How the Brain’s Default Mode Network May Be Keeping You Stuck

How the Brain’s Default Mode Network May Be Keeping You Stuck

At some time or another, we all feel a little stuck. Whether it’s ruminating over an argument with your boss, or feeling like you keep running into the same problems with friends, this “stuck” feeling might actually be due to the way your brain is wired. Understanding the “default mode network,” or DMN, may hold the key to getting out of the patterns that keep you stuck.


What Is the Default Mode Network?

Scientists first discovered the default mode network (DMN) when studying patterns of brain activation during certain tasks. They realized that when the brain is resting, a specific set of brain regions are active at the same time. DMN activity is negatively correlated with more demanding thinking abilities. For example, when you’re asked to solve a complicated problem, the DMN goes quiet. When your mind is free to wander, the DMN is active again.


Like its name suggests, the DMN is the brain’s default setting. When you respond automatically or do the same thing over and over, your DMN is responsible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — automatic responses can be efficient and time saving; however, overactivity of the DMN may be associated with problematic patterns.


DMN Is Associated With Self-Referential Thought

Scientists have found that when you are thinking about yourself, reflecting about your life, or letting your mind wander, the DMN is active. This suggests that the DMN is involved with self-referential thought, particularly as we perform automatic processes.


Observing changes in the DMN gives us further clues about how it may govern behavior. For example, hyperactivity of the DMN has been linked to rumination, depression, anxiety and chronic stress. These disorders are characterized by automatic patterns that are not very adaptive. Increased DMN activity may be related to:


  • Mind wandering
  • Difficulty concentrating because of too much internal mind chatter
  • Chronic tension
  • Feeling like you cannot turn off your mind
  • Cluttered mind
  • Catastrophizing or automatically going to the worse possible scenario
  • Having knee jerk reactions to situations


These phenomena are signs that your DMN may be overactivate. When we are overwhelmed with too much information, the DMN keeps us stuck in negative thought patterns and behaviors. Feeling irritable, snapping at a loved one, experiencing anxiety, or ruminating about something that went wrong are all signs that the DMN is overactive.


How to Change Your Default Mode Network Patterns

The most common mistake people make when faced with these situations is thinking, “Well, I can’t change that. My brain is just hooked up that way.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth! It took years of learning for your brain to organize itself in a particular way. Because the brain is so malleable, you can actually rewire your neural circuitry. It simply takes an effort to control your DMN and reframe maladaptive thoughts.


To start, it is important to know if you are an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic person. Think about getting a new game with instructions. Would you prefer to read the instructions yourself (visual); have someone explain the game to you (auditory); or learn through actually playing the game (kinesthetic)? Your preferred style helps to determine what will allow you to combat the harmful overactivation of the DMN. Visual people may look at a wall or something broad, without focusing on anything in particular. Auditory people should pay attention to a mundane, unchanging background sound such as a fan. Kinesthetic people should attend to feelings on their skin.


Now, consider the problem you’re facing. Perhaps you struggled with a big project at work. Write down your thoughts, such as, “That project was too big for me.” “I’m not smart enough.” “My supervisor thinks I’m a failure.” “My boss is going to fire me.” Now, consider how you feel: probably pretty depressed or anxious because of those thoughts.


To break the pattern of DMN activity, ask yourself the following questions: “How can I move forward productively?” “How is my default mode of thinking serving me or my relationships?” “What proof do I have that these thoughts are true?” Actively challenging automatic thoughts helps you learn new ways of responding


Catching your maladaptive thoughts as they enter your mind can help you control DMN activity. After becoming more aware of your maladaptive thinking patterns, use meditation to question assumptions and create a new course of action. Over time, you’ll actually change your DMN to have more productive automatic response patterns, providing the key to getting un-stuck.


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