How to fight stress and control your \’threat brain\’

Habits are difficult to change. Once you understand how your brain works, however, it’s easier to override your default tendencies and break problematic habits in favor of creating a more healthy, sustainable lifestyle. The first step is focusing on your “threat brain,” says psychologist Nelisha Wickremasinghe, author of Beyond Threat and associate fellow at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.

“Threat brain is a way of talking about our early reptilian brain,” she explains. “I wanted to call it something else because when you start talking about the reptilian brain, everyone thinks they know what that is. But the emotional brain is much more complex.”

Wickremasinghe says our brains mediates through three interconnected neurological systems:

  1. “Threat brain” is our fight-or-flight system that’s purpose is survival.
  2. “Drive brain” is what motivates us to achieve, compete, and accumulate resources.
  3. “Safe brain” is the nurturing, reflective rest state where we feel calm and relaxed.

“They each have an evolutionary narrative, but ‘threat brain’ is still the most easily activated,” says Wickremasinghe. “It’s at the core of our being. Right now, pretty much everybody has had an experience of that side of their brain coming to life, and many of us have fallen into toxic drive brain ways of working, which is motivated—often without awareness—by our threat brain.”

Early signs that you’re operating in threat-brain-induced toxic drive happen in the body, such as a fluttering stomach, tense muscles, or a raised heartbeat. You may not realize you’re operating in threat brain because toxic drive brain has become normal. But if you’re disconnected from the sequence, you may not notice it until you’re at a much later stage, such as being in the midst of an angry outburst.

“My mantra is, ‘It’s not your fault, but it may be your problem,\’” says Wickremasinghe. “Pretty much all our problems stem from an overactive threat brain.”

Getting Control of Threat Brain

Threat brain behaved as it should at the beginning of the pandemic when we were facing an unknown danger, but over time it’s lead to confusion, uncertainty, overthinking, and denial—defensive reactions that aren’t particularly effective, says Wickremasinghe. But you can regain control with two actions.

First, pay attention to the way you talk to yourself. “Surprisingly, people aren’t aware of the narrative that goes on inside their head,” says Wickremasinghe. “It’s just something that they think goes on, and they don’t really stop to listen to it.”

Wickremasinghe recommends writing down the actual words that are happening inside your head when you’re in a threat brain situation. “What you’ll tend to find is that the words you are saying are compounding the threat,” she says. “We know from research that people who are hyper self-critical are triggering areas in their emotion system that we associate with threats. And self-talk keeps you in threat, without you even knowing it.”

Once you recognize the words going on in your head, you can address them. Wickremasinghe recommends talking to yourself as if you’re a friend, not a hateful enemy.

The second method is physical because threat brain starts as a physical experience.

“Breathwork can seem a bit of a fad type thing, but the whole work and research around use of breath is so fundamental,” says Wickremasinghe. “I’m not suggesting mindfulness or a spiritual practice. Just pay attention to how your breath works for and against you.”

Simple methods of rhythmic breathing that allow you to check in with yourself a few times a day can be helpful. Adjusting your breathing over time changes your physiology and allows you to become slower to react when in a threatening situation.

“If you see someone in a panic attack, the first thing you’ll notice is the way they’re breathing, which is fast and irregular,” says Wickremasinghe. “Breathwork draws attention back into the body and taps into the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a movement away from drive behavior into safe brain states. It takes a little practice, but it allows you to better deal with the psychological and social stressors that are coming our way.”

Getting into ‘Safe Brain’

Safe brain is the part of our emotional brain that came after the reptilian threat brain. It developed as mammals began to realize that caring for their young greatly increases their chances of survival, says Wickremasinghe.

“Safe brain has evolved over millions of years; it’s that part of us that is connected to the frontal cortex, which enables us to soothe ourselves to rest,” says Wickremasinghe. “It enables us to enter into deep reflective states to manage our focus and our concentration. And partly because of the hormones and chemicals that come with safe brain emotions, it also enables us to go toward people to bond.”

While safe brain is essential, it’s often under-stimulated in most organization environments and can be considered navel gazing and time wasting, says Wickremasinghe.

“Those moments of pause, quiet and relational emphasis support the goals that most organizations and people have,” she says. “Healthy drive goals are what we all want, but we often don’t dig down into how to achieve them. Especially now being in such difficult times, we all need to pause the need for drive, and move to safe brain for a while.”