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Lizard Brain

I am often trying to manage too many spinning plates. My feelings during these times can range from feelings of being overwhelmed to an overt sense of panic.

During one of these times recently, one of my astute grade school grandkids said “Papa, you need to stop thinking with your lizard brain and use your owl brain.” Out of the mouths of babes.

She was right. It got me thinking about how the brain (in this case mine) reacts to stress. Further, seeing that the first Wednesday of the November is set aside as National Stress Awareness Day, I decided to study further.

Why a day to think about stress? National Stress Awareness Day is 24 hours of reinforcing the fact that you’re not doing yourself a favor by stressing about situations you can’t control. In fact, according to science, chronic stress leads to impaired cognitive and physiological functions.

Feeling stressed? You’re not the only one. According to a recent study, about 25% of Americans say they’re dealing with high levels of stress and another 50% say their stress is moderate.

These numbers may not surprise you since we all deal with work, family, and relationship stressors.


I don’t want to disparage the lizard fans out there. So, to be more precise, there’s a part of your brain called the amygdala. When the amygdala takes over, it is sometimes called thinking with your “lizard brain.” This area of your brain processes emotion and gets information about the stressor through your senses. If it interprets the information as something threatening or dangerous, it sends a signal to your brain’s command center, known as the hypothalamus.

When your hypothalamus gets a signal from your amygdala that you’re in danger, it sends signals to the adrenal glands. The adrenals pump out adrenaline, making your heartbeat faster, pushing more blood to your body’s muscles and organs.

Your breathing might also quicken, and your senses might get sharper. Your body will also release sugar into your bloodstream, sending energy to all different parts. This also causes an increase in something called cortisol, which is sometimes called a stress hormone, making you more wired and alert.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is something called the “fight-or-flight” reaction.


Stress can serve an important purpose and can even help you survive. For our ancestors, stress was a helpful motivator for survival, allowing them to avoid real physical threats. That’s because it makes your body think it’s in danger, and triggers that “fight-or-flight” survival mode.

Fight-or-flight mode refers to all the chemical changes that go on in your body to get it ready for physical action. What you may not know is that stress isn’t always a bad thing. In some cases, like when you’re starting a new job or planning a big event like a wedding, stress can help you focus, motivate you to do well, and even improve your performance.

But some of the reasons stress can be positive in these situations is that it’s short-term and it’s helping you get through a challenge you know you can handle.

Experiencing stress over the long-term, however, can take a real physical and mental toll on your health. Research has shown a connection between stress and chronic problems like hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, depression and more.

While this stress response can still help us survive dangerous situations, it’s not always an accurate response and it’s usually caused by something that’s not actually life-threatening. That’s because our brains can’t differentiate between something that’s a real threat and something that’s a perceived threat.

Common effects of stress

Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can help you manage them.

In your body you may experience headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, and sleep problems. Your mood may be anxious, restless, feel a lack of focus, feel overwhelmed, be irritable or angry, or sad and depressed. Stress behaviors include over or undereating, anger outbursts, misuse of alcohol, tobacco use, social withdrawal, or not exercising as often.

Stress…a little deeper

Acute stress disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that may occur in patients within four weeks of a traumatic event. Features include anxiety, intense fear or helplessness, reexperiencing the event, and avoidance behaviors. Persons with this disorder are at increased risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder. Trauma is a common experience. It has been estimated that 50 to 90 percent of U.S. adults experience trauma during their lives.

The term macrostressor refers to traumatizing events, such as natural or human-made disasters, whereas the term microstressor, or daily hassle, refers to the “irritating, frustrating, distressing demands that to some degree characterize everyday transactions with the environment.”

Psychologist Derald Sue, author of two books on microaggression, defines the term: “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

His research and that of others has shown that microaggressions, although they’re seemingly small and sometimes innocent offenses, can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipients. This toll can lead to anger and depression and can even lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities. Further, microaggressions are closely tied to implicit biases, which are the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions that we’re not even aware of, that can creep into our minds and affect our actions. There is ongoing research on the cumulative impact that marginalized people over the long term. The hypothesis is that it may explain some of the health disparities experienced.

When to seek help

If you are not sure that stress is the cause of your symptoms, or you have taken steps to alleviate and your symptoms continue, see your doctor. Your health care provider may want to check you for other causes. Or consider seeing a professional counselor or therapist that could assist you in developing other coping skills.

Finally, if you are having chest pain, especially if you also have shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, shoulder or jaw pain, get emergency help. These may be symptoms of a heart attack and not just stress.

Owl brain instead

The goal is to not be victims of our “lizard brain” but rather to use our “owl brain.” Another way of saying this is to use our entire brain as we deal with life’s challenges.

You cannot care for others unless you care for yourself. This means taking breaks, giving yourself some time and space to process what you’re feeling, getting some exercise, eating well (not stress eating), getting enough sleep, getting some sunshine, staying hydrated, and limiting your intake of caffeinated beverages and alcohol. Avoid the use of illegal substances.

Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, or massage

Getting through a crisis isn’t a sprint but a marathon. Be realistic about the situation, pace yourself, and recognize and accept what you can and cannot control. When you feel overwhelmed, don’t ignore it. Slow down. Say no when you need to. Nobody is immune to these feelings. Keep a sense of humor.

Even during physical distancing, you need social connection. Check in regularly with loved ones. Spend time with family and friends. Communicate clearly, ask how they’re doing, and be honest about how you’re doing. If you need help, don’t be too proud to ask for it, even if it’s professional counseling.

What you focus on affects how you feel. So, find the good. Even the simple task of creating a gratitude list, writing down three things that went well each day. This simple act has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, which often accompany stress.

Aim to find active ways to manage your stress. Inactive ways to manage stress — such as watching television, surfing the internet or playing video games — may seem relaxing, but they may increase your stress over the long term.


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