When we perceive a threat, the limbic system and brain stem work together to activate our instinctive “fight-or-flight” survival response to get us out of danger. Heart rate increases. Muscles get tense. Eyes widen. Our perception narrows to focus our attention on what we need to do to survive. All of this happens automatically, often before we are even conscious of what is happening.
Imagine that you are walking in the woods and you see a squiggly thing lying across the path in front of you. What happens? For many people, the brain says “Snake!” and activates the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline is released, your heart beats faster, you suck in your breath, your muscles tense and you take a step backwards.
This automatic fear response causes us to act first and ask questions later. Why? Because if you have to respond to a real threat, you need to be acting automatically and instinctively to get out of danger (fast track), not thinking about a solution (slow track). To ensure that your instinctive survival mechanisms can work to get you out of danger as quickly as possible, the flow of information to the parts of the brain responsible for logic and reason (the cortex) is inhibited. Once the snake is gone, or we realize it wasn’t a snake at all, the fear response subsides.
The fight-or-flight response is also activated when we feel emotionally threatened, or when we become fearful about all the things that could go wrong in the future. But with so many things in our world to feel anxious about and so many things that feel out of our control, we never get a signal that the danger has passed and our nervous systems stay on high alert. Without a way to calm the limbic system and bring our thinking brains back on line, our ability to think clearly and rationally is hijacked and the fight-or-flight survival response will win out every time.