Our saber-toothed tigers and what to do

Uncategorized on July 20th, 2012 No Comments


First, our emotions.

Emotions are electricity and chemistry. Emotions are designed to help us cope with emergencies and threats. Emotions trigger predictable body changes. Heart pumps faster and with greater pressure. Blood flows faster. Glucose is released into the bloodstream for increased energy and strength. Eyes dilate to take in more light. Breathing rate increases to get more oxygen. Why is that? To either fight or flee from Saber Toothed Tigers, of course. Emotions are designed to help us with the body faster and stronger temporarily. The price? IN order to increase energy to the muscles, the emotional response decreases resources for the stomach – that’s why we get upset stomachs under stress, and the thinking brain – that’s why we say and do dumb things under stress. Even though we may be able to lift a heavy object off a trapped person, we can’t think of the right thing to say in a tense meeting. Once the emotional response is triggered, it has to run its course. If no threats follows the initial trigger, it last from 45-60 seconds in most people. That’s why your grandmother told you to count to 10. Trouble is, people have Saber Toothed Tigers in their heads. In modern times, thought can trigger this emotional response. Events which are certainly not physically threatening, like being criticized, can trigger the response. Even worse, people today have added a third “f” to the fight or flight response – freeze. Emotions can shut you down and leave you speechless, neither choosing to fight – argue, respond, nor flee – calmly shut down the transaction and exit.[1]

I recently came across a blog post on this subject that I really liked, and the author gave me permission to share with you. [2]


We all know it. That feeling you’ve been taken over by forces beyond your control. Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) coined the term “amygdala hijack” a number of years ago to describe what happens when our buttons have been pushed so hard our rational brains are no longer in control. I’ve started calling it “the whoosh” because that’s kind of what it feels like in my body. (…)

Perhaps this sounds familiar — it should, if you are a homosapien. We have a very strongly ingrained fight-flight-freeze response, which lives in one of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system. The amygdala (small, almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the brain) is a key part of this system, and its main function is to scan for threats. It’s one of the earliest parts of the brain to develop, both historically and developmentally. In other words, as humans we’ve had it for a loooooong time, and it’s one part of the brain that is highly developed at birth.

When a threat is detected, the amygdala sends notifications to other parts of the brain to put us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Chemicals race to our extremities to make us stronger and quicker (or, in the case of freeze, so much that we imitate death by freezing) and into our higher brain to shut things down. These chemicals in motion are what I call “the whoosh.” And yes, as I said, part of their job is actually to shut down the active functioning of the pre-frontal cortex. This is where we think, plan and make productive choices.

Here’s why, in overly simplified terms (in other words, the way I have to think about it). If you and I are sitting by the campfire and a saber-toothed tiger comes over the hill and I sit there and calculate how fast it’s moving, how fast I can run, whether the fire will deter it, etc., and you run right away without thinking (fueled by a burst of adrenalin), then guess who gets eaten and whose ancestors are not sitting here writing a blog? At certain times, the higher brain just gets in the way.

However, we rarely encounter true saber-toothed tiger quality threats in our lives these days. Instead, it is the little things that bring in the whoosh. An email from an ex-husband. Too much traffic. The prospect of a performance review. Criticism by a boss or peer. Even weight going up on the scale or a child who is dawdling can activate the amygdala and thereby diminish our ability to think rationally. And once it’s been tripped, it trips more easily, so the cumulation of small stressors has an impact, as does being hungry or tired. Most of us in Western society live with some degree of whoosh on a daily basis.

Here’s the main point I want to make, and what I hope you will take away from this article. When we are in the whoosh, we are not capable of thinking clearly or doing the most productive thing. Luckily when we know this, we can figure out how to manage ourselves. I’d write a bitter, angry self-righteous email to whomever, and I’d put it in my Drafts folder. I told myself that if I wanted to send it the next day, I could. Often there were as many as five drafts (I’m not kidding) before I sent the email I felt good about. Each one was less angry, calmer, and more clear.

It worked, and we got through it, and I am incredibly proud of myself for never (well, ok, almost never, I’m not perfect) escalating the situation. I now train all my clients in the whoosh, and recommend the drafts folder as one self-management tool. Because email comes through with no emotional cues, it seems particularly good at activating the limbic system.

The main thing that is needed when we are in fight-flight-freeze mode is a way to move upward, to our higher brains. Taking a beat, deep breathing (adding oxygen to the system helps diffuse the chemicals) and techniques that activate the pre-frontal cortex. When this part of our brain comes “on line” it releases a chemical known as GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which acts as a kind of pepto-bismal for the brain, calming down the other chemicals causing the whoosh.[3] The objective is to activate the pre-frontal cortex to help us think calmly again.

