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Lori Bender, MSW, CTP, CMHFA, CMT
Professional Stress Coach
Founder of Students Stress Less Coaching, LLC
As human beings we react to crises with emotions at times. The explanation is quite clear when we understand what is occurring in our brains and bodies as we feel like the world closing in on us.
It is not a mistake when we respond to crises with meltdowns, high anxiety, stress, arguments, and blame. Our brains and bodies are designed to respond to threats we perceive from the world around us.
The Science Behind the Flip Outs
Our reactions and responses begin with our senses, yes, the ones you learned about in elementary school. It is this simple elementary science lesson that lays the foundation for most of my stress management coaching.
Our five senses take in information from our environment and when any of the five (except nose for some reason) perceive something as a threat (Think: COVID-19), our brain is signaled. It starts dispersing information about the threat the part of the brain that is involved in thinking, reasoning, and emotion regulation – our cortex.
Now normally, when we perceive something as threatening (another example: jump out of the way of an oncoming car), in order to live, we respond with reason and logic (JUMP!). Our cortex is responsible for helping us reason and use logic and rationale.
Sometimes, however, the threats bypass this thinking center of the brain (cortex) and head to the emotional part of the brain (amygdala). This little bugger works hard and fast to keep us safe. It can even kidnap and deactivate our thinking and make us “unthink”. All conscious control of think responses leaves.
Because the amygdala is home of our fears and keeps a record of how we have responded to fear in the past, our fear responses can be triggered and activated. When our fear response if somehow triggered, the amygdala does what it does best – protects us!
More on the Amygdala
Because if you experience anxiety on the regular you will want to know about this almond shaped brain part
The amygdala is old as dirt, but it loves us and wants to protect us with everything is has. In fact, it is so protective of us that when it receives threatening signals, it creates this amazing hormonal wall (adrenaline: epinephrine, norepinephrine) that impedes the penetration of logic and reason. Notably, this is when we might hear someone say, “I just can’t think straight.”
There is a scientific reason why!
Physical sensations of this hormonal flood may include shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, heavy chest and sweating. It’s what our bodies need to do at this time of threat to keep us alive. These symptoms prepare us for that fight or flight.
There are also cognitive responses to the stress and crises that we may not necessarily feel but others may notice: loss of reason, loss of critical thinking, loss of logic, irrational behaviors, quick decisions, slip of the tongue, BLAME, fear, immediate gratification decisions, and cognitive “shut down”.
Why it this?
Less Activity in the Thinking Brain
Well, when there is less activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain that monitors emotional urges, raw emotion wins! Don’t forget, logic, intuition, memory, planning, and thinking all reside in the cortex and if it is disabled, our responses are more barbaric in nature - not well-planned or thought out; not imaginative; not creative; not reasonable.
Crises like COVID-19 or other major illness, multiple deaths, a car wreck, a divorce or a lay-off are threats to humans.
When our eyes, ears, fingers, and tongues sense events, situations, thoughts, words or experiences as threatening, we seek safety, protection, reassurance, certainty, and we want answers - the sooner the better. Our amygdala becomes both our “sin and our saint.”
We seek comfort without thinking what we say, without thinking through situations, without waiting, without caring how we hurt others, without compassion, without kindness, without clarity, and without care for future impact. We act on emotion.
Our basic survival tendencies are kicking in.
In times of crises or repeated anxiety, before we blame, accuse, fear, isolate, act out, or do anything illogical to find the answers we are seeking, we need to visualize this science behind our urges.
If you’re really interested beyond this simple explanation, here are some articles:
Over time, the human cortex undergoes a process of corticalization, or wrinkling of the cortex. This process is due to the vast knowledge that the human brain accumulates over time. Therefore, the more wrinkled your brain, the smarter and more intelligent you are!