thinking (black and white)
- Suppressing emotions
- Narrow/ fixed point view
- Unkind manner
- Disconnection from others
The red brain can be triggered when there is no actual emergency. Your brain reacts to how safe or unsafe you perceive a situation to be. Your thoughts are the most important factor in determining how your brain assesses a situation. For example: if you fear public speaking and would say to yourself ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘this will be a disaster’ your brain perceives the situation as unsafe and the stress response is activated.
Having the red brain available is essential for you to be able to cope with extreme situations. However, spending too much time in this state of stress does damage to both your brain and your body. You risk negative physical consequences such as high blood pressure and heart failure and of psychological problems like burn out, anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you want to live a healthy and balanced live the stress state does not have to be eliminated but should be reserved for emergencies only.
The green brain: a state of calm
At the other end of the stress spectrum we find the green brain. When the green brain is activated the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin are reduced and the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is released stimulating the following responses:
- Wide vision and flexible attention
- Optimal digestion
- Reduced blood pressure and blood sugar
- Reduced heart rate
- Active immune system
- Relaxed muscles
- Non judgmental thinking
- Processing emotions
- Seeing the bigger picture
- Connecting with others
The green brain is the state in which relaxation and focussed and effective action happens. It makes you feel present, connected and helps you enjoy things. In the green zone your brain feels safe, the guards come down and all the resources in your brain become available to you. Creativity and flexibility are unlocked and you can see the bigger picture. It is in this brain state that you can make good decisions and be truly effective and productive. On top of that, the release of oxytocin immediately increases compassion, empathy and the desire to connect with others. This hormone is the fuel for our relationships and essential for wellbeing.
The orange brain
The orange brain is the neutral, middle ground. I call it the ‘Achieving brain’, or the ‘To do list brain’. It is the state you are in when you are working on getting things done and focussing on the jobs ahead. It doesn’t have the downsides of the red brain but also not the benefits of the green brain. And beware, it doesn’t take much to move form the orange part of the spectrum to the red zone!
The power of worries
Worries and judgments are perceived threats because they communicate to your brain that something is not right. Underneath all the rational thinking the brain understands this as ‘something is not safe’ and the red brain is activated.
For example; if you worry about your finances you may have the thought ‘I don’t have enough money’. Your brain sees this thought as a signal for a potential threat and the red brain state is activated. Your thoughts keep coming back to the perceived lack of money (fixed point view) and you loose sight of the bigger picture of your financial situation. You cannot come up with creative solutions or prioritize. On a physical level you might loose your appetite (slowed down digestion), your breathing becomes shallow and your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar go up. Your brain and body are getting ready for fight or flight even though there is no physical threat to run from. Your worries about money have then activated the stress state, making you much less able to effectively deal with any issues you might have!
The power of Mindfulness
Mindfulness practice activates the green brain through kind and non judgmental thoughts which signal to the brain that the situation is safe. By focusing on the here and now you are taking the focus away from worries about the past or the future that could trigger the red brain. By having a mindful attitude towards what is in the here and now, you are further reducing the stress state and activating your optimal brainstate.
With mindful attention and attitude in place you are activating the green brain more and more. This will not only make you healthier but also happier and more successful.
In red you work hard, in green you work smart. dr. Chantal Hofstee