Last week I went to a two-day training for therapists (I’m both a therapist and a coach) about how to treat trauma and PTSD. I was pleased to discover some useful information that also works for people who are not dealing with major trauma in their lives. Today’s tip is the first of two important take-aways for my readers from that training.
Perceiving a Threat Ramps Up Your Body and Shuts Down Your Brain
When you perceive a threat, even a threat of the non-lethal type like those you might experience at the office, your body releases a number of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare you to either fight or flee. Physically, your heart and breathing rates go up, your muscles tense up, and you get a lot of energy. This means you can potentially do big things, like the story of the mother who lifts a car off her child. But you can’t do them for very long as you quickly get exhausted. In addition, your fine motor control and overall speed and agility suffer.
When you perceive a threat it has a profound effect on your brain. The frontal and temporal lobes in the neocortex of your brain start to shut down. The energy that had been going to the neocortex, where higher thinking happens, gets shunted to the mid-brain, which is all about the senses and survival. The longer you perceive the threat, the stronger the effects from this shift. You lose more and more judgment, reasoning, decision-making abilities, impulse control, problem-solving, relational skills, speech and language, and the ability to put your focus on anything but the threat.
These physical and mental changes are just what you need to face a threat to your life—say, fighting off a bear or jumping out of the way of a swerving car. Now imagine that the threat is an irritated boss. All those physical and mental changes that could save your life in other circumstance are instead likely to prevent you from dealing with the situation the best way you could since you won’t be able to access parts of your brain you need to make good decisions. The effects of the threat on your functioning might be so extreme that they even cost you your job. Unfortunately, your body cannot tell the difference between different kinds of threats so it reacts to them all in the same way.
Worse, the majority of us in the Western world perceive threats where there are none much of the time. That means we have those hormones affecting our brains most of the time, so we are often working with lessened judgment, reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving abilities and all the rest at work and in our businesses. This is not a recipe for success.
Why We Feel So Threatened In The Safest Time In History: We Share Everyone’s Threats
Do you tense up when you go to your car in a parking garage? I know I do even though neither I nor anyone I know has ever been attacked in one. But women especially are taught to be on their guard in parking garages. And we’ve all seen movie or TV scenes where someone was kidnapped or shot or run over or threatened in one. So our bodies and brains react in parking garages as if we were in real danger every time.
We react to a lot of situations with our fight or flight response even though, according to the World Health Organization, we in high- and medium-income countries live in the safest time in human history. Why? Because we’ve learned to feel constantly threatened. Not from our own experience typically. Instead, we’ve learned from the media. Remember all those movies with the parking garage scene?
It’s not just action movies that are teaching us to be fearful. It’s the news with the stories of crime, war, and accidents highlighted in every sort of alarming adjective. “If it bleeds, it leads.” You aren’t even safe in the financial pages of the newspaper. It turns out that the same part of our brain reacts to financial loss as to mortal danger. So reading about lay-offs, and stock market down-turns, and threats to the world economy from the Eurozone, also releases all those stress hormones and primes us to expect more threats to our financial well-being at every turn. (The poor journalists who cover these stories hour by hour must be constantly awash in their own threat responses—no wonder their reporting is so dire.)
So What Should You Do To Reduce Your Internal Threat Response?
The first step to take to reduce your internal threat response is to become a careful, proactive consumer of the media. A steady, weekly diet of action or horror movies is going to raise the stress hormones in your system in much the same way as pigging out at every meal can wreck your health. Limit your exposure to doom and gloom.
Consider lightening up your media diet with a comedy, or chick-flick, or cat pictures. Pick a Jane Austen novel over one that depicts the end of the world. Look for entertainment that relies less on an adrenaline rush and more on providing chuckles and warm fuzzies. You can think of these as the mental equivalent of eating your green vegetables.
More importantly, limit your news intake from all sources. After September 11, 2001, I advised a number of my clients to cut themselves off from all news for a time—no papers, TV, radio or internet news until they had lowered their anxiety. You will have to gauge for yourself whether you need to—or even can—be so strict with yourself. If you are a journalist, for example, you won’t be able to do this. But short of holding a position like that, you may be able to get away with a lot less news than you think.
I know of one highly successful entrepreneur who swears that she never reads, watches or listens to any news. If anything really big or relevant to her happens, someone will tell her. She claims that she takes this approach because she finds following the news saps her energy and creativity. Now I know why; hearing about all those threats in the world takes away energy from the higher functions of her brain!
If you don’t want to go as far as shutting out the news media altogether, you can still limit the “damage” from the news:
- Don’t tune in to it so often. Turn on music instead of news when driving in your car. Don’t check the news every hour when you are online. Instead, schedule when and how you will get your news.
- Skip the items that aren’t relevant to you. Yeah, reading about someone with a flesh-eating disease or the latest bar brawl involving a celebrity might be interesting, but it will put you on high alert. It’s not worth it.
- Be picky even where articles may be relevant to you. Yes, a big lay-off by Acme Multi-National Corporation is arguably relevant to you, but if you and your loved ones don’t work for Acme, and it won’t directly hit your company or clients, and you can’t do anything about it anyway, the impact of reading that article will be all pain and no gain. Give it a miss.
- Choose your sources carefully. I’ve stopped reading the daily news stories about children who are harmed because I started having nightmares every week about my own little one getting hurt. I still care about other people’s children but the nightmares weren’t helping them or me. Now I only look at the recall alerts from the government related to children’s toys and gear and the monthly newsletters about keeping kids safe and healthy from the local children’s hospital. If there’s anything in the local news that’s relevant, I’ll hear about it from my daughter’s preschool. This way I get the important information without getting overwhelmed.
Simply cutting down the barrage of alarming news can quickly have a positive effect. A client told me last week she loves to watch the European football tournament that’s currently taking place, which she has been recording and watching in the evenings since the games air during her work day. Ordinarily she would check the news on her phone while waiting for programs to run on her computer at work, but for the last week she stopped doing that to avoid accidentally seeing the results of a game she was planning to watch that night. She noticed that both her stress has gone down and her mood has gone up in just that short time frame. So we made a plan for her to continue limiting her news intake to just once at the end of the day even after the finals are over.
You can try a similar experiment. Start limiting your news intake in some significant way. After a week or two, check if your stress level is any lower than before you cut back on the news. If it is, you can be sure that you were actually functioning better since lower stress equals more brain power.
Next week I’ll share some of the ways to bring your brain back on-line when you find yourself reacting to threats that aren’t really there.