The hardwiring of humans and how we can manage perceived threats

Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen explores the hardwiring of our brains, and this can send us into fight or flight mode. She also offers some helpful tips to avoid traps and triggers for ourselves.

We thought it might be helpful to give a (very) brief overview of the hardwiring we humans have evolved with. If we can understand this, we are better placed to look out for traps and triggers. By gaining an understanding of this function, we can recognise and respond in ways that will work more effectively for us.

The brain is complex and while we are not in any way neuroscientists, there are three parts of the brain that usually work in perfect synchronisation:

1. The lower brain/ brain stem

The part of our brain that is responsible for survival—controlling our heartbeat, breathing, and other autonomic functions “fight, flight or freeze” -excellent survival strategies (for cavemen -less so for modern dwellers).

2. The mid/ limbic brain

The emotional centre. We refer to this as the alarm threat detect and response control centre.

3. The forebrain/prefrontal cortex

The logical, rational part of the brain. This brain is responsible for the regulation of logic, creativity, problem solving, language, and perspective- the sensible part.

In the presence of threat (real or perceived) brain 1 and 2 close ranks and go into work mode, whilst brain 3 struggles to keep up…can you see where this going? This is a primitive, involuntary response which is essential for our continued survival. It's efficient, perhaps too efficient, but imagine if we did not have this system (the Dodo – now extinct).

So, with the constant news and reminders of this unprecedented global crisis and threat to human life, job losses, isolation, is it any wonder we are feeling this way? In a fear situation like a pandemic our minds and body will react in this way whether you think you're scared or not - anxiety is even more infectious than COVID19. Your body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn't.

Tips on how to manage this

Focus on what is in your control

How coronavirus spreads, the economic situation is NOT within control but how you show up each day IS. Set your goal for the day, structure and routine will give you a sense of focus and purpose. Watch less news and spend less time scrolling through social media – our threat seeking minds like to constantly look for threats, it’s not helpful.

Notice your thoughts and feelings

Our minds never stop thinking, the goal is to be the observer of your thoughts, and not be controlled by them. Allow emotions in. To fight with emotions is like having a tug of war with a monster- the more you pull the more the monster will pull. Let go of the rope and name the emotion, change how you relate to it and let it pass. It's ok not to feel ok.

Communicate with others about how you're feeling

It's likely they can relate (but only if they know). If you are worried about your job then talk to your employers, if you are concerned about your finances, talking to banks, lenders, service providers. These are all things that are within your control.

Engage fully in what you're doing

Pay attention to things in the present moment. Notice how often the mind will pull you back to its chatter, practice shifting attention back to the activity in hand. If it’s a struggle to do this, notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste (5,4,3,2,1 technique). Make this part of your daily routine. Short regular mindfulness practice has been proven to improve wellbeing.

Be aware of your breathing

This sounds so simple, but longer, slower deeper belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and signals to the midbrain (brain 2) that all is well and can deactivate the fight flight response.

Take care of your physical health

Drinking water, eating, and moving also help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which reassures the sympathetic response that all is well.

Consider your personal values

What sort of person do you want to be? How do you want to treat others, yourself and the world? Take action towards these. At OK Positive the values we adhere to are connection, courage, communication and commitment, and there is an endless list of values out there.