21 February, 2018
Imagine that you spent weeks of time and effort preparing for a presentation at work based on guidance from your immediate supervisor. After delivering the presentation, you stand smiling, eagerly waiting for questions. Instead, your supervisor speaks up. “This wasn’t the direction we thought you would take, so I think we can skip the Q&A session. We are out of time, so I thank everyone for coming. I’m sorry this took all afternoon. Clearly, we need to re-strategize. I’ll send out an email tomorrow with follow up thoughts, and a plan outlining immediate next steps. I look forward to presenting something more of substance next month.”
By now, you are likely fuming. Blood is rushing through your body, and your fingers are tightening into a clenched fist. The anger, embarrassment, and betrayal you feel is visible on your face. Your next move could cost you your career, but you can’t even rationalize what to do next, because your brain is in threat mode. Overlapping processes in your brain and body are pushing you to create a conflict with your boss. To disrupt those processes, the first thing you need to do to is to understand exactly what is happening inside your brain during moments of stress.
Your brain is both gloriously complex and woefully imperfect. Your brain performs the miraculous feat of triggering multiple processes instantaneously, and almost simultaneously, to prepare you to identify and respond to danger. However, those multiple systems don’t always work in unison – they can sometimes compel you to behave in a more aggressive way than the situation requires.
Your Normal Brain
Whenever you experience a stimulus, either from the warm embrace of a loved one or from a disastrous presentation at work, the stimulus is first registered in your brain’s thalamus, the brain’s relay station. The thalamus then sends signals to the amygdala and the neocortex as well as other areas of the brain.
The amygdala plays a role in the generation of emotional responses, and in forming, storing, and consolidating memories. When a stimulus is received, the amygdala compares that stimulus to a reservoir of memories to determine whether the new stimulus represents a physical threat to your safety. For example, when a friend approaches with arms stretched wide, the amygdala registers a stimulus, compares it to your reservoir of memories, and determines that the stimulus is not threatening. However, if a stranger approaches with open arms, your amygdala, finding no record of this person in your reservoir of memories, might flag the stimulus as a threat.
The neocortex is a larger section of our brain that is responsible for rational thought processes, decision making, and moderating behavior, and it is often referred to as the conscious mind. When a stimulus is non-threatening, the neocortex plays a regulatory role, keeping you within a range of standard behavior.
You can think of the difference between the amygdala and the neocortex by comparing how they make decisions. The amygdala determines if there is a threat with a yes or no response. The neocortex works through a complex set of options and considers various outcomes and possibilities.
Your Threat Brain
When your brain does perceive a threat, things get interesting. As you stand feeling humiliated in front of your boss, multiple neurological processes are overlapping to create a whirlwind of potential pitfalls.
First, the amygdala receives stimuli from the thalamus before the neocortex does. In other words, your brain produces an emotional response milliseconds before producing a rational one. This is critically important. This process helps to mobilize your body to fight, flee, or freeze should the stimulus represent a physical threat, such as smoke in a building, or an attacker. However, your brain consolidates memories, and can register a stimulus as a threat when it is only similar to other threats or perceived threats. Sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, might hear a loud noise, or find themselves alone in a room, and feel a sudden rush of fear or panic, triggering the same emotions as a past traumatic experience. You experience this all the time, but to a lesser degree. When you watch a movie where someone is drowning, it produces the same emotional response as if you were actually drowning, despite being in no real physical danger. If you were bullied as a child, your boss’s criticism about your presentation might trigger the same emotions you felt on the schoolyard so many years ago. The danger for you now is that you need to react differently to your boss than you likely did to a childhood bully.
While your amygdala is creating an emotional response, it also immediately restricts signals flowing to the neocortex, essentially shutting down your rational thought processes. When you experience a threat, this is a good thing because it enables your body’s emergency systems to take over to address the threat. But when the stimulus is registered as a threat, even when it does not actually represent a real threat, your body and brain still react to the stimulus as if it the threat were real. Your brain is ready to respond to your boss like they are a schoolyard bully, and your rational brain has been cut out of the decision-making process.
To compound the trouble, your brain, having registered a threat, triggers an increase of production of adrenaline and cortisol. With more of both chemicals pumping through your body, your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes faster and shorter, and your muscles become primed to either fight the threat or run away from it. With these three processes happening at once, your body is gearing up for a fight.
Moreover, as soon as your brain perceives a threat, your body starts using excess glucose, and for a period, the neocortex gets undersupplied. Glucose is the gasoline of your body, and when there is not enough glucose available, parts of your body can shut down. Without enough glucose, your neocortex cannot tell the difference between something good and bad, cannot make effective decisions, cannot moderate your behavior, cannot anticipate future consequences, and cannot properly express your personality. Now you stand in front of your boss, fueled by adrenaline, overwhelmed by emotion, and without the capacity to make good decisions.
These automatic processes happen completely outside of your awareness, and they can be triggered by anything, but primarily occur in your daily life when you are stressed or when you experience interpersonal conflict. It might feel reassuring to know that if you yell at your boss, your behavior in that moment is not totally within your conscious control. But, there are things you can do to disrupt your brain’s automatic processes and retake control of your behavior, even something as simple as taking time and space to allow your brain to return to its normal state. In the next few weeks, we will continue to explore how your brain’s overlapping processes inform your behavior while you are in conflict. In the final part of this series, we will explain more strategies to calm yourself and retake control of your rational brain when in conflict situations.
Director of Programs