Q. Sometimes I exhibit behaviors I really don’t like. What is happening with my brain?

A. Are you familiar with the brain phenomenon known as downshifting? That may help to explain what could be happening in your case. Think of your brain as having several interconnecting layers. Each is known for distinct functions, though all functional systems constantly interact. You can compare your brain layers to gears in a vehicle.

When you are driving a vehicle and the going gets tough, the automatic transmission shifts to a lower gear to help you get through. A similar situation can occur in the brain. This helps to explain why children who experience chronic or severe short-term stress can regress (downshift) and begin to exhibit survival behaviors. This brain phenomenon is not limited to children. It can happen to humans of any age. In situations of trauma, or crisis (e.g., death of a family member, severe illness, hospitalization, prolonged adapting), or in the presence of any type of fear, the brain tends to downshift automatically to access responses it perceives to be safer and/or that will promote safety.

When in a downshifted state, you are more likely to exhibit defensive, reactive, or deeply ingrained behaviors. For example:

  • React more automatically (reflexively, instinctually) and be resistant to change
  • Experience a reduced ability to take environmental and internal cues into consideration
  • Be less able to engage in complex intellectual tasks
  • Be prevented from learning
  • Relapse into old learned beliefs and patterns of behaviors regardless of available information