Do you control your impulses or do they control you? Part of our behaviour works automatically. We’re talking about those series of emotions and reactions that seem to be programmed in our brain and which, on many occasions, are useful to free us from danger. However, sometimes they can lead to toxic habits that prevent us from leading a calmer life.
What will I read about in this article?
- Three types of brain
- The threat brain
- How to control the threat brain
Three types of brain and their emotions
The purpose of our emotions in relation to the brain is to trigger an action in order to survive, to be happy or to achieve well-being. Depending on the goal to be attained, psychologist Nelisha Wickremasinghe, author of “Beyond Threat” and Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, explains that our brain functions through three interconnected neurological systems:
- The threat brain: our oldest motivational system allows us to recognise and respond to danger. For example, when we are crossing a road and a speeding car appears. I need my threat brain to be activated so that cortisol and adrenaline help me move quickly to avoid it.
- The drive brain: it motivates us to seek pleasurable and rewarding experiences, as well as to compete and win. If I’m about to make an important public presentation or participate in a sporting event, I want my drive brain to be very active, providing a healthy dose of dopamine that stimulates productive energy and enthusiasm.
- The security brain: it encourages us to rest, recuperate and form relationships with others. When a woman has just given birth, her “safety brain” will provide her with oxytocin to help her bond with her child and regain vitality.
Despite pursuing different goals, these three systems need to work together and balance each other. But people often develop unhelpful or problematic habits precisely because one of the three brains takes control. This is usually the threat brain and, according to Wickremasinghe, many personal, social and work-related problems can be attributed to this.
The threat posed by the “threat brain” itself
When do we use this neurological system? It is our greatest ally when it comes to avoiding any life-threatening situation: getting hurt, being killed, starving to death, and so on. In animals, the threat brain works as intended. It detects and allows the animal to respond quickly to a short-term crisis. As the psychologist says, their threat brain is alert but does not act or is not “activated” if it’s not necessary.
“The threat system is our greatest ally in avoiding any life-threatening situation”.
It works differently with humans. Our ability to imagine sets us apart from other animals in more ways than one. As we’ve evolved, so has the way we imagine danger. People create and recreate danger in our minds, which triggers the same biological stress reaction as real danger.
In this way, the threat brain can be responsible for stress-related health problems, can disrupt our relationships and lead to problems such as addiction, chronic anxiety, shame, loneliness, depression and even suicide.
“People create and recreate danger in our minds, which triggers the same biological stress reaction as real danger”.
When these three systems are dysregulated, we begin to experience difficulties.
Workaholism, “compassion fatigue” (worrying too much) and anxiety disorders are recognisable examples of what happens when our brain motivations of drive, security and threat work with feelings, thoughts and actions that are inflexible, repetitive, less effective and sometimes harmful.
Who hasn’t experienced doing something without thinking, as if their body had a life of its own? When these impulses lead to toxic results for us and we carry them out without awareness, it’s because the threat brain is behind them.
When it’s always ‘on’, it shuts down our safe brain capacity and makes our drive brain function in a toxic way as well. In the workplace, it’s often common in companies where the organisational culture is highly competitive and winning, competing and accumulating power Is rewarded.
Wickremasinghe argues that, today, it’s common for people to experience a permanent state of anxiety and fear, driven by inordinate ambition and sustained by deep-seated feelings of fear, vulnerability or insecurity.
That’s why, according to the psychologist, it is increasingly important for organisations to stimulate the safe brain. These moments of pause, tranquillity and relational emphasis support the objectives that most organisations and individuals have, says the expert. It allows us to enter deep states of reflection to manage our focus and concentration. And, partly because of the hormones and chemicals that come with safe brain emotions, it also allows us to engage more with the people with whom we share time and space.
Controlling the “threat brain”: the importance of the inner voice
To overcome the problems caused by our threat brain, we must first realise that the real danger is us.
How do you talk to yourself? Although we may not be aware of it, the brain does not rest and we spend our days having conversations with ourselves. Wickremasinghe says that people are not aware of the narrative going on inside their heads. To change that, she recommends writing down the actual words our minds express when we are in threat brain mode.
Most people realise that the way they talk to themselves makes the situation they’re facing worse. We judge ourselves harshly. Wickremasinghe recommends talking to yourself as if you were a friend, not your worst enemy.
Professional development doesn’t have to follow the path of fear or excessive self-demand. It can open up to hopeful and optimistic horizons, enabling great results, without forgetting to take care of ourselves.