Keeping your cool can be hard — especially when you’re hot under the collar, feel threatened or are triggered by something you see, hear or imagine. Now, we know why.
It’s the way your brain is wired.
Your brain’s No. 1 priority is keeping you alive — not making you happy. Unfortunately, from a survival perspective, it’s much more important to notice threats than opportunities. If you miss a pleasant prospect, that might be disappointing, but it probably won’t kill you. But miss a potential threat and that could be the end.
We’re primed to recognize the negative, rather than notice the positive.
So what happens when you spot a potential threat? The sensory information from your eyes, ears or body is transmitted to the sensory thalamus in your brain, which sends a message, speeding down the “low road” to your smoke detector, the amygdala, an almond-sized structure in your brain.
Messages are also sent to the hippocampus, or memory center, to determine if there is historical information that merits consideration. Nerves from the amygdala go up, over and down: Up to the prefrontal cortex or thinking part of your brain to consider whether action is necessary, over to your hypothalamus to deliver instructions to your pituitary gland and tell your adrenal glands to secrete an adrenalin like hormone, and then down to your brain stem to send a message through the vagus nerve to your heart, lungs and gut.
It all happens before you can blink or think. Your heart and lungs speed up so oxygen is available for your muscles to flee or fight. Your heart starts to pound. We all know the sensation. Because of our brain’s negative bias, it happens before you know why.
There is a more detailed sensory dispatch that is sent from your thalamus to the pre-frontal cortex. But this “high road” is slower and happens after you are ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
Ready to respond, we are in the fight-or-flight mode. Those of us who have been exposed to an excessive amount of threat throughout their lives, especially as young children, tend to have overdeveloped threat-detection hardware. Their amygdalas have grown more nerve cells. It screams “fire” when there is only smoke.
So, how do we regulate this response when we know that there is no threat to our survival? Below is a top-down approach to regulating our emotions.
Breathe. When the fight-or-flight reaction seizes control of your body, take a long slow breath in and an even longer breath out. Your long exhalation slows down your heart rate through the vagal nerve’s connection to the heart and lungs. Take five of these heart-slowing breaths. This puts the brakes on your flight-or-fight response. It works. But, of course, you must override your brain’s communication with your body and remember to do it. That’s 90% of the challenge.
Ask yourself: Is my life in danger? Probably not. Most often, in modern life, we are responding to a false alarm. Our thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex) can also put the brakes on our flight-or-fight system.
Ask yourself: How do I want to respond? What are my choices? What are the consequences of those choices? Now, the left hemisphere of our pre-frontal cortex is firing up. But it’s slower than our right hemispheric “get-out-of-the way” response. Children struggle with this because their frontal cortex is not yet fully developed. It won’t be fully online until they are 25 years old.
Use your words. Moms and dads have heard this one before. We need to do the same thing that we tell our young children to do. We want to strengthen this response and dampen our reflexive reaction. It takes practice, practice and more practice. But with intention, determination and repetition, those alternative neural connections will grow stronger. Our brain continues to develop, even as an adult, when we use it in new ways.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.