The third and final part of this series concerns the Reticular Activating System(RAS),the amygdalae and the adrenals. The RAS is a dense network of nerve cells that extend from the top of the brain stem through the spinal cord to the level of the heart that filters out or in what is or isn’t important to our survival or our desires. This system receives input from the nerve endings of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin and internal organs. From there the information goes on to the cortex, or thinking part of our brain. The data that manages to get through the RAS hub moves on to our limbic system, the hippocampus and amygdala in particular, so that the new sensory information can be processed to determine what is of value on an emotional level (amygdalae) and how it fits into our past experiences (hippocampus).
It’s important to have both the RAS and the amygdalae on the same page in terms of less overreacting and more staying power, so that when one starts to feel anxiety about facing a pile of overdue bills, he or she can support their brain in taking the higher reflective road rather than the reactive one.
In the last exercise we finished with balancing the amygdalae with the hippocampus. Next we want to place one hand behind our head, cupping the indentations on either side of the trapezius muscle, at the base of the skull. Allow your head to sink into your hand for a minute or two. Then send calming energy upwards and towards the front of your skull, in alignment with the location of your hippos and amygdalae. You can even suggest to the RAS, which lies in the center of the dark purple below, that it doesn’t need to be on all the time. It could be at a 20 out of 100 vs 80 out of 100. If you can, palpate the quality of the nerve cells that make up the RAS. Do they feel spongy, hard, or soft? Do they feel excited or calm? Are they running hot or cold?
Notice how your body is already starting to relax. Next, while keeping your one hand behind your neck, put the other palm of your hand on your forehead, cupping your temples. Begin to imagine a flow, a continuity between the frontal cortex, the limbic and the RAS. It is quite amazing to feel a unification start to happen. A more communicative conversation between the thinking part of our brain and the more reactive parts. With the one hand still behind the neck, supporting the brain stem and spinal cord, put the other hand on the adrenals, which you can access just below the ribcage. You can talk the adrenals down as well, just by imagining them being more relaxed and not needing to charge at the first sign of overwhelm. This portion of the entire exercise I find to be really profound. The adrenals, our fight or flight glands, releases up to 30 hormones to deal with a potential threat. The hypothalamus is responsible for giving the ok to release the stress response for both the adrenals and the sympathetic nervous system, creating a tightening of the body and a surge of energy to flee or beat oneself up over the unruly paper scene.
The final portion of this exercise, after toning down the level of the fight or flight in the adrenals is to imagine all of the pieces we have worked with calmer, more in sync, and productive as a team. We want the frontal cortex, the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdalae, RAS and adrenals to feel steady, balanced and flexible and most importantly supportive of our efforts to stay focused and present in our bodies with the day to day tasks that aren’t always pleasant to deal with. Wether it is a 2 hour traffic jam, discarding old magazines that are just sitting around collecting dust, or going through photos for a deceased family member, staying grounded and anxiety free is the key.