As a species, our survival depends on our ability to scan for threat and react accordingly. Our brain stem and limbic region play key roles in generating our fight, flight, or freeze responses.

Recall a time when a car cut you off or a barking dog chased you down the block. Adrenaline took over and you reacted instinctively. Our brains are hardwired to keep us safe from danger – be that a car accident, an off-leash canine, or or an untrustworthy coworker.

Actual threats to our life are not the only triggers to these primal responses. Perceived and real threats are interpreted daily as we move about our normal lives – the amygdala does not distinguish between the two. At work, threats are read as Bully Boss, Approaching Deadline, or Angry Customer. A belittling colleague or an unfamiliar work group create fear and anxiety as we monitor and assess for safety. Someone who butts in front of you in line at lunch can provoke your internal sense of justice and fire you up. There are limitless ways to push our buttons.

We can’t stop threat or provocation. What we can learn to monitor and control are our reactions and responses to perceived threats. Here’s an example:

Bruce told me a critical executive review was a disaster that left him “flaming fu#king mad.” He grew visibly angry in the meeting and regretted this later. We reviewed the event and his emotional response of feeling blamed in front of all his peers. Getting thrown under the bus is an all-too-common scenario. It stings. Or lands like a sucker punch.

I tried to put the experience into brain context, using linear equations to frame his learning:

Public attack = primal threat to survival 

Threat to survival = Amygdala hijack

Activated amygdala = fight/flight/freeze response

Fight/flight/freeze = release of adrenaline + cortisol + heightened awareness  of threat — WARNING! WARNING! DANGER!

In parallel, activated amygdala = deactivation of prefrontal cortex (PFC) 

(PFC is our highly evolved human brain responsible for linear, logical, language processes and executive functioning – often where we feel most competent.)

PFC deactivated (off-line) = Limbic System in overdrive

Limbic System as Primary mode of Operation = Emotional reactions now driving behavior

Emotional reaction = automatic default (raise voice, bump chest, intellectualize, cry, rant, shut down, disengage, patronize – you know your own patterns)

Now here’s the part we can alter….we can choose to practice a new emotional response.


Emotional response = Intentional action that allows the PFC to override the Active Limbic System by integrating right and left hemispheres. This is where a knowledge of interpersonal neurobiology is helpful. 

In this case, Top Exec blamed Bruce for poor progress of his group. Blame triggers a threat response. (Unfortunately, I see a lot of leaders use it).

Threat –>Limbic System Activation –> Default to Bruce’s Fight response –>Later feeling regret

Take away: It doesn’t matter that Bruce is a smart, logical, poised professional. When we are triggered and have a reduced ability to manage our amygdala effectively (jet lag, long periods of stress, fatigue, unprocessed emotions, poor nutrition to name a few) our limbic system takes over. It is inevitable. Don’t we all relate to being short-fused or at wits end?

The good news, I told Bruce, is he had a reminder 1) of his own limits and 2) that he’s human, and 3) that he has more to learn. The other good news is that with knowledge of brain basics and practice he can decrease emotional hijacking. We all can.

Decreased emotional hijacking –> Greater emotional regulation

Greater emotional regulation –> Increased Confidence & Self Management

P.S. Adrenaline and cortisol stay in our body long after the threat has reduced or resolved, especially if we are not actively decreasing them through good sleep, aerobic activity, belly breathing, social connection, or laughter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s