This is an excerpt of the first chapter of my book How to Empty Your Stress Bucket … and keep it empty for life. Read the introduction here.
Let’s look at the brain.
Right now, you’re using the intelligent part of your brain to read this – the vast resource of all that learning you did as a child that you’ve now programmed yourself to be able to read without even thinking about it. This is the part of the brain that you know as being YOU. It’s your consciousness, the objective and rational part of your brain. This part of the brain allows us to drive, use computers and mobile phones.
In fact, this is the part of the brain you use to analyse a situation, assess it carefully, then come up with the right answer to take some action. So, it’s generally quite positive. Because it’s attached to all your intelligent resources I call it the intelligent brain – if you want to be fancy, it’s your left prefrontal cortex but let’s keep it simple and call it the intelligent brain for now.
Now there’s another part of your brain I want to talk about – the original, primitive part of your brain. You’ll know this part of your brain as it’s commonly called the ‘fight or flight’ response, medically known as the amygdala.
This part of the brain is our survival response from caveman days and it has served us well over time. I’ll call this part of the brain the primitive brain.
So how do these two parts of the brain work together?
Imagine if you will, that you looked up from reading right now and saw a massive polar bear coming towards you – what would happen?
Your stress levels would shoot up instantly, you would lose the intellectual control you had while reading and your primitive brain would kick into gear straight away.
Your heart would start pumping to get the oxygen flowing quickly to your muscles so you could make a run for it, you’d breathe a lot faster, you’d go all sweaty and your guts would churn – in fact, you’d probably have a full-blown panic attack, you’d scream the place down while running as fast as your little legs could carry you.
And that’s fantastic – get away from that polar bear and survive – fight or flight – you don’t want to die! In any case, fight might be the riskier option, it may be better to run away (flight) instead.
But it’s much the same in life – as your stress levels rise you begin to lose the intellectual control from the intelligent brain and the primitive brain steps in to take over.
Your stress levels can rise gradually over time. You don’t need a sudden event to make that happen. A sudden traumatic event will naturally raise your stress levels. But often you can’t pinpoint it to one specific event, maybe just a multitude of life’s stresses, building up over days, months and years.
The primitive brain senses danger ahead so takes over to go into survival mode. It’s a safety mechanism.
The primitive brain has three opt-out clauses and we are all pre-programmed with these.
Let’s look at these individually in more detail.
If your mind, as a whole, senses some sort of danger ahead, your primitive brain will step in, take over and go into one of these opt-out clauses of depression, anxiety and anger, or even a combination of all three. (Yes, you can actually be depressed, angry and anxious all at the same time).
If we look back through evolution, we can clearly see the reason why we have these three responses.
Imagine our caveman ancestors, looking out of the cave one day and seeing it all snowed under. They would think Forget this, I’m not going out hunting and gathering today. I’ll just retreat back into my cave, pull the rug over my head and wait until this situation passes! And that would have been a perfectly appropriate survival response under those circumstances. Except we don’t live like that anymore.
We’ve taken that primitive response and translated it into modern-day symptoms of depression.
You can’t get out of bed, or get motivated to do things. You want to hide away from the world and sleep the day away. When we’re depressed, we lack motivation to do even the simplest of tasks.
Imagine the caveman out hunting and gathering in the wild. They had to be alert for danger all the time. Another tribe or animal could be just around the corner ready to attack. We don’t live like that anymore, but we’ve taken that natural survival response and we now call it anxiety.
We are worried about what might happen and concerned for the dangers that may be out there. You may be constantly worried about your family, or issues at work. You are concerned and overthink about your future prospects. You wonder how you will ever get through the day with all the challenges that lie ahead.
And anger… Well, that’s simply a primitive response to fear. If the poor caveman was ever attacked, what did they do to scare that tribe or animal away? They screamed and shouted, grinned and bared their teeth, made themselves bigger by flailing their arms about to scare that danger away – and these days when we see that in someone, we say they’ve got anger management issues. Maybe you’re snapping at people for no obvious reason, or feeling argumentative all the time. Road rage is a perfect example of this.
Look a little closer.
Remember I said the primitive brain was the fight or flight part? Well… anger is fight, anxiety is flight and depression is freeze – we should actually call it ‘fight, flight or freeze.’
Generalised anxiety disorders, clinical depression and anger management issues don’t simply occur overnight though. The response can be short and sharp, but once you get ‘emotionally hijacked’ by the primitive brain it is all-consuming.
Early signs of the anger response (fight) can be feeling irritable, grumpy or having a short temper. Feeling slightly anxious (flight) initially shows up as constant worry, fear and being overly pessimistic. And depression symptoms can first appear as low mood, a lack of motivation and procrastination; it’s too dangerous to come out of your ‘cave’. Try to spot the signs early on, don’t let it build up so it overpowers you completely because that’s when you lose control.
One for the computer geeks: I often use this example to help people understand how the brain has evolved through time.
Imagine your brain as a computer. The primitive brain is very old hardware that has not had an upgrade for centuries. Instead of upgrading and developing that part of the computer, a whole load of new software in the form of the intelligent brain has been attached to it instead. This new software is constantly getting upgraded and monitored (and getting even larger). The old hardware is still there. But now there is a conflict between the old out-of-date hardware and the new sophisticated software… The whole computer is not working as efficiently as it could, especially when the old hardware is just as powerful as it ever was.
Can you see how these once very useful survival responses really do not serve us well in modern times? The fight response is now seen as anger management issues, the flight response is now generalised anxiety disorder and the prolonged freeze response is clinical depression.
Want to read more? “How to Empty Your Stress Bucket … and keep it empty for life” is available on Amazon, Waterstones, Book Depository, Blackwells and Barnes & Noble US (Paperback £9.99, eBook £5.99).
Prefer audiobooks? Then listen to my book on my podcast Stress Bucket Solutions.