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Stress + The 3 Sisters of Your Brain

For better or for worse, when we get stressed out so many of the activities we associate with being human are out of reach.

We can’t seem think straight.

Or connect the dots between ideas.


The inner taskmaster? She’s clocked out for the day.

What’s really going on is that your body directs energy to the more animal side of your brain. The energy goes where it’s perceived to be needed.

Let’s break this down.

The Neocortex: The #Boss Little Sister

Let’s start with the area that we most affiliate with our brains – the Neocortex. The neocortex is located toward the front of our heads and controls many of the things that make us humans so successful at living. She’s a boss at making decisions, thinking critically, managing our daily obligations, etc. She empowers us with abstract thinking, imagination, and language. She also allows us to ponder about ourselves.

For example, you tap your Neocortex when you figure out what you’re gonna wear in the morning. She is there when you are writing a blog post. And, she is also there when deciding whether or not to merge finances with your S.O. – or at least we hope so!

When you think about it, so many wondrous things would not have been invented or cultivated without neocortexes. Computers. Farms. Bridges. Philosophy. Culture. The Pyramids. Jewelry. Art. Chaise lounges. Pinot Noir Rose. Bubble baths!

It’s pretty amazing, no?

But here’s the deal (there’s always a deal, right?) — evolutionarily speaking, she’s the baby in the brain. The absolute youngest part of our brains.

Because of how young she is, she is a bit clunky with energy (our brain’s money, so to speak). She can only hold so much energy. She uses energy inefficiently. And, she tends to spend energy more quickly than other parts of the brain. Big thinker, big spender.

The Mammalian Brain: The #AlltheFeels Middle Sister

Next up is our mid-brain, or what is often called the “Mammalian Brain.” This is second oldest area of the brain. She reigns over our emotional response system, or limbic system if you want to get all fancy with your words.

Her superpower is feeling. Feelings are crucial to our capacity to connect with other people and learn through experience. She’s a pro at navigating all this. She’s also mighty perceptive and knows how to tell if a situation is safe or not – physically or emotionally.

When you get your heart broken, she’s the one who encourages you to lean into those feelings and listen to Playground Love by Air. She understands that creating space for those feelings also allows them to pass.

If overwhelmed, she can step into Sarah Silverman-mode, using humor to help you get back into a more calm state. She’s got an elephant’s memory and doesn’t forget that so-n-so is a big bully and can’t be trusted. Remembering is crucial to staying safe.

When thrown into an emotional state, you want her in your camp because she knows how to get through it. However, she may also steal the debit card from the #Boss Little Sister if she needs a little more energy to get the job done.

It ain’t cute, but we’ll allow it.

The Reptilian Brain: The #Minimalist Older Sister

Last but not least, we have the “Reptilian Brain” which is located at the base of the brain and is the oldest part of our brains, evolutionarily speaking. Her spartan lifestyle includes only the essentials – breathing, sleeping, eating, pooping, peeing and having sex (get it, girl!). All the primal functions, all the time.

Her day job is pretty badass as well. She checks out the energy levels of the body and if something is off she will balance it out. She’s almost like the CEO of a Solar Power Company. The Solar Power Company of your body.

Her efforts may seem simple, but they allow our bodies to cultivate the energy needed to do…literally everything.

Thus, if something threatens a primal function she has no problem freezing the bank account to get the energy needed to restore a sense of balance. Older sisters are the worst!

But really, who’s gonna argue with her? Those primal functions are priority.

In Sum

Our brains are like the command center for our functioning and safety. The Neocortex empowers us to do all the things that we associate with being human. How fun! The Mammalian Brain helps us tune into ourselves and our experiences to navigate life. The Reptilian Brain regulates all the primary functions that keep us alive.

All are fundamental to our existence as humans.

The evolutionary age of each area tells us about how our brains prioritize energy. Older areas are more streamlined, use fewer resources and function with little effort. However, if there is a threat to those older areas then they zap energy from the younger areas.

Tuning into this fact can help us figure out which needs to nurture. Honoring and nurturing those needs is far more productive than neglecting or fighting ourselves when we are stressed out.

So, the next time you feel stressed out – start with your inner #minimalist – what does she need?

About the Author

Natalia Amari, LCSW

Natalia Amari, LCSW

Natalia Amari, LCSW is a relational trauma therapist working at the intersections of culture, power and personhood. She is on a mission to help others overcome experiences of trauma and reclaim their personal power.

Share Wisely

Natalia Amari, LCSW

Natalia Amari, LCSW

Natalia Amari, LCSW is a relational trauma therapist working at the intersections of culture, power and personhood. She is on a mission to help others overcome experiences of trauma and reclaim their personal power.

Share Wisely


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