Anxiety, Stress, Depression and Your Two Brains

In This Episode

I talk about the two parts of your brain and how you can tell which one is running the show.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Nobel Laureate and Author of the seminal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes our brains as working in two systems.

System 1 is the fast, instinctive, emotional thinking. It is effortless and, more often than not, we’re completely oblivious to its workings.

System 2 is effortful, slow, logical and conscious. This is the system we’re aware of. We see and hear thoughts coming from system 2.

Neuroscientists estimate that around 90 – 95% of the brain’s activity takes place in System 1 and although this isn’t a problem, it can cause problems for some of us if System 1 is overly jumpy and inclined to shape reality in unhelpful ways.

Shaping Reality

There are 3 main ways in which our brains shape reality.


When we encounter novel situations, our brains seek to help us understand how to proceed.

This is how you’re able to find the entrance to a building you’ve never been to before – your brain understands the general concept of doors and, even if these particular doors look nothing like doors you’ve seen before, you’ll be able to figure out that you’re looking at an entrance and you can get inside the building that way.

The same happens when you encounter new people and new situations. Your brain seeks to find a match in your bank of experiences in order to help you figure out how to proceed.

This is one of the reasons you might instantly feel at ease with someone who looks, sounds or acts like someone you already like. Your brain has generalised some of the traits you associate with the liked person and is assuming the new person possesses similar traits.


As there is simply too much information for your conscious brain (system 2) to process effectively, system 1 ‘deletes’ irrelevant information from your experience in order to simplify things. This allows you to make sense of complex experiences and relationships.

The easiest way to demonstrate how your brain deletes irrelevant information, cast your mind back to a time when you were in a crowd of people – perhaps at a party or networking event. You might have been engaged in a conversation but then you hear your name being spoken in another group and your attention is diverted to that conversation.

The fact that you heard your name suggests your brain was monitoring the other conversation the entire time. You just weren’t aware of it. Only when something in that conversation became relevant did your brain stop deleting the content and instead sent it up to your conscious mind to be given attention.


Which is precisely what distortion is – the emphasis of a single element or set of elements in a situation or experience. These things become the focus of your attention at the cost of other things.

In the example above, the first conversation you engaged in was distorted until you heard your name. From that point, the second conversation was distorted so you could pay closer attention to that conversation and find out what was being said about you.

Indications of UNHELPFUL reality-shaping

When you know what to look for, it’s easy to detect when System 1 is running the show and is generalising, deleting and distorting information in unhelpful ways.

  • You’re miserable but you also feel completely certain you’re right – even though other people may be thinking differently or challenging you
    • You feel stuck – it seems like you don’t have any options
  • Things that didn’t used to stress you out are now stressing you out

Regulate and Calm System 1

There are two approaches for calming system 1.

Calm your Body

System 1 is responsible for all the body’s regulatory functions. The connections between the body’s nervous system and the brain regions that make up system 1 are so interconnected that it’s best to think of them as parts of the same whole.

That’s why meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises can work so well. They allow the nervous system to calm down and this sends messages to the brain to ‘stand down’. It allows your brain to register that you are safe. 

Practices for Calming the Nervous System
  • Meditation
  • Breathing
    • “Belly Breathing” – where you keep your shoulders still but breathe into your belly – is very effective. It allows you to properly fill your lungs and oxygenate your body and it sends messages of calm to your brain. 
    • Formalised breathing practices such as SOMA breath. I like Evolution of Dave for videos to guide you through this and other breathing techniques.
  • Wim Hof Method
    • Also has a breath practice – involving 3 rounds of deep breathing followed by a breath hold and then you finish the practice with a cold shower.
Practices for Shaping your Thinking

The most helpful practice to shape your thinking in productive ways is journalling.

It forces you to make sense of your experience and it exposes the stories you’re telling yourself and it also gives you some much needed distance because the act of writing places you in the role of observer.

If journalling isn’t unlocking the patterns and you’re still going in circles, it can be helpful to enlist of a coach or therapist. 

If you’re considering coaching and would like to talk about how it might help you, book a free chat with me. 

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

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