Zen Martial Arts Center

Sacramento Martial Arts and Karate

The Mind Under Stress - The Three Parts of the Brain

As martial artists, we often go through life and its trials and tribulations without ever putting much thought into how our brain and mind confront and deal with the challenges that we face. There is value in learning how the brain works, particularly how it works under stress.

Stressful situations can range from a child forgetting to do his homework to an adult's all out defense of self. The brain functions, for most of us, the same way no matter what the source of perceived or real stress.

There are three important parts of the brain that we must understand:

Prefrontal Cortex: If there was a Yoda inside our brain, this would be it. This guy is the wise leader. This is the part of the brain that helps us focus, compute, and analyze. It's the thinking part of the brain and it helps us to make good decisions. Here's the catch: It only receives information when the Amygdala is calm.

Amygdala: This thing is like having your own personal security guard in your brain. If you've ever wanted to run, fight, or freeze, it was your Amygdala controlling the situation. The Amygdala is programmed to keep us safe at all costs. It regulates and blocks information from passing to your Prefrontal Cortex. In a true emergency, the Amygdala is our friend. We practice our martial arts techniques and scenarios so that we can respond appropriately under stress. Here's the catch: The amygdala is not very good at knowing the difference between a stressful situation and true emergency.

Hippocampus: This is the part of the brain that remembers all of our martial arts techniques, or anything else for that matter (or everything else if you are my wife; how does she do that?). The hippocampus creates, stores, and process all important facts and memories the prefrontal cortex passes on to it. It is like a library system for the brain. 

The Stressed Brain...

The brain’s response to stress is linked to the amygdala. When we’re calm and peaceful, this filter is wide open and information flows to the prefrontal cortex. When we feel negative or stressed, our ability to think and make good decisions are inhibited. 

Information stays in the amygdala and doesn’t flow to our prefrontal cortex so we can think about how to react. Fear and anxiety actually shut down our ability to think about how to best assess and approach situations. We do dumb stuff.

As Martial Artists... we know that our brain under stress will not be able to make decisions the same way that it does when calm. This means that we must train under stress to implant memories into the Amygdala so that they can be quickly recalled during a serious emergency. 

As Parents, Teachers, and Mentors... we know that the amygdala, when active, does not discern a simple stress from a true emergency. If a child does not feel safe in their environment, it will become increasingly difficult for them to use their Prefrontal Cortex to listen, focus, and learn.

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