“We do not have a fear of the unknown. What we fear is giving up the known.” – Anthony de Mello
The term ‘lizard brain’ is often used to describe the ancient part of the human brain that scientists have liken to having the same basic functionality as the brain of a modern-day lizard. We often find this term a useful analogy as a lizard’s primary concern is staying alive, so its brain likes everything in the environment to fit neatly into the category of ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ with nothing in-between. There’s no capacity to assess each individual situation and make a decision based on the pros and cons of each course of action, there’s simply safe or unsafe, which in the lizard’s world effectively translates to life or death.
The ‘lizard brain’ likes certainty, there can be no doubt or debate, and this is why today’s uncertain world is beginning to take its toll on the mental health of many people.
Fight or Flight
As humans, we’re not wired up particularly well to cope with looming threats. Our innate lizard brain response to ‘danger’ is to fight it,run away from it, and both of these options trigger a stress response in the body. We can oftem use the “freeze” response as well.
This response is a brilliant bit of human design, instantly raising your level of alertness and giving you a surge of adrenalin to fuel your fight or flight. Unfortunately, while this response to imminent danger has helped to keep us alive throughout history, it’s a response that begins to have a detrimental effect when the threats being faced are longer term.
In the uncertain times we’re living in, with the upheaval of the past couple of years still being felt, the threat of escalating war in Europe and beyond, and the cost of living crisis taking hold, the ancient part of your brain may be subconsciously feeding your mind with worst case scenario “what ifs?” It wants to keep you safe, and with so many changes in your immediate world and the world at large, it’s thrown into a world of unknowns that it can only place in the unsafe category. Remember, there’s nothing in-between, so if it’s unknown or uncertain, it must be unsafe.
To the lizard brain, unknowns are dangers to your survival, and therefore it needs to keep you in a constant state of alertness. Something could happen at any moment, and you need to be ready. In the days of our ancient ancestors, veering from the known track could lead to a life or death encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger. Clearly, this is not a concern we need to have in the modern world, but thinking rationally is not part of the lizard brain’s remit. As far as it’s concerned, the unknowns in your life today are just as life-threatening. If the threat being faced was a mugger on the street, the stress response would fuel your momentary fight or flight and then it would be over, but the threat being faced is not momentary, it’s looming all around, and you’re effectively facing an invisible danger. You are in a constant state of alertness, but yet there’s nothing you can physically ‘fight’ or take flight from. The ever-present feeling of uncertainty manifests into feelings of fear all too easily, and fear leads to negative thinking, irrational thinking, and in short, a tendency to blow every little thing out of proportion. Thoughts of:
- “I wonder when the cost of petrol will level out?” become, “What if fuel costs keep going up and I can’t afford to get to work… and then I won’t be able to pay the mortgage… I won’t be able to feed the family… and we’ll be destitute…?”
- “I wonder when going back into the office will be normal again?” become, “What if my company decides to cut staff and I’m no longer needed?”
- “I wonder when food prices will drop back to normal?” become, “What if food gets scarcer and even more expensive and I have to choose between eating or staying warm…?”
And these worst case scenarios become the overriding thoughts at the front of your mind, creating an on-going state of mental stress and anxiety. The longer the state of uncertainty continues, the more your lizard brain fuels your fears, effectively convincing you that the worst case scenarios are your reality, or at least they’re about to become your reality at any moment. Before you know it, you’re unable to sleep, and your mental worries are then joined by physical worries… creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to escape.
Fighting the Fear
To escape the cycle, you need to change your thinking. It’s easier said than done, but breaking out of it is going to mean breaking the negative train of thought. When the lizard brain is taking over, one negative “what if?” links into the next negative “what if?” and your negative thinking begins to stretch off into the future and you’re living in a state of constant fear of what might happen. Breaking it begins by learning to focus your attention on the here and now, the present moment, and experiencing your reality as it actually is, not the version of reality your imagination has been allowed to create and run wild with.
The stress response is geared up to help you do whatever is needed to survive, but when you’re facing an on-going invisible threat, you feel powerless to do anything. This can lead to mental overload. Taking time out to clear your mind can help to lower your anxiety levels, putting you in a place where you can stop overthinking and begin focusing on what’s real and what’s present in your life right now, in turn making it possible to begin seeing the positives in your world, not just the negatives. Time out is simply turning your attention away from the negative train of thought in any way you enjoy – going for a walk in nature; reading a book; listening to upbeat music; talking to friends or family, or any other activity that makes you feel good – it’s doing something positive.
There will always be uncertainties in life, you don’t have a crystal ball, and it takes an acceptance of this to get through challenging times without the lizard brain hijacking your thoughts and filling your mind with fear. Never having a moment of worry is an unrealistic goal, but worries should be transient. Accept that the lizard brain will throw fear into the mix from time to time when you’re facing unknowns, but let those thoughts come and then let them go, don’t hang on to them. Learn to recognise when your thoughts are dragging you down and you will be putting yourself in a much stronger position to take control and separate what’s real from what’s irrational. When uncertainty causes a lizard brain response, choose to do something about it. Choose positive doing over negative fretting and you’re creating a mental environment that’s firmly in the ‘safe’ category.
Don MacNaughton is a High Performance Coach who over the last 19 years has worked with ambitious athletes, business leaders and entrepreneurs to get eh most out of their talent
Email Donald@zonedinperformance.com for the latest individual coaching programmes