The Brain's Response to Threat
The Brain's Response to Threat
When we detect threat the thinking areas of the brain partially shut down and activity in the emotional brain is heightened. The life sustaining areas react almost instantaneously in line with the emotional brain and send signals to the body to trigger survival responses.
The Smoke Alarm
The limbic system – the emotional brain – contains a group of brain cells (within the amygdala) that are specialized in determining whether an image, sound or bodily sensation is a threat to us. We depend on this system to alert us to imminent danger and to ready our bodies to respond quickly.
When Under Threat the Emotional Brain can ‘Hijack’ the System
This process happens automatically and happens quicker than our thinking brain can respond. We often startle, notice our heart rate increase and the tension in our muscles before coming consciously aware of danger. The limbic system functions using "better safe than sorry" logic. From the emotional brain's perspective, if we are frightened unnecessarily countless times in order to prevent us being harmed once then it is doing its job correctly despite how miserable our lives may be as a result of feeling persistently anxious.
The limbic system functions using "better safe than sorry" logic.
The thinking brain has the capacity to dampen the response of the emotional brain (e.g., by problem solving and rationalizing exaggerated fears). However, the more intense the activation in the emotional brain the less capacity our thinking brain has to rationalize; sometimes leading to us feeling like the emotional brain has taken over and it’s hard to think clearly. As the thinking brain closes down, we may respond more impulsively and find it harder to weigh-up decisions. We may also notice that we find it hard to take in other people’s perspectives and respond to our experiences based on habit or fear.
Past Trauma and Adversity Shape Our Brain - But Not Irreversibly
This survival pattern of brain activity is also observed when we recall traumatic experiences – when there is no current threat, but we are frightened by memories of the past.
As with current threats, the thinking brain closes down and our emotion centres take over, sending our bodily systems into survival mode. Traumatic experiences and adversity (e.g., bullying) shapes the functioning and development of the limbic system throughout life. These experiences have a particular impact on the amygdala, heightening its sensitivity to threat.
Trauma and adversity turns up the sensitivity of the smoke detector, sometimes to the extent that the amygdala falsely sounds the alarm.
For example, feeling tense and anxious to every blue car driving safely down the road, after being in a car accident which involved a dark blue car a number of years ago. This can also happen within relationships, in which a disagreement or argument can take us back to prior overwhelming experiences.
Learning and practicing ways of helpfully responding at times when the mind is triggered into over-responding to everyday situations, and to orientate the brain to the fact that we are safe now, can be life changing. We begin exploring science-based techniques aimed at bringing us into the present in our page on ‘grounding’ which you can find the link to below.