Rising interest rates and spiralling household bills, fears of a looming recession, fires, floods… a new day brings a new round of bad news and anxiety-inducing headlines. So perhaps it’s not surprising that more and more of us are operating in ‘threat brain’ mode. Feeling besieged by situations that we believe are threatening our way of life, and over which we feel we have little control, our brain constantly operates on high alert. We are primed to be ready to respond to danger, and fight or flight becomes our default.
“Our threat brain is important – it’s part of our survival mechanism and kicks in when we face danger and need to be ready to react,” says Dr Jodie Lowinger, author of The Mind Strength Method. “But if we tip into threat brain and the fight-or-flight response when we don’t need to, that can get in the way of our capacity to thrive.”
How the fight or flight response works
Issues arise when the merest whiff of uncertainty or the thought of risk begins a cascade of reactions in our brain – it’s our threat brain on speed dial.
“The threat brain relies on part of our brain called the amygdala that triggers a surge of adrenaline and cortisol in our bloodstream. It sets up our body to fight or flee,” Dr Lowinger explains. “But our brain can get hijacked by the amygdala, so then the threat brain swings into action when we don’t actually need it to. We jump into a state of fear or anger or agitation when we don’t want – or need – to.”
Dr Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a psychologist, Associate Fellow at Oxford University and author of Being with Other, which explores how our threat response interferes with our ability to build trust and openness. She describes this constant state of high alert and agitation as a “threat brain loop”.
“Each of us has a different threat brain that is calibrated depending on our early life experiences,” she says. “People who grew up in threatening environments will have a threat brain that is more sensitive, vigilant and more easily activated. People who grew up in safe, nurturing environments won’t see the world as being such a hostile and dangerous place.”
In people caught in the threat brain loop, the other emotional parts of their brain – the drive brain that motivates us to seek out pleasurable and rewarding experiences and the safe brain that encourages us to rest, recover and build relationships – take a back seat. The threat brain is in charge.
Threat brain fallout
An overactive threat brain and the fight or- flight response can manifest in different ways. People may become withdrawn, moody, irritable or unapproachable, or they become people pleasers who go to great lengths to placate and please. They become over-compliant and constantly seek and need approval.
“Threat brains impacts your physical body, too,” says Dr Wickremasinghe. “It causes a steady and potent drip, drip, drip of chemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, that prepare you for action but these were designed to flood our body in short, sharp doses.
“If your body is constantly drip-fed cortisol and adrenaline then it will be in a constant state of stress and that can lead to heart problems, sleeplessness and problems with digestion and breathing.”
A well-established body of research has shown that when our body is in a constant stress state, the overexposure to hormones like cortisol and adrenaline disrupt our body’s natural balance and functioning. Muscle tension, headaches, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, weight gain and poorer memory and cognition can all arise from living in a state of stress.
“People live in a threat brain autopilot state until something significant happens – maybe they experience a heart attack, serious illness or a divorce. They go through a life event that is deeply unpleasant or unexpected and then have to confront this notion of threat brain and its impacts,” says Dr Wickremasinghe.
How to manage stress to tame ‘fight or flight’
When your threat brain swings into action, what steps can you take to calm it down and put what is happening into true perspective? Dr Lowinger says a key step to managing the threat brain is to become aware of when we are experiencing fight or flight driven thoughts and feelings.
“When we do that, we can learn what is going on in our body, what these physiological feelings actually mean, and what unhelpful actions try to take over when we don’t want them to. Awareness and having an action plan for when the threat brain takes over is important,” she says.
Tori McCarthy, Program Manager at South Pacific Private, a treatment centre in Sydney, agrees that tuning in to what is happening in our body and what we are thinking at that moment matters.
“Calming the central nervous system with grounding exercises like mindfulness or meditation. Come into the present moment, notice what is happening in your body and what you are thinking. You may not realise you are having constant negative thoughts, catastrophic thinking and negative self-talk,” says Tori.
Talk to someone
Then we need to challenge those negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking – every day. You can talk to someone you trust or with a therapist to do this.
“You need to reprogram your thoughts and change them to something more positive. Look at the facts and the reality of a situation. Is that actually going to happen? What’s the evidence to suggest that? How have you dealt with this situation in the past? Our threat brain and the fear response always goes to the worst-case scenario. So at the bare minimum tell yourself that right now you are safe and you are okay,” Tori suggests.
She also recommends “getting rid of the halts” – hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness or stress.
“If we look after ourselves our capacity to deal with the fear response drastically improves,” she says.
“People think a few affirmations in the morning will fix this but this kind of thinking is constant and you constantly need to check in and reprogram your thoughts. With time, the threat brain will quieten but you need to look after yourself physically, mentally and spiritually to avoid it coming out again.”
Challenging the idea that we should be happy almost all of the time and normalising feelings of worry or anxiety can also ease the threat brain.
“Acknowledge that feeling bad is just how it is right now and be kind to yourself,” says Dr Wickremasinghe. “Brain scans show that the more self-critical you are, the more you trigger your threat brain, and that people who are more self-compassionate experience safe brain states more often.
“Once we can be alongside ourselves in that compassionate way, then we will be ready for more focused interventions, like mindfulness to soothe the threat brain.”
Practicing mindfulness and not getting caught up in emotional extremes – happy and sad – can also help keep the threat brain at bay. Notice how you are feeling and soothe yourself. Going for a short walk, slowing your breathing and talking kindly to yourself help.
Digging deep and thinking about who you are and how you want to live is also valuable in keeping the threat brain in its place, says Dr Wickremasinghe.
“You will come up with difficult truths about yourself, about the choices you’ve made and maybe about the relationship you are in. Stay open to that. Don’t get scared and run away. Trust that you will come through this and discover resilient parts of yourself,” she says.
“We may have been powerless to determine our childhood environments and the accidents and disasters that happen to us in our life, so having an overactive threat brain is not your fault. But it might be your problem and you need to release it.”