Understand your brain’s operating system to override the “Amygdala Hijack”​ when you WFH. By Virginia Henningsen.

Our Brains during Co-Vid19.  Neuropsychologists know that all human brains like stability, predictability and feeling secure, this enables our brains to run with maximum efficiency.  Yet in our current context, our brains are on hyper alert status and this feels, in the body, as if you are on edge.

Three things that we are all facing right now when WFH during the Co-Vid 19 situation and the extended social lockdown are:

1.   Dealing with change (adapting to WFH and massive social restrictions, and hanging out waiting to find out when they will be eased), 

2.    Learning (all the new tech and approaches we need to learn to get our jobs done from home, or how to apply for government stimulus packages and dealing with a new business portal, learning a new job skill, because you may have less team members), and 

3.    Managing stress (the underlying feeling we have when we are unsure when we will get back to the office, feeling worried about the virus, being concerned about kids being schooled online, I won’t go on, but you know what I mean)

Well, these three things use up alot of our brain’s energy.  So if we are finding it hard to focus, pay attention, use our higher order cognitive skills, this is because all the brain’s energy is going into the stress response, dealing with change and learning new things.

I want to help you move away from feeling on edge to feeling more in control and at ease.  So here is neuropsych 101 – after I learned this stuff, I was so relieved when I realized, it wasn’t just me, it was my brain(!). Me under pressure, wasn’t just dictated by my personality but by the way all human brains have evolved.

Think of yourself as having three brains, each representing a different stage of human evolution.  The 3 brain theory is an easy way to remember broadly, how our brains work.

The original brain – think prehistoric reptiles and dinosaurs, this is the brain they had and this is the brain still present in modern day birds and reptiles.  Housed in the brain stem, it controls  basic but vital functions – things like breathing, heartbeat, circulation and digestion. These are all instinctual and automatic, and critical to our survival however this part of our brain doesn’t need us to “think” or “feel” to make it work.

As mammals evolved, we developed a second brain, the limbic brain, that sits on top of the original brain, it generates emotions based on sensory input, these responses are automatic and reflex oriented, no conscious analysis or interpretation is needed.  The focus for this part of our brain is on preservation and survival. It drives the following reactions: hunger, pain, sleepiness, anger, fear and pleasure.  When we experience pleasure, this part of our brain releases endorphins and dopamines – these are known as the reward pathways that make us feel good. 

In the most recent stage of evolution we developed the third part of our brain that wraps around the other brains called the prefrontal cortex.  This is the part of our brains that is responsible for higher order reasoning capabilities, thinking analytically and logically, problem solving, planning for the future, and thinking abstractly.  The prefrontal cortex regulates and tries to control the responses in the limbic brain, and most of the time it provides a good counter balance.  It enables us to be reflective, contemplative and methodical, it enables us to weigh alternatives, rather than responding to first instinct.  This part of our brain is unique to humans.  Although, sometimes I think maybe my dog has a little bit of a prefrontal cortex.  

So that’s the structure, three different brains that have evolved over time – the basic original brain, the secondary limbic brain and the prefrontal cortex.  

For the brain to function, it’s needs a steady supply of blood flowing through the three brains.  The blood delivers glucose and oxygen for our brain to work.  However, there is a priority system, the first primary brain and the secondary limbic brain will always get energy first as they ensure our survival, and our protection.   And when both of these brains are satisfied, the prefrontal cortex will be supplied with energy.  This shows us that our ability to think and even speak or reason with numbers, is not as important to the overall brain as keeping us alive and safe.    

So when we can’t think, when we can’t think rationally, we can’t focus or pay attention or access our higher order capabilities, this is because there is actually decreased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.    With no energy supply, it is a massive feat to use this part of our brain. 

Daniel Goleman, a well known psychologist has called extreme versions of this the “amygdala hijack”.  The amygdala is seated in our second brain, and houses all our previous memories, especially our memories regarding our past experiences with fear.   The amygdala’s focus is to be hyper-alert and to protect us, by detecting potential danger. 

When a new situation arises, for example we are now working from home, and we receive some new information, it will always pass through the limbic’s brain first and then move to the prefrontal cortex.  However sometimes the amygdala in the second brain reacts so quickly to the new information or situation, that the information never gets to the prefrontal cortex.  We go straight into the fight/flight response.  

The fight/flight response involves increased heart rate, tunnel vision, big releases of adrenaline and cortisol, reduced activity in the digestive system and hormonal systems, and increased blood flow to the legs and arms.   And all of this can happen in varying degrees while we are sitting in front our laptops, working.   Or trying to work.  The amygdala has hijacked the body’s response, and it takes a lot of effort to do anything using the thinking part of the brain.  Simply because, there is reduced blood flow and reduced glucose going to the prefrontal cortex.

During the stress response fight or flight, two hormones, cortisol and adrenaline are released by the limbic/second brain. Under pressure, adrenaline and cortisol increase which may not be big news to everyone,  but only recently have we found out that after an increase, adrenaline decreases quickly yet cortisol stays high for 24 – 36 hours.  So we can feel on edge for a longer period.    Evolutionary-wise, that was important when the threat was likely to come back, ie the predator was scared away, but the caveman needed to stay on high alert in case the predator returned to the campsite.

But fast forward to 2020 and we don’t need cortisol to stay high for 24 – 36 hours, and we can’t change the structure and neurochemistry of the brain, so it means we need to learn new ways of managing stress and change so we can grow new neural pathways to dampen the second brain’s response and keep the energy flowing through to the thinking part of our brains.  This is something that we can all start doing straight away, and while it takes time, practicing new things over and over and a daily commitment, time is what we have right now, and this is a great way to spend it.

Developing this ability to control and manage our brains and the counter-intuitive help it gives us, will help us build our well being, confidence, resilience and stress tolerance.  With these things, individuals can approach their work with a greater sense of ease, they can anticipate problems and obstacles and know they have the cognitive and emotional ability to manage well.

There a couple of easy things to start doing that may help you keep the blood flowing to your Prefrontal Cortex:

1.    Take a deep breath, breathing in deeply and exhaling the entire out breath a couple of times is known to reduce floating cortisol in your body.  This is a deliberately slow breath and the recommendation is to breathe in to the count of 4, hold for a count of 4 and then breathe out slow, exhaling all the contents of the lungs to a count of 4.

2.    Standing up, and walking around, going outside if possible, and doing 3 mins of cardio activity – skipping, running up and down some stairs, star jumps, push ups, etc can help release endorphins which minimise the impact of the cortisol.

3.    Recognising and labelling emotion.  This is a well researched method that enables us to move from processing emotion in an unconscious way to processing it in a fully conscious/cognitive way.  It involves the individual labelling their emotions, and either writing those words down or speaking out loud.  For example, “I feel overwhelmed” – write it down or speak it out loud.  When we speak or write, this activates the language centre in the prefrontal cortex, and with more blood and glucose flowing through to the prefrontal cortex, we can gain some perspective, and can start to think more clearly, rather than being dominated by a strong feeling or emotion.  Try it, it really works. (but don’t just think about how you are feeling, you must write it down or say it out loud).  

That’s a lot of information about your brain, that you may not have read before.  I hope you can keep in mind, that you can learn to manage your strong feelings and access your prefrontal cortex when needed, especially while working from home.  

Remember, deep deliberate breathing, exercising (even just 3 minutes can help) and labeling your emotions are three things you can start doing straight away, no significant skills are needed. 

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