Why do you react to events the way you do?

How often in the course of a normal day do you react to what is presented to you instead of responding? If you have kids I will almost guarantee it is at least in double figures. So what do mean when I say react instead of respond? When we react we use our reptilian brain, the reptilian brain looks after many of our base needs (physical protection, finding the next meal and reproduction), wound up with all of those base needs are our emotions which are controlled by our limbic system (mammalian brain).As the reptilian and mammalian brains concentrate on keeping us safe they work much faster than our human brain (neo-cortex). Reactions are really fast in fact we will often react to something before we are aware that something is happening, for instance when you feel uneasy about a situation or a place you are in.  Responses however are slower and more considered our responses come from the rational part of our brain the neocortex or frontal cortex. Obviously this is the part of the brain where the major decisions are made (or should be made) like which mortgage we choose, the we buy and the car we drive.

So now you are armed with this information which is the busier part of your brain?

There are many occasions that require a reaction, when a response would quite frankly be too late. These are normally where we or people around us are in danger, for instance slamming on the breaks when a child runs out in front of us in the street, or it could be something less life threatening such as catching a glass that has been knocked off the table. We might run to pick up a child that is wandering too close to a busy road, we might scream stop at the top of our voice prevent someone walking into danger. When I was ward nurse I would occasionally put my reactions to good use, when responding to emergencies, by calling for help, starting CPR or performing back slaps on choking patients. These are all situations where reactions come into their own and I am sure you can all think occasions where your reactions have saved you bacon. Having an active threat centres is evolutionary necessary. The members of our species with who failed to react to their threat centre, who resisted the urge to fight. flight of freeze, or whose threat centre was somehow faulty were killed. Therefore if you do live on your nerves you can be thankful to your ancient ancestors for keeping your family line going.

Now this neurosis would be really useful if we lived under constant threat of being killed but most of us don’t. Most of us live quite safe mundane lives, and rarely have to make life or death decisions. The problem is our threat centres don’t know this, their primary role is to alert us to any threat it perceives. Once it has alerted you to the threat it then refers what it is experiencing to your memory bank. Now this in some instances is instantaneous, if the memory bank has a memory that this is dangerous it will come inform the reptilian brain that will then instigate an appropriate response. Or if the memory bank has a memory that this is safe, then the reptilian brain will stand down. The problem comes when the memories are inconclusive, or if this situation has caused some form of psychological pain in the past. See the reptilian brain will cause you to experience anxiety until you make a decision on the action you take. Now this is very binary, therefore it is either a threat requiring a reaction or not a threat so no action is needed. However we experience lots of threats that will not end in our death or physical harm, or of others. It is not unusual to receive an email, have a crossed word with someone, do something out of our comfort zone, such as speaking in front of large group of people. All of these experiences will successfully awaken your threat centre which will then search through your memory banks for precedents. No doubt you have experienced these before, so immediately your reptilian brain knows that your life is not in danger, however you may have felt psychological pain from all of these experiences. Recent research has identified that the same part of the brain that is activated when you experience physical pain is activated when you experience psychological pain. Pain is therefore pain no matter whether it is a result of a physical assault or a psychological attack. You brain will store the memory regardless, so when the threat centre refers to this memory it will want to avoid the pain therefore creating anxiety as it tries to come up with a response. Now sometimes that response may well result in you armouring up in some way, either by attacking, avoiding, or becoming passive. These responses in turn may well have consequences that cause another threat, which then creates more anxiety. How many times have you responded to a text or email in the heat of the moment and then instantly regretted it. Or someone verbally attacks you and you see the red mist and fire a verbal assault back at them. Have you noticed that it is easier to lose your shit with people the closest to you? Well the reason is because the consequences of going ballistic with a family member is much less than if you get up in the face of a stranger, your boss, or a colleague. The majority of us have this stored in our memory banks, which then prevents us from being abusive to people who are less forgiving. There are however many people that are willing to accept the more severe consequences as a price worth paying. Text and emails are something else, as we are not face to face we do not always consider the consequences, and we can all be more aggressive when we do not see the consequences of our actions.

So if we have to consider carefully our responses this can cause us anxiety and discomfort to such an extent that just the prospect of the threat can cause this anxiety. When we know we are going to do something that may cause a threat to us (going somewhere new, talking to a group of people, having a difficult conversation or even just going to work) we will armour ourselves up to protect us from the potential attack. We might avoid doing things, get our attacks in early and come across as aggressive or just not engaging with people, and therefore appearing distant and aloof. Can you see where this is leading? Yes you guessed it, right back to the beginning of this book, and well-being. If we spend too much time being a slave to our reptilian and mammalian brains we will surely damage our mental health.

So how do we spend more time using our neocortex (our rational brain) and have a much more considered view of the world around us?

I will give you an example of how even the merest idea of a threat can create anxiety and cause you to armour up. Every time I start work on this book, a thought comes into my head that people will laugh at me, or say what does he know about personal leadership, have you seen his life? My limbic system is protecting me by putting those doubts in my head. I want to be considered as a useful member of society. If I write something that is rubbish, that oversteps my mark I might no longer be deemed useful and be rejected by my part of society. As we know being rejected and not part of the group was in primitive times just as deadly as being physically attacked by an enemy or becoming prey for a predator. The limbic system has not adapted to the modern world and still wants to protect you from isolation and keep you alive. So my limbic system creates the anxiety to force action to prevent the potential pain and rejection. So I find myself armouring up. This is always in the form of stories I tell myself. My first tactic is to delay, I shut down my laptop and tell myself I am not feeling up to it today, I should wait until my creative juices start flowing. I convince myself that watching Netflix will get those juices flowing. Of course it doesn’t it just distracts me from feeling vulnerable. Then I start to feel guilty about not working on the book when I have told people what I am doing, and that creates anxiety because I am not being useful and potentially putting my position at risk. I then tell myself I have a choice and just because I have told people, does not mean I have to do it. I can choose to not do it today and do it another day. I can exercise my choice. Most times this works because it satisfies my limbic system and allows my rational brain to make an informed choice. After a short while I find myself writing.

