When This Happens, Your IQ Drops 10 to 15 Points
We’ve all done it. You know, those times in the heat of the moment when you react badly? Maybe you make a snide comment, or blow up, yell and blame someone, or you storm out.
Hours later, you replay the situation in your mind and you might feel embarrassed, thinking, “Ugh. I wish I’d handled things differently.”
You’re recognizing that you reacted to the situation rather than responding thoughtfully.
In this article, I (CrisMarie) will explain why you might react so strongly to certain situations (even very minor annoyances, like a phone call that’s taking longer than expected), and what’s happening in your brain and body on a physiological level when you’re in a reactive state. I’ll also share what you can do to stop reacting and start responding, and (if you’re already exploded) how to repair the damage that’s been done.
See if you can relate to any of these scenarios:
You’re in a long meeting late on a Friday, tired, and your peers continue to side talk and laugh, not pay attention to whoever is speaking, making it hard for you and others to hear. You think it’s actually disrespectful and slowing the meeting down, and you want to be done. Your frustration mounts, until you sit up and snap, “Will you two just shut up!”
You’re banking by phone. You’ve been transferred five times. Every time you get passed to a new person you have to give all your information again. You get disconnected and have to wait in the queue for 20 minutes before you get someone back on the line. When you do, they tell you that you’ve dialed the wrong department. You snap and yell into the phone, “You are a horrible company! I’m taking my business elsewhere!” Your spouse, after repeatedly being asked to pick up their clothes off the floor, takes off and throws more clothes in a pile in the bathroom. You’ve spent the last two hours cleaning up the kitchen and picking up the house, and you’ve had enough. You bark out, “I’m not your maid! Pick up your own damn clothes!!” Then you walk out and slam the door. Inside your heart is racing, your breathing is accelerated, and you have energy pumping through your veins.
Can you relate? I know I can! I’ve done something similar (okay, the exact same thing) in each of these situations.
If you can relate, I bet you’re thinking the other person in your scenarios is (fill in the blank: a jerk, an idiot, stupid) and she (or he) is the problem. Susan and I often suggest you use the word “villain” to highlight that you’re making them the “bad person” in your story.
After you calm down a bit, you probably feel a bit embarrassed. You wonder, “Why’d I react like that? It seemed so appropriate in the moment, but now I feel like I should have been able to respond more effectively.”
Why Do You React?
First, let’s start with some simple neuroscience. We have three brains:
The Neocortex – our thinking brain. Our pre-frontal cortex lives here. It gives us the power of analysis, planning, problem-solving, and storytelling. It’s our youngest brain in our evolution as humans.
The Limbic brain – our emotional brain. The one we share with mammals, who nurture their young. This is where we feel our emotions, empathy, loving and caring. Our amygdala lives in the limbic brain and helps us perceive emotions in others, and also identify and react to danger.
The Reptilian brain – our survival brain. This we share with reptiles who eat their young. Yep, crunch. When activated, it floods our bodies with adrenalin and prepares us to fight, flight, or freeze. This brain was crucial in helping our ancestors survive by avoiding getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.
Now that you have the lay of the land, here’s what happens when we perceive a threat, a betrayal, or a disrespect.
The Amygdala Hijack
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman introduced the term “amygdala hijack.” Remember: the amygdala, in the limbic brain, is constantly scanning for danger. When it receives input from the eyes and ears that overlaps any threat you’ve experienced before, the information bypasses the neocortex and, via the amygdala, directly activates the survival brain so you go into: fight, flight, or freeze.
This quick-acting system was vital for our ancestors when they didn’t want to be eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Today, this quick reaction helps you when you need to avoid a crash in a dangerous driving scenario. You react before you think.
However, most of your threats today are not life threatening, yet your brains and bodies respond as if they are. Your threats are more like:
Situations that go wrong—flights being canceled, clients or money lost, projects failing, mistakes made, or deadlines not met.
People don’t behave in a way that works for you—co-workers, spouses, family members, customer service agents, etc. who you interpret disrespect or betray you or others. You Literally Can’t Think Straight
When your amygdala is hijacked, your emotional intelligence goes out the window.
Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist, found that when the amygdala is activated, it gets the blood and oxygen normally headed to the prefrontal cortex. So you literally can’t think straight.
You temporarily lose 10 to 15 IQ points!!
Your body is on high alert and is being flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, which while giving you bursts of energy and focus, is not helpful for problem-solving or relationship building.
The problem is that with today’s fast pasted, stress-filled life, along with the business mentality of make-more-money-with-less-and-faster, your amygdala is frequently picking up and interpreting danger. It’s hyper-vigilant.
Plus, after circumstances have passed, if you get stuck in worry, or repeatedly telling yourself a certain story, about how you are a victim and they are the villain, you’ll continue to rev up your system. It can interrupt your sleep. Even while you’re trying to relax, you can’t let it go.
Your brain and body are caught in a chronically stressed state. This makes you regularly less intelligent, and also reduces your body’s healing time. If you are regularly staying in that hyper aroused state your body never “let’s down”, allowing it to recover and repair the damage of the moment or day. Over time, this leads to severe health issues.
Can I Change?
Yes! You can get better at responding differently.
We'll share next time in part two: Tools for Un-hijacking Your Brain and Settling Yourself
CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke
Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict
CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.
They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.
Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.