Motivations Fight, Flee or Freeze? The Negative Effects of the Lizard Brain

Motivations Fight, Flee or Freeze? The Negative Effects of the Lizard Brain

Understanding your “lizard brain” or subconscious programming can really solve a lot of mysteries about why we behave the way we do under pressure.  Here’s part 1 in the Lizard Brain series of articles by Motivations Magazine.

Everywhere you look, you see the effects of evolution and natural selection. The grass and trees in your yard are there because of it. The food in your pantry and refrigerator are there because of it. Your pet dog or cat is there because of it. Most importantly, when you look in the mirror, you are seeing a product of the process of evolution as well. You are here because of it.

Evolution, as you may know, is driven by the twin engines of mutation and genetic drift. Cells replicate by making copies of themselves. Sometimes, a mistake is made in the process of copying. This is a mutation. Most times the mutation is harmful. Occasionally, the mutation is beneficial. These types of “mistakes” then get passed on to the next generation.

Genetic drift occurs naturally over time among all genetic populations, especially those separated from each other by distance. When enough time goes by, the two separate populations are sufficiently different to constitute different species.

What does this have to do with the negative effects of the lizard brain? Well, nature is nothing if not efficient. As evolution proceeds through mutation and genetic drift, things that might be slightly obsolete get coopted into new uses they weren’t originally designed for. A perfect example of this is the amygdala in the human brain.

The amygdala is the source of “lizard brain” behaviors precisely because it is the genetic remnant of the brain possessed by a reptile that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. That reptile existed in a world much different than ours. It was a world full of simple needs and simple dangers. In essence, you ate something else or you were eaten yourself. The lizard that possessed this brain needed only three basic instinctual impulses in order to survive. Depending on the circumstances, it needed to fight, freeze or flee.

The lizard brain in our heads still operates in the same way today. The difference is that there isn’t a lot of eat or be eaten situations in modern society, so fighting, fleeing or freezing are often inappropriate responses to modern situations. What happens instead of fighting, people exhibit rigid, kneejerk behaviors and anger. Instead of fleeing, people become unreasonably frightened. Instead of freezing people procrastinate or unintentionally sabotage themselves.

Realizing where these inappropriate responses come from, and why, is the first step to dealing with “lizard brain” behaviors. Simply because there is the remnant of a lizard brain in each of our heads, does not mean that we have to actualize these ancient, and largely obsolete, reactions.


Conquering Fear by Controlling the Lizard Brain

Unreasonable fear is a crippling and debilitating phenomenon that affects nearly everyone at one time or another. This fear can prevent the affected person from fully enjoying a particular experience. It can also inhibit that person to such an extent that they forego particular experiences or events altogether. This prevention or inhibition may eventually occur often enough to actually hold the individual back from achieving goals, potential and overall success. This type of chronic fear is unreasonable. It robs a person of the very thing they hold most dear – life itself.

The emotion of fear is, in and of itself, a very useful evolutionary tool. Quite simply, it helps to keep an organism alive long enough to guarantee procreation and, as a result, another generation of similar organisms. It’s sensible and reasonable to be afraid of something that has a good potential to cut your life short. However, when fear has no grounds it makes no sense. Let’s take a look at this phenomenon a little more closely.

Fear, both reasonable and unreasonable, originates at the base of the brain known as the reptilian or R-complex. This is one of the oldest parts of the human brain. We share its structure with many other species, including lizards. Hence, it’s other common name – the lizard brain.

Besides producing the sensation of fear, the lizard brain also largely controls many of the basic autonomic functions of the human body. In this sense, it can be said that the job of the lizard brain is to keep the owner of the brain alive. However, the lizard brain evolved at a time when danger, as well as the stress caused by danger, was relatively straightforward. You either ate or were eaten. The lizard brain dealt with that simple situation very efficiently.

The problem is that modern stresses usually do not involve life threatening situations. The lizard brain does not understand this and when mundane stress is experienced it can misinterpret this stress as critical. This misinterpretation is the source of unreasonable, groundless fear.

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