An Over-Active ‘Threat Brain’ Could Be The Source Of Your Stress

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
A young woman with curly hair holding hands on her face while being stressed
Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty

Yesterday my son dropped something heavy in his room. The entire house shook—or at least that’s how it felt in the kitchen, which is the room directly underneath his room. It was the same sound I’d heard when my husband was alive, just before the fall that sent him to the hospital, which signaled the beginning of the end of his battle against brain cancer. My son yelled down that he was okay, but already my heart was racing, and my muscles were spasming. The reaction was instant, a product of my “threat brain” activating and responding to a perceived danger.

If this is your first time hearing the concept “threat brain,” you’re not alone.

“Threat brain” is a term coined by psychologist Nelisha Wickremasinghe, author of Beyond Threat and associate fellow at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, who wanted a better way to describe the primal part of our brain that responds first to fight-or-flight, which is sometimes known as reptilian brain or lizard brain.

Three Interconnected Systems

Wickremasinghe argues that our brain operates through three interconnected systems: the threat brain, the drive brain, and the safe brain.

The threat brain is there for our primal need to survive. The “drive brain” is the system that urges us to “achieve, compete, and accumulate resources.” Finally, the “safe brain,” which evolved over millions of years, “is the nurturing, reflective rest state where we feel calm and relaxed.”

Each is important in its own right, but it’s the threat brain that’s “at the core of our being,” she says. It’s the oldest system of the three and the most easily-activated part of our brain.

Which is great if we’re in danger. That’s our survival instinct. That’s the reason we step back from the curb when a car’s coming too fast.

But, like most things, too much of a good thing becomes not so good. As our consciousness evolved, so has our ability to imagine danger, writes Wickremasinghe. Imagined danger creates the same biological stress reaction as actual danger, which leads to our threat brain running in overdrive.

Unfortunately, when our threat brain is over-activated, we can begin to suffer physiological symptoms of stress.

Signs You’re Operating Under Threat Brain

When the threat brain is always on, our “safe brain” turns off and our “drive brain” turns toxic, writes Wickremasinghe. When that happens we might experience tensed muscles, a racing pulse, or an unsettled, fluttering stomach. In some cases, we can enter a state of “threat-motivated achievement”. In this state, we’re living in a constant state of anxiety, which is rooted in a sense of unworthiness or inadequacy. Often, we don’t even realize we’re operating under threat brain until we’re acting out.

In an article for Psychology Today, Wickremasinghe writes, “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 behavior, and over-compliance), and can lead to distressing personal problems such as addiction, chronic anxiety, shame, loneliness, depression, and suicide.”

How To Get Control Of Threat Brain

To regain control of threat brain, we first need to be able to notice that we’re in threat. Then we must learn to regulate our response.

To do this, pay attention to what happens when you feel stressed or threatened. Notice your emotions and your physical symptoms, if any, including clenched jaw or a pounding heart rate. Then, the next time you feel those emotions and/or those physical symptoms try to remember that it’s your threat brain overacting.

Wickremasinghe suggests paying attention to the way you talk to yourself. She notes that most people don’t realize the words they’re saying to themselves, and that those words are “compounding the threat.”

“We know from research that people who are hyper self-critical are triggering areas in their emotion system that we associate with threats. And self-talk keeps you in threat, without you even knowing it.”

Once you recognize your self-talk, you can begin to change the way you speak to yourself. Talk to yourself like you would speak to a friend.

Along with identifying and rewording negative self-talk, Wickremasinghe also encourages folks to focus on gaining control over threat brain through the physical. Specifically, she suggests breathwork.

“Breathwork draws attention back into the body and taps into the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a movement away from drive behavior into safe brain states.”

Breathwork can be as simple as paying attention to your breath and focusing on how it works for or against you.

At our best, all three of our neurological systems work in harmony. The threat brain isn’t over-activated, but it is serving to keep us safe. The drive brain is working as it should. And the safe brain is stimulated enough to allow for moments of rest and relaxation.

Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. And undoubtedly, so worth it.

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