Limbic System & Stress

Upset Brains Can't Think

When we're afraid, we can't think straight. Why? Because the brain has to follow an order to process information. And as you might expect, the things that keep us alive and safe take priority over choosing milk or cream with your coffee. So, the brain's first job is to make sure we're breathing, alert, awake/asleep, etc... to maintain our basic bodily functions (this happens in the brain stem-at the bottom of the brain). If that's all working okay, the brain will then consider how we feel--emotions like happiness, fear, anxiety, curiosity (that happens in the brain's limbic system-in the middle of the brain). If we're not terrified or freaking out about something or starry-eyed in love, then we can think about what's going on (that happens in the cortex-the outer shell of the brain). So, if our boss yells at us and then asks us to explain why we did something, we honestly can't offer a well-thought out explanation. We're more likely to mutter a pathetic excuse because we can't really consider what is being asked of us. The same goes for students at school who just left a lunch room where they had a conflict with their peer; they can't dive into algebra until their brain settles down and believes it is safe to focus on cortical things. Our brain activity is all held up in the middle of the brain and can't stretch out to our cortex unless we feel there is no threat. We need to settle down (that's why time outs are such a smart idea) before we can think straight. 

So, when you need to give someone some information that is likely to make them a little limbic, don't expect a well thought out response just then. Instead, you may want to give them a little time for things to sink in.

Stress derails the activity of higher thinking areas


Stress moves brain activity away from thinking areas



Stress mechanisms and PTSD

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