Dr. Jen and her daughter enjoying a humane elephant park in Thailand
It was a trip of a lifetime! My daughter and I went to Thailand together as she was headed there to teach in an international school for a couple of months. We spent a day at a (humane) elephant park feeding the elephants and just enjoying their presence. The elephants LOVE the guests- we bring them yummy food every day! They had lots of good care- medical care, a giant park to freely roam for miles, a river to bathe in as much as they wanted, and so much sugar cane! And no one was riding them and making them do anything they didn't want to do. A good life for an elephant!
Brains are like an Elephant and Rider
There is a metaphor for our brains called the Elephant and the Rider (credit to Jonathan Haidt). It goes like this: Your brain is like an Elephant and Rider. The biggest part of your brain is an elephant- it is driven by basic needs like food, sleep, safety, security, and attachment. The elephant part of the brain is not logical.
Tired and Stressed Elephants are Tough to Handle!
Perhaps you notice when you are tired, hungry, alone, and in an insecure situation that you will find yourself acting illogically. You get anxious, when you know you don't need to be anxious really- that won't help. But you are anxious anyway! Or you find yourself withdrawing and isolating in that situation to try and cope with the stress of it.
Stressed-out, tired, hungry, insecure elephants are not good! I would not want to even try and feed a stressed-out elephant but just drop the sugar cane on the ground and get WAY out of their way.
Research on our Brain: We are More Elephant than we Like to Think
It has been remarkable all the research that has investigated the dual-processing model of brain processing- you would be amazed! The basic idea is that we have a "low road" of processing information and making decisions that is fast, intuitive, and driven by our more low-level needs. The "high road" is more deliberate, slow, and complex in the way it thinks. The low road is like an elephant, while the high road is like the rider on the elephant.
The low road is primarily governed by the brainstem and amygdala (middle of the brain that processes a lot of emotions), while the high road is governed by the frontal lobe in the top /front of our brain.
The elephant-brain drives are really powerful! It is a good idea not to underestimate it, just like the elephants at the park. Even if our elephant brain is happy, and well-cared for, it is a little "wild" and always ready to fight, run, or ruminate with worry, or snap words at someone. Poke the elephant the right way- you will get a very upset elephant!!
Five ways to take care of your elephant brain?
Self Care. Psychologists and counselors are always talking about self-care! Why do they do that? They know your elephant brain needs to receive signals and signs that you are healthy, safe, secure, and well-cared for, like the elephants in the Thai elephant park. Give yourself considerable grace if you are going through a difficult time: a health problem, grief, traumatic experiences, insecure finances, unsafe home situations, or insecurity in your marriage/ relationship. All of these things are scary to the elephant - and can lead to fight flight, worry, or isolation. It takes good habits of self-care to get us through the hard days.
Relationship-bond. In your marriage/ relationship, it is important to have times of warm, encouraging, bonding times together. This can be done through a good date, a nice conversation, helping with a task, or good sex. Perhaps you have heard of love languages? Those give us good ideas of how to maintain a healthy bond.
Spiritual growth. Positive spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, meeting with encouraging people who care about you, or worship are great for our elephant brain. All of these activities bring a sense of connection with the divine and with others, and this is especially encouraging to our whole brain.
Service to others. Ever notice when you choose to do some altruistic act towards someone else that you feel really great? It's because our animal brain is really excited about altruism! Altruism can be things like forgiving someone, saying encouraging words, or bringing some yummy treat to them. It's important not to overdo it with time in service to others- you can get more tired from this. But a good dose of altruism is great for our elephant brain!
Gratitude. One of the best areas of positive psychology research is gratitude research. Gratitude is very positive for the human brain, especially when practiced regularly. Whether you stop once a week to be grateful, or count your blessings before you sleep, or say words of gratitude to people in your life, all of these are ways to bond with others and soothe the elephant brain.
The real trick to change is clear from the research on the elephant brain: You need to
Make clear decisions on what you want to do to care for your brain. Something like "I will do a weekly gratitude journal on Sunday mornings as part of my spiritual practices"
Stop and consider what emotional experience and needs this will meet for you. What does it mean to you?
Then consider what will get in your way of this goal? You want to make it possible to do this new activity in a way that is "downhill" and not an uphill climb. If you tend to be up early with time on Sunday mornings, that's a good time to do a new gratitude journaling- downhill work. But don't plan to do a Sunday morning journal if your family is always struggling to get going, kids are not dressed, you rush to get to church, and are distracted all morning- uphill work. Perhaps "downhill" for you then would be Sunday evening when things are quiet and you can set a phone reminder.
I hope my experience with the Thai elephants, and the research on the human brain, can equip you for a more effective relationship, and personal practices that reduce anxiety and help you reach the goals for you and your family!
This blog was written completely by Dr. Ripley, without AI assistance.