Times like these make me grateful for the years I’ve spent understanding the basic operating systems of the brain and what they mean for us behaviorally, emotionally and experientially. While it doesn’t give me any more certainty or stability than anyone else, it does offer a lens through which to watch my own reactions to today’s state of the world as well as the reaction of others.
A cursory understanding of the brain can offer some actionable reminders for leading yourself, your inner circle, and your teams, through a time when our hard wiring can catapult us to tilt. If you might be close to tilt, here’s some context for calling you brain back, and interacting with the tilt-state of others.
The Basics: On a moment to moment basis, your brain is sliding back and forth across a continuum from interpreting and responding to the environment from the position of safety and openness to interpreting and responding from the perspective of being threatened and protective. It’s the central organizing principle of the brain – moving toward or away from people, places and things based on a literal split second, often pre-conscious, risk assessment in an effort to minimize danger and maximize reward.
The more threatened your brain feels, the more intensely your brain’s various survival systems overtake both your physical systems and your cognition abilities. Things like innovative thinking, prioritization, impulse control, decision making, focus, objectivity, memory, and emotional regulation can all be compromised during the brain’s high threat reactions. Different threat levels and different durations of stress have been found to activate different neural networks, so we’re not speaking simply of the amygdala/hippocampus response, or what many call their reptilian brain.
Critical to remember is that we are all unique. What is a threat to me, may not be a threat to you, and vice versa. For example, telling someone they “shouldn’t be” or “shouldn’t feel” or using words like “look”, “but”, “no”, “must”, “in fact”, and many more will be experienced as a threat for most.
Why It Matters: These brain systems protected us during the proverbial lion on the prairie scenario when our life, tribe or food was in jeopardy. Our threat response systems prepared us for episodic stress, like a big lion thrown down fight to the end and then reset during a recovery period.
In today’s world, though, our brain often incorrectly interprets stimulus as threats. Without a level of self-mastery and practice, things like a funny look, or a “let’s talk” email, or the lack of a timely response can trigger these threat/stress responses. These stress responses are a 1400 ingredient surge of stress biochemistry called allostatic load.
It is in learning to mitigate and recover from these stress responses that we help our body digest the stress chemicals and maintain baseline wellness. Carrying a growing allostatic load without finding a way to reset and recover begins an escalator type shift in the baseline of our health. It colors our perception, our performance, and our experience of the world. It shifts our underlying immune and health systems.
Neuroscience also tells us there are 5 social domains around which the brain can become threatened. Those being status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness, or SCARF as coined by David Rock. Shifts in any one, or multiple of these domains can both cause and amplify our stress experience.
For many people, and perhaps for you too, multiple domains are being redlined on the danger reward continuum. There is a great amount of uncertainty, there is limited autonomy, our work in the ways we have known it, including our income is impacted, our usual response to reach out and connect and be with others (relatedness) is severely eclipsed, and we are receiving messages that everyone around could be an invisible danger to our life.
Connecting the Dots:Being unique, people will have their own way of reacting, ranging from being stoic and doing nothing to being continually obsessed with news and changing information. It can be a very tiring time as our routines (habits) run through lower energy consuming parts of the brain are now needing energy from the highest energy utilizing part of our brain, the PFC.
In essence we’re rapidly trying to learn new routines while being amidst a long-lasting stress response. It is a formula for not being at our best. If you feel dazed, jumpy, unorganized, emotional, unfocused, and generally discombobulated, well that’s all this at work. It’s easy to recognize it in ourselves, and it’s important we recognize and accommodate it in others.
Now What: The call to action both for our own wellbeing and for the teams we lead is to use both our heart and a calmed mind to help people find resilience and a path to adaptation to what’s going on. It is common for us to want to simply endure and hold on to a belief that things will return to what’s familiar. True resilience is recognizing that there might always be something we have to face and engaging in a new way around our personal wellbeing and what it means for our business roles and operations.
Some Brain-based tips: How you share your thoughts and respond to others matters. Now more than ever, we need to consider how we are perceived by others. Our presence needs to be a reward and a positive encounter and not a threat/negative for others. If we are perceived on the threat side of the continuum, we quite likely will lose our influence and possibly alienate others.
We have the ability to create crosswalks for people from their emotional hard wired reactions to steadier logical responses. Two known strategies for this crosswalk are labelling, or in the words of Dan Siegel Name it to Tame It, and Reframing.
Name it to Tame is the process of giving how you feel a label. I feel ____. Labelling puts the breaks on in the brain and helps shift from the reactive emotional systems to the logical systems. Once you can identify the feeling, the brain tamps itself down and it becomes much easier to then create a plan to address it.
Another strategy is Reframing or Cognitive Reappraisal. This prompts us to intentionally find a new way to look at and/or find meaning in what is occurring such that we can change how we feel about it in ways that support our emotional regulation. When someone points out a silver lining to us, it is a step toward re-framing. Word of caution here, helping someone find their own re-frame versus giving it to them is important as throw away phrases like “well, at least you..” are missing the empathy piece, and can backfire.
When we keep in mind that the brain is offline in a number of ways, it offers reminders for what and how we communicate. Carve off things that aren’t necessary and keeps the things that are as simple as possible to make them easier to process. Chunk things into smaller pieces with shared timelines and action steps. Use appropriate humor. Include reminders of where there is choice can boost people’s sense of autonomy. Make known those things that might be assumed for clarity and certainty. Being very specific about plans and processes can add certainty to an uncertain time. Taking time to connect in meaningful ways and be invested in each other’s wellbeing (even virtually) helps boost relatedness. Listen without automatically going into fix it mode.
Finally, keep in mind you are an ecosystem and how your care for the whole of you will directly impact the quality of your brain’s operations. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and outlook all make it easier to call our brain back from tilt.
Here’s a quick video of Dan Siegel explaining Name it To Tame It.
All strategy, business and brain aside, these times are a lot to be living through and there this is written with heartfelt wishes for you to find ways to self-soothe and care for the people places and things most important to you in your world.
(NLI, 2020: Mobbs, et. al, 2009,: Heartmath, 2019: Gordon, 2008: Rock, 2008: Siegel, 2014: Golden, Hazzari, Gross, Social Anxiety, 2014)