Are you suffering from an overactive threat brain?

failure, stressed woman, female leader, burnoutMost of our problems in and beyond the workplace arise because our body and mind are over exposed to real or imagined threat.

In the last eighteen months all of us have had plenty of exposure to threat in our experiences of the pandemic. If we want to nurture and sustain healthy, high performance at work, particularly in the aftermath of Covid, we need to notice, understand and regulate our threat response in order to stay centred when experiencing, for example, work-load pressure, performance anxiety, ongoing disruptive global trends, team conflict and rapid change.  Understanding how our emotional brain works can help us appreciate why we react in the way we do and how we can regulate our feelings and thoughts to take care of our well-being and to become more effective.

Our emotional brain

The purpose of our emotions is to motivate action so that we can achieve the basic goals of survival, accumulation, and relationship. Threat brain , our oldest motivation system, enables us to recognise and respond to danger. Drive brain motivates us to seek out pleasurable and rewarding experiences, such as accumulating, achieving, and winning, safe brain motivates us to rest, recover, and form relationships with others. We need all three emotion systems working together to balance and regulate each other. Unfortunately, many of us get caught in unhelpful or destructive habits of feeling, thinking and behaving because our emotion systems are out of balance, and usually the cause is our overactive threat brain.

Signs of an over active threat brain

An overactive Threat brain can make us physically ill (the links between stress and ill-health are strongly evidenced), can disrupt our relationships (by triggering and sustaining conflict, avoidance behaviour and over-compliance), and can lead to distressing problems  like addiction, chronic anxietyshamelonelinessdepression and suicide. In high pressured work environments threat brain is easily activated and can contribute to destructive behaviours and thoughts such as those you see in  perfectionists, hyper-critics and bullies.  ‘Corporate psychosis’ and ‘toxic drive’  are the result of unregulated threat brain emotions which ruthlessly drive performance, results and profit at the expense of our ‘safe brain’ needs.

Our threat brain system is our earliest, our safe and drive brain systems followed and have continued to evolve.

Our Threat brain is not ‘bad’ – it evolved to respond to life-threatening, physical challenges – which might result in us being killed, wounded, or starved. In other animals, Threat brain works as intended. It detects and enables the animal to respond quickly to a short-term crisis. Their Threat brain is alert but also switches off appropriately. However, our human brain has evolved the ability to imagine danger. We are able to re-create danger in our minds which triggers the same biological stress reaction as actual danger. At work we see the effects in recurring illnesses, burnout, hyper-tension and disengagement. When we are constantly imagining that we might lose our job, that our boss thinks we are incompetent or that our colleagues are back stabbing us we are keeping our threat brain permanently ticking over in a way it was never designed to do.

The consequences of our ‘always on’ threat brain is that it shuts off our Safe brain,  hijacks our Drive brain and causes toxic drive. When this happens, our fear of not having a good enough job or earning enough money or having enough status with our friends takes over our healthy drive and ambition. We can easily get locked into a cycle of overwork and worry, especially in our highly competitive society which rewards competing, winning and accumulating money and power. Too many of us are driven to ‘keep going’ because we fear being exposed as vulnerable or incompetent, and we are usually unaware of these fears and motivations until they disrupt our lives in the form of illness, relationship breakdown, job loss or accidents.

Learning to manage our Threat brain

To overcome these problems, we first need to notice when our Threat brain is overactive and then learn to regulate it. The most effective thing we can do is to use our breath to control the physiological symptoms of Threat brain. If you pay attention to your breathing when you are anxious, you will probably notice that it is ‘shallow’ (high up in the chest) and that you often hold your breath. This ‘short, sharp’ breathing is appropriate when we are in danger as it helps us stay hyper-alert. By contrast, rhythmic breathing is based on the natural flow of your breath. This kind of breathing helps you to reduce stress by ensuring regular and continuous air flow at a steady pace. It helps you avoid breathing too fast or holding your breath. Start by taking a few regular breaths in your normal way. Then alter your in-and-out rhythm so you begin breathing in for the same number of counts as you breathe out. Find a number that works for you – for many people the optimum rhythm is five breaths in and five breaths out.

Breathwork brings noticeable benefits: your muscles relax, you experience fewer back and neck aches and oxygen delivery improves, which increases your mental concentration and physical stamina. Your blood pressure also falls because your muscles are letting go of tension, and endorphins are released which provide natural pain relief and a sense of wellbeing. You will also benefit from improved digestion as deep breathing stimulates the lymphatic system to detoxify and cleanse your body.

Dr Nelisha WickremasingheAbout the author

Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a Psychologist, Associate Fellow, Oxford University and author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation (Triarchy Press), out now, priced £12.75 from Amazon


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