Mayday, mayday: we are having a mental meltdown

Do you sometimes battle to understand human behaviour in a stressful situation? Understanding how the brain works will help

Without warning, smoke gushes into your office. You are confused about what is going on. Your heartbeat starts to race. Then the emergency siren goes off. You know you need to evacuate the building. With the abundance of smoke, you are struggling to breathe and, with burning eyes, you cannot see down the passageway. Not knowing where the source of the fire is located, or its intensity, what do you do? The choices you make in that instant could save, or possibly cost you, your life.

Thankfully, few of us will ever have to make such life or death decisions. However, we are regularly forced to make decisions while under pressure. Understanding how the brain works, particularly when we are stressed, can assist us to keep ourselves and our people safe.

Our brain’s highest priority is our survival. When the brain detects a threat, whether or not it is real, it will jump into action – sometimes in an irrational manner.

To explain this reaction, and without going into intricate details, we need to understand two fundamental building blocks of the brain.

The largest portion of the brain is the neocortex. Among other things, it is responsible for our higher cognitive functions such as language, analytical thinking, reasoning, problem solving and decision-making.

Another section of the brain is the hypothalamus, which is similar to a command centre. It communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates our involuntary body functions such as our heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing.

Whenever we are in imminent danger, such as being trapped in a burning building, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This, In turn, activates a series of chain reactions to ready the body and ensure it has the necessary resources to deal with the danger.

In a state of fear or anxiety, our heart rate escalates to provide more energy and oxygen to the body. Our pupils dilate to allow more light into the eyes so we can be more aware of our surroundings. With a surge of adrenaline and cortisol racing through our system, we can start to tremble as our muscles tense and prepare for “battle”.

We can become pale as the body redirects blood away from the surface areas and brain to vital muscles like the arms and legs. This automatic response happens so quickly that we do not have any time to think about it. In these conditions, the brain bypasses the neocortex and switches over into survival mode.

This is ideal when we need to swerve out of the way of a child chasing after a ball that has rolled into the street. At that moment, we are, literally, not thinking. The analytical function of the brain is circumvented as the body arms itself for action. However, this can also be disastrous when a situation calls for a more level-headed, think first and then react, response. This is why people seem to make “silly” mistakes or decisions when they perceive a threat.

It is important for managers to take note that this reaction is not limited to physical danger. Our brain responds in precisely the same way when it perceives a psychological threat.

I know that I should not have (as it was serious), but I could not help laughing when a senior manager shared that whenever his team undertook their weekly safety walkabouts, everyone would disappear.

If for some strange reason a lion wandered into our office, we would immediately default to a fight-flight-freeze mode. On a psychological level, if every time a subordinate sees us they experience a negative emotion, their brain will quickly deem us to be a threat. From their brain’s perspective, we have just become a human form of a roaming lion.

It is more than likely that the next time we engage with that person, the primal (and not rational) part of their brain will be activated. To make matters worse, our primal brain is not language orientated. Trying to have a logical conversation with it is a waste of time.

Have you ever been angry with someone and they told you to calm down?  Did you respond by magically going from a state of anger to being cool, calm and collected? The answer is most probably not. It’s more likely that you became even more irate.

Usually, later in the day, after calming down and coming to your senses, you realise that your behaviour was unnecessary and silly. This is because you are no longer functioning from your primal brain, but using the reasoning side.

Leaders should endeavour to have “brain-friendly” interactions and be mindful of the verbal and non-verbal messages they are sending. Their goal should be to send messages that are not seen as a threat. This will dampen the possibility of a fight-flight-freeze reaction.

Lastly, I recently read a fascinating article by Tait-Harris, a leading United Nations war crimes investigator, regarding the violence and hostility in society, in which he stated: “People generally do these things to others because they see them as different, so if there’s some way to show that you’re just the same, it might just ease the situation.”

Connecting, caring and building rapport is vital to keeping our people mentally calm, engaged, focused and attentive. When it comes to safety, it is more than a nice sentiment or corporate values’ slogan – it is an absolute necessity.   

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