Practice Responding Rather Than Reacting

The neocortex is never going to act faster than the reptilian and mammalian brains. They are designed to react to keep us safe. The problem is they are rather blunt and indiscriminate. Professor Steve Peters bundled them together into the Chimp to describe how they both work to protect us from physical threats and threats to our position in the group. That is a convenient way to describe them, as they are very good at detecting potential threats but no good with the social niceties and context. That is what the neocortex is for.

When we react it is always based on emotion, and that emotion comes from our memories, which are initially interpreted by our Chimp (a combination of the reptilian and mammalian brain) from our memories. Therefore a potential threat is detected by the chimp who refers to the memory bank, there is often something in the memory bank that fits the bill or is similar enough, and then the chimp will detect an emotion attached to that memory, and make a decision to act or not. No reasoning is applied by the chimp. It will either act or not based on the emotion that memory creates. We cannot get around this, this will always happen.

If we want to practice responding rather than reacting, then what we do after we react is crucial.

What is important is that we challenge the memories we hold and the emotions we have attached to them. We often leave our emotions and memories unchecked, as we do not believe we can alter them. This is of course not true. We alter our memories all of the time to fit our narrative, our view of the world. We know we can shift our view of the world, and therefore our narrative about what is going on, so it is inevitable that we will view some of our emotions differently. If we view our emotions differently, how we react or respond to new events will be different.

When I was working as a Charge Nurse (Ward Manager) and for some of the time working as a Nurse Educator, I would dread going into work, I would feel anxious about the day ahead, I lived in fear everyday of being criticised and talked about. That feeling of anxiety for a long time would stay with me all day. It still comes and goes now, especially in the morning just before I go to work.

What I needed to do was to make sense of the emotions I was feeling, and as Steve Peters suggests, replace those Gremlins I had about work with Autopilots. Now I started doing this after I had left my role as a Charge Nurse and was working as a Nurse Educator, so I was now removed from the events that caused me the most pain, but I was still feeling the after effects. I was still seeing the people and working in the same environment, and was therefore still worried that I would experience them again.

What I started to do was to write down what was happening to me when I started to feel anxious. I would write it all down in what Brene Brown called my “first shitty draft”. I would get it all out then look at it after I had written it all down. I could then start making sense of what I had written.

To start making sense of what I have written I ask myself the following questions:

  • What assumptions am I making about the situation? Start by looking for facts in what you have written. Underline them all, then go back through them, and just ask yourself is that really a fact or are you just assuming it is a fact? Our assumptions come from our memory banks. As I said previously both our reptilian and mammalian minds use our memory banks to help them assess the threat level of what is being presented to us. They will look for anything that is remotely similar then our minds will if unchecked make an assumption based on previous evidence. The issue is with our memory bank is firstly what I mentioned before, our memory makes stuff up, and secondly it chooses similar situations like Spotify chooses what you should listen to next. Sometimes it is spot on and other times it is very wide of the mark. So always check your assumptions as often your emotional response is based on faulty out of date information.
  • The next question I will ask myself is how accountable am I for the situation I am in. In other words what part did I play in this mess? We will often if unchecked looked for people or situations to blame for what has gone wrong. It is after all easier than facing up to the part we have played. Populist Governments and right wing racist movements have been making an art form of blaming groups of people and races for the ills of society. We see it every day in the press and on social media, like stories of immigrant’s taking jobs, and scrounging off the state in the UK and USA to name only 2. The UK has Brexit and the USA has the wall. Being bombarded with that kind of rhetoric makes it much easier to look for external influences when things happen in our lives, rather than looking closer to home.
  • The next question to ask is what part did other people play in what is happening? Was the part they played helpful or unhelpful. Were they active or passive participants? What do I not know about the part they played? Remember those assumptions. Our minds are masters in projecting and attributing behaviours to people that are possibly less than accurate. What facts do you have about the part they played? Again ask yourself are those facts really facts or are you just making assumptions?
  • The last question I ask myself is, is this situation with my control (can I change it)? If I can what do I need to do to change my emotions about this situation? Some times that will just be a mind-set shift, and sometimes I need to take action. If action is needed, it is vital to turn those thoughts into action. This leads to some supplementary questions.
    • What specifically am I going to do?
    • When will I do it?
    • How will I know I have achieved what I wanted to do?

Now all of this might feel a bit stilted at first but that is the reason for starting off writing those “first shitty drafts” at first to practice these responses. You can then start training your mind to pause when a response is required, and not jump in with an emotional reaction. This will take time and there will be many times that you will jump to an emotional reaction when a more reasoned response would be more appropriate. Don’t beat yourself up over that, it is after all how your mind has been operating for most of your life. What is important is that you recognise when you have reacted when a response may have been more appropriate and use the process above. The act of practicing converts those gremlins to autopilots, by putting the notion of an alternative view in the memory bank, allowing your reptilian mind to concentrate on real threats to your life and limb, and managing the reactions instigated by your mammalian mind to be more limited and less widespread.

What we don’t want to do is to kill of those gut feelings we have. Those feelings that let us know when either something is wrong or something is right. It is what we do with this visceral sensation that is so vital, do we go with the instant reaction stemming from our reptilian and mammalian minds or do we quieten them down to allow our neocortex to give a more reasoned and considered response. Now some of us will find it easier to have a more considered response than others, which is something we will consider later in this book when we look at behavioural preferences. 


Published by Matt Smith Personal and Professional Coach

Performance and Life Coach

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