You and Your Lizard Brain
Some situations can’t be resolved from within them. If you’re having cortisol-fueled stress response to some trigger, you’re not going to be able to simply talk yourself through it. You have to change your state of mind in order to get perspective and regain your equanimity. Then you can address what needs to be addressed. This is a key factor in stress management.
Say you’re in a downward spiral set off by an event: your great idea was publicly shot down during a meeting today, in a way that felt dismissive and mean-spirited, and you’ve been reeling from it every since. Your primitive fight-or-flight-or-freeze stress response got triggered, and your brain and body are suffused with cortisol, the stress hormone. You are not in your “right mind.” Your lizard brain is in charge. And your lizard brain isn’t up to the task of helping you recover from the emotional hit you took today.
In this cortisol-laced state, you just can’t access to the range of internal resources you’re used to accessing. Your physiological response to the upsetting event is the same response your long-ago ancestors had when they encountered a sabre-toothed tiger: everything in your brain shuts down except the sense of immediate threat, and you focus on whatever you can do to save your own life. At that moment, your ancestor didn’t need sensitive, nuanced thinking — he just needed to get away from the tiger. So that’s the response that evolved: our more primitive, “lizard-brain” takes over.
The lizard brain stays in charge until your brain state changes, until you’re no longer engaged in fight-or-flight energy. But as 21st century sophisticates, we think we can effectively respond to the stress spiral by “talking ourselves down” from it. But the reality is we don’t have the resources at that moment to do so. Our brain and body are suffused in a cortisol bath: a physiological state unlike any other. We won’t be effective working with ourselves the way we can in a more normal state.
THIS state, the state of the lizard brain, requires something different. First and foremost, we need to recognize it for what it is. If some situation has flipped you out of your normal state of mind into a paroxysm of humiliation, shame, fear, anger, or other such intensely negative emotions — that’s a good indication that you’re in cortisol-land. Once you recognize what’s going on, you can help yourself out of it.
How can you help yourself out of it? By resisting your powerful urge to do what you always do and instead choose the solution of using your brain in a completely different way. I have a friend who loves crossword puzzles and other word games. When she needs to deactivate her lizard brain, she goes to her puzzles. Working the puzzles uses her brain in ways that result in the creation of a different chemical bath, which translates into a different felt experience. Or maybe it goes the other way: working puzzles makes her happy again, and the happy brain cranks out serotonin or oxytocin, or some other happy chemical we love. As she migrates into a calmer, clearer brain state, she becomes able to more effectively process the precipitating event from earlier in the day. And meanwhile, she’s had a break from it. She’s recovered from the physiological impact. Now she can deal with the rest.
I learned by chance that I get relief from chopping vegetables. When in a downward spiral I would sometimes conclude that since I couldn’t get any work in that state, I might as well make dinner. And by the time I’ve finished chopping the onion and setting it to brown slowly in some olive oil in my good non-stick pan, my mood has begun to shift. And once the carrots and celery are cleaned and chopped and added to the pan — I feel OK again, even happy. I now have perspective on what happened earlier and can figure out what action I should take, if any.
Can’t do word puzzles or chop vegetables at the office? Try leaving the building and getting outdoors for a brisk enough walk that your breathing changes. Focus on your breathing or the muscles that are firing as you walk.
Talking with a trusted person can also be a lifesaver at times like these, but it has to be a good enough friend who really understands what’s going on and what you need. You need to have some shared language and understanding, established long before the crisis.
As I’ve written in a recent post, there are many ways to change your brain state and in doing so, change the particular Kool-Aid your brain is sloshing around in, which eventually stops the downward spiral of the profoundly negative experience.
The best way to try this yourself is to come up with a real-world short list of tactics that might work for you, and plan to try them out when you recognize that your lizard brain has been triggered. See what works for you.
Does this sound new or interesting to you? Would you like some help recovering more quickly from injuries sustained in the hardball game played in your profession? Or the interpersonal jungle that is your life? Let’s talk. My initial consultation is a no-fee meeting.