I love the way our brains are built to detect and react to threat.
We have an amazing “fast track” that enables us to respond without conscious thought to emergencies. We duck (flee) when an object is careening at us. We stand up (fight) for our perspective when another disparages us. We freeze when a snake crosses our path. Afterwards, we may be surprised we responded so quickly, grateful that we did what was necessary, surprised that we don’t remember making a decision to react.
In truth, we didn’t make a decision. Our brain’s wiring equipped us to react instantaneously without involving our conscious brain. That immediate reaction is what kept us safe.
I despair at the way our brains are built to be ever vigilant for and reactive to threat.
Our brain’s fast track can go awry when we are triggered. Our innate threat-aware wiring deprives us of the ability to weigh in on critical decisions where a quick reaction may not be our best response. We duck responsibility when an error occurs on our project. We attack another’s perspective when they challenge us. We freeze when we see bullying or harassment. Afterwards, we may regret that we responded the way we did and wish we could go back in time and make a different, better, thoughtful decision. In those moments, we may both acknowledge and despair that this instantaneous reaction - so beautifully designed to keep us safe - actually endangered our core values and how we choose to live and lead.
The dance between the thoughtful and reflective parts of our brain and the parts wired for our very survival is an enduring one. Most of the time, it’s beautifully choreographed and a joy to watch. Like any dance, however, there are things we can do to improve the ease and artistry, the naturalness of how we move in the world.
Here are several effective actions we can take:
1. Regularly reflect on your level of stress and whether it’s a healthy, energizing kind of stress, or excessive and damaging stress that depletes you. Learning comes from being challenged, and some kinds of stress are a very good thing. However, too much stress without the resources to respond becomes toxic over time, and eventually can turn into trauma. An environment of chronic, toxic stress can make our brains much more trigger-happy.
2. Get enough sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition. Keep your brain in the best working order. We all are more susceptible to reacting thoughtlessly when we are tired or hungry.
3. Engage in some kind of contemplative practice such as meditation, prayer, journaling, or a gratitude practice. Research shows that having a habitual centering practice helps us decrease our reactivity to perceived triggers. In effect, we acquire the ability to insert a tiny pause that lets us choose rather than merely react when the trigger doesn’t pose a significant threat.
4. Know your values and what you stand for. While there are many universal triggers - like physical danger - our most consistent triggers arise from a challenge to our values. When you are aware of and consistently living your values--whether they be health or helping or honesty--you’ll be more grounded in response to a perceived threat.
5. Take time to do a retrospective after missteps. Look at what may have contributed and, even more important, identify what you can do to make it right. That may be an apology in some cases. In others, it may be recommitting to healthy sleep. On occasion, it could be a choice to leave a damaging relationship or work environment. Do the retrospective when you are in a safe space with adequate time, and perhaps even a thought partner, to think and talk it through.
6. Notice and choose your thoughts. A habit of optimism and hope, positivity and gratitude, generates brain neurochemicals that support connecting with others and a feeling of well-being. We are less likely to be over-vigilant to perceived risks when we feel connected to others, and to our own deep sense of purpose.
Our brains are remarkable. They also function best in partnership with our conscious minds rather than on their own. Choose to enhance your brain’s capacity and enjoy the dance.