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How Your Brain Reacts Under Pressure

Combining science & creativity to create an illustrative editorial article on how your brain reacts under pressure.

What is pressure?

Pressure can be described as the burden of mental or physical distress especially from grief, illness or adversity.  A moderate amount of pressure can actually be helpful as it can provide motivation & help maintain focus.  However, stress is the body's reaction to an excessive amount of pressure which requires a physical, emotional or mental adjustment.

74% of people we surveyed agreed strongly that pressure affects their ability to meet deadlines, produce quality work & perform at their best.  Pressure is self inflicted & we feel it most when a situation is:

  • Important
  • Uncertain
  • Or we're being judged / responsible for the outcome

What most people don't realise is how pressure affects our brain & decision making due to an "amygdala hijack" which causes us to react in ways that may seem out of character.

Let's simplify the brain into our complex thinking (Neocortex) & our emotional feeling (Amygdala).

Neocortex

  • IQ resides here
  • Responsible for rational thought
  • Decision making
  • Strategising
  • Prioritising

Amygdala

  • Survival centre that initiates Fight, Flight or Freeze (FFF) when triggered by threats
  • It responds (emotional learning & memory)
  • Negativity bias
  • Responds x100 faster than the Neocortex
  • It doesn't differentiate between real or perceived threats

Amygdala hijack

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline & cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for FFF. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call an “amygdala hijack.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow & rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to. The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten & jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.

The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right & you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives & if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy.

Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”

In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice.

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