“In another post, Ann says about the pre-frontal cortex : “First of all — what is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), anyway? Well, this part of our brain plays a role in many important “executive functions,” or high-level thinking such as:

–      Pursuing goals and thoughtfully guiding our actions;

–      Dealing with things that are conceptual rather than concrete;

Encoding important memories and retrieving appropriate memories so they can be used to inform current decisions;

Helping us to make thoughtful decisions, use our insight, demonstrate good judgment, and be flexible;

Understanding what what others are thinking;

–      Monitoring errors;

–      Understanding what is real vs. what is imagined or remembered; and

–      Allowing us to delay gratification

(…) Here’s how it works technically: being tired, bored or unmotivated releases very small amounts of catecholamines (hormones produced by the adrenal glands) such as dopamine and norepinephrine, while being stressed creates a massive and constant flow. The ideal state is that of being alert and interested, in which case short bursts of catecholamines are released in response to stimulus in the environment.

In both the case of too little catecholamine activity and too much, the effect on the PFC is to put it in a state of distraction, disorganization, forgetfulness, and lack of inhibition, while the perfect amount of catecholamine release enables the person to be focused, organized and responsible. In other words (I find this fascinating) too little engagement and too much stress both take us to the same ineffective place. In order to be at our best, we need to be in balance. (…)

Fun fact to leave you with: “Normal” for women tends to be perfectly in balance, “normal” for men, a bit to the side of too few catecholamines. To me, this explains why often men tend to perform better under the pressure of competition, while for many women, this extra stress makes us less effective. And it’s all a continuum of course.[4]


And she continues, in another one of her blogues: “I once heard the amazing (and now deceased) Dr. Paul Pearsall talk about having a balanced, healthy unstressed heart. His conclusion — it is perhaps impossible in today’s world unless you live on a remote South Sea island.

In neuroscience geek world, we use the term “emotional regulation” for what is basically, the ability to deal with stress. And as I read through the literature, it dawned on me that this is a huge amount of what we do with our clients. We help them not only “emotionally regulate” in the moment of our conversation, but we also help them build skills for more competency in this area. In order words, we help them become more resilient and capable in the face of day to day life.

So let me walk you through what neuroscience seems to show are the most effective tools for dealing with stress, and how we most typically do this through coaching. In order of effectiveness, we have:

#1. Suppression – actively push feelings aside, pretend, “never let them see you sweat.” This one is not effective. At all. When people do this, they not only raise their own blood pressure, they raise the blood pressure of those around them. Don’t do it. All together now: “Suppress Suppression!”

#2. Controlling the environment so as not to encounter stressor. Interestingly, this may sound bad at first, but it is actually quite effective if you can do it. And we help our clients do this all the time. For example, we might explore options to get rid of a 60-minute commute. Or try to see if we can make boundaries with an in-law. How may we designed our lives for a more peaceful experience?

The reason I have this near the bottom of the list when it actually works so well (and some scientists argue is actually the most effective strategy) is that relying on control is probably a losing proposition. We simply can’t (and shouldn’t try) to control everything and everyone so as not to bug us. And the feeling of needing to be in control when you can’t be actually causes more stress. Still, it works great when you can do it.

#3. Naming the emotion. This is often where we start when someone is dealing with an emotional challenge — we ask, “What’s going on?” We reflect what we are hearing, often teasing out deeper understanding for the other person. The challenge of this strategy (as anyone who has worked with human beings for any length of time knows) is that people often don’t know what they are feeling. We can help them understand and name through metaphor, by using our own intuition, through body sensations, and basically, any tool we have. Over time, we help people develop competence in this area so that they have more words and understanding of the vague sensations within.

I want to note that simple naming is far different that what I call “ramping it up,” which is what tends to happen in more day to day conversations, as our friends chime in with their own outrage. “He did that? Really?? You must be so mad!” etc. We may allow a bit of venting, but then we redirect to more helpful strategies. I didn’t even put ramping it up on this list because it is faaaarrrrrr below suppression — when we indulge in this sort of dialogue we re-experience the emotion and create an even stronger neural pathway for pain and negativity.
Oh, and according to the research, it’s the most effective when you have people write down how they are feeling.

#4. Reframing – finding an empowering way to look at the issue. Yes! It is highly effective at moving people from a place they are stuck, and often stressed, to a place where they begin to see they have options and choices. The act of reframing (also known as taking a new perspective or, in geek world, as reappraisal) invites the pre-frontal cortex to the party, which calms down our limbic system (aka “stress”) responses. In other words, reframing enables our clients to actually think and not react. And when we can think about things using our higher, more developed mind, we do pretty well.

#5. Mindfulness – meditation, being present to body sensations, focusing on gratitude/love. The number one, hands down, most effective solution to any neuroscience challenge. Stress, creativity, improving memory, being more emotionally intelligent, I kid you not. In my neuroscience class, we now just wait for it. “And new studies of meditating monks have shown….” again and again.”[5] (…)

If there is ONE THING for our brains, finding a way to spend time being present. And I will leave the concluding remark again to Ann: “This calms and strengthens and develops the parts of the brain we need the most. Fun brain fact: Einstein’s brain? Not bigger than yours or mine, but bigger in areas that are shown to increase through meditation.”[6]



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