Always on Alert: Your Brain and the Threat Response
Our brain is constantly assessing our environment. When our brain senses threat it automatically starts a cascade of brain functions that are below our level of awareness. Our brains are hard-wired to sense threat. This simply means that we inherited survival technique from our prehistoric ancestors. The perception of threat can come in any form – physical, social, workplace among others. It doesn’t matter what the perception of threat is for the brain to automatically go into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
This is what happens: The amygdala, located in the limbic system of our brain, picks up the threat and kicks off the fight or flight cascade. The first stop in this process is the prefrontal cortex where rational thinking, decision-making, executive function all take place. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t get enough oxygen and glucose in this process to function properly. So cognitive functions like rational thing and decision-making are severely impaired. It doesn’t take a lot of input for this to happen and all thinking responses are diverted back through the limbic system (amygdala).
What Happens When the Limbic System Takes Control
Without the direction of the prefrontal cortex to help with thinking and direction, your brain finds it difficult to sort through any thoughts to make good decisions. With the limbic system now in control, it is likely that you will respond more negatively to situations. You become reactive and protective. You are in the throws of the threat response, so your brain is looking diligently for more threats. Your ideas don’t seem possible to attain and the risks are always too great. You have shut yourself down.
One more disturbing action of the brain while in the threat response: you increase your chances of making links where none may exist. That is because the amygdala, in full arousal, misinterprets information coming in. If your brain senses a threat, then there are more threats of the same nature. Although these associations enable the amygdala to respond in milliseconds, the likelihood of errors increases.
Chronic Stress and the Threat Response
Now consider what chronic stress does to your brain and the threat response. When your amygdala is in overdrive for long periods of time, the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline in the blood become chronically high. You are functioning under a permanent sense of threat.
Now – all of these actions are below our sense of awareness. Our brain has gone into a dangerous state of functioning. It is automatic, we aren’t aware of it and our behavior and life changes. We can actually be killing neurons (brain cells) and inhibit the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus which is important for memory formation.
What Can You Do?
Now that I have given you all of this distressing information is there anything you can do? The knowledge of this process is the initial step. When you notice you are responding with emotions rather than rational thinking you can take a step back and acknowledge the emotion. When you do this you can actually calm the limbic system. Be conscious of what sets off the limbic system into a state of arousal. Understanding these triggers can enable you to find ways to reduce the threat before the arousal takes place. Be more alert to your emotions as they begin to escalate. The more awareness you bring to an emotional response the better you will be at noticing their presence earlier. When you feel an emotional state coming on, refocus your attention on another stimulus before your emotion takes over. Finally, practice assigning words to emotional states. This actually diffuses the whole process.
The threat response is hard-wired to protect us and help us survive. It kept our prehistoric ancestors alive. Our threat survival response is working overtime in our lives because there are so many sources that can set it off. Hopefully, with this knowledge you will understand what is happening to you or to other people around you. Remember – it is automatic and we don’t even know it is happening. Learning how to work with the resulting emotional responses will redirect your brain for better outcomes.
Good luck to us all!
Rock,D. (2009). Your brain at work. The impact of over-arousal, pp. 108-118. HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.