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The stressful brain and how to take control

Restrain your inner reptile.

stressful brain video

Do you suffer from road rage? Or get tongue-tied in interviews? Or would rather swim with sharks than give a presentation in front of 100 strangers?

You’re not alone. In fact, stress, anxiety, anger and irritability are inbuilt into the very structure of our brains. They are unavoidable responses to situations we find challenging.

But they can have a seriously negative impact on our daily lives, our health and our relationships.

Through a better understanding of how our brain works, however, we can begin to take control. To override our stress settings so we become calmer, healthier and more effective.

Here’s my guide to keep your inner reptile in check (All will be explained!)

I recently facilitated a training workshop on resilience on behalf of Strengths Partnership. To help attendees build their resilience levels, I shared some insights into how the brain works in stressful situations.

In the 1960s, Paul MacLean developed his concept of the Triune Brain. By dividing the brain into three parts, he created a simple way of interpreting the way how the brain responds to stress. Those parts are:

  • The neocortex – our rational brain where advanced cognition takes place
  • The limbic brain – our emotional brain which controls our social and nurturing behaviours
  • The ‘reptilian’ brain – our primitive (or dinosaur) brain, associated with territoriality, ritual behaviour etc.

When we’re in a difficult, dangerous or dire situation, the reptilian brain is the first to respond. It taps into our primitive survival mode of fight or flight and we react instinctively, without thought.

Which has its benefits of course. In the days of the woolly mammoth and the sabre-tooth tiger we might very well need to be able to react before we think. Even today, this ability to react fast in the face of danger could well save our lives.

Even when things are less extreme, a little stress gets us going, motivates us to act.

The problem is that our reptilian brain can cause us to respond to events which aren’t life-threatening as if they were. Presentations, for instance. Or interviews. Or meetings with the boss.

In these situations, our reptilian brain overrides our ability to think calmly, consider our options, decide on a course of action and respond accordingly. To think rationally takes time. The reptilian brain believes there is no time – we have to act now.

The emotional brain gets in on the act too. When stressed, we experience something known as the ‘amygdala hijack’. The emotional centre of the brain, the amygdala processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, which can cause us to react irrationally.

So we panic, we might make the wrong decision, say or do something stupid, embarrass ourselves.

Which, of course, is exactly what we’re worried about doing in the first place.

And having embarrassed ourselves, again, we start to do ourselves down, in our heads – known as ‘negative talk’. “I’m useless at presentations.” “Why am I so bad at everything?” “Perhaps I’m not up to the job.” “I’m a failure.”

But it is not you, it’s your reptilian brain. Trying to save your life.

By recognising this aspect of the way your brain works, you can start to work on slowing your thought processes down. Taking the time to think. Taking control.

In the popular management self-help book The Chimp Paradox (2013), Professor Steve Peters refers to that part of our brains that reacts impulsively to situations as our chimp brain. He argues that by recognising when your chimp brain is in control, you can counteract those impulses, re-engage your rational brain. Peters used these techniques to help the British Olympic cyclists achieve their extraordinary medal tally in 2012.

Getting to grips with your inner reptile

Taking back control is about building your resources against stress. So that when a challenging situation occurs, you can use these resources to override your reptile’s (or chimp’s) instinctive reaction.

Your resilience against stress boils down to two main factors:

  • How you think and feel about yourself
  • What personal, practical and social resources are available to you.

Imagine a bridge – London’s Tower Bridge in particular. This structure has two towers supporting the bridge itself, strong enough to cope with the huge volumes of traffic that cross it every day.

Imagine you are this bridge.

Consider that the traffic represents all the stuff you have to deal with – the day-to-day activity, the stresses, the challenges and the big life events.

But like Tower Bridge you have two pillars to help you cope.

The first is the Self Pillar – how you see yourself, your skills and qualities, your competencies.

The second is the Resources Pillar – the information, money, equipment, practical help and emotional support you have available to you. E.g. when I’m presenting, it helps me if there’s someone in the audience I know that I can look at and know I’ll get a smile or a nod.

Your pillars have to be strong so the bridge doesn’t collapse under the strain of a big life event. But no traffic at all means the bridge isn’t used, it weakens and we become vulnerable to stress.

(Taken from Dr Maureen Gaffney’s book, Flourishing)

So what could you do to build your pillars of strength? How could you prepare for difficult circumstances? Think about what triggers your inner reptile. Why does that event or activity cause you stress? What resources do you have or could you develop to help you tackle that activity more calmly in the future?

For more on building your resilience, read this.

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