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The Brain’s Threat System

The brain is the body’s most complex organ. It balances physiological and psychological needs while responding to the environment – all at the same time! But, when it perceives something as a potential threat, it triggers a cascade of neurophysiological activity that re-organises its resources and attention so that it can focus on keeping the organism - you -safe. When it is appropriate, this is very useful – because in turn it ensures the survival of the organism. When it is not appropriate, the threat system can overwhelm us and can lead us to feeling fearful, angry, or anxious. On the other hand, we may engage in self-criticism, or we may engage in avoidant or destructive patterns that make the situation worse for ourselves and others.


Although it is understandable that we would want to act to reduce and/or to protect ourselves from threats, when we let our threat systems dominate, we are likely to act in ways that are disproportionate to the situation and this process will (often rapidly) get in our way. This typically happens when threat (or our sense of threat) is being created by our own perception and this is either happening without us knowing (due to undeveloped awareness) or is not being adequately addressed (due to a lack of understanding about the nature of the mind-body feedback loop, or low skill level in terms of ‘what’ to do about it).


This article discusses the biological aspects behind what the threat system is, and provides an evolutionary explanation as to why it works the way it does, in the hope that you will come to understand a) that it is not your fault that you have a threat system – it is how the brain is evolved for survival, and b) why it is important to learn skills to soothe your threat system – from a biological and psychological perspective. Armed with a better understanding about what your threat system is and what it is doing to your mind and body (and what you can do about it), you will have more choice regarding how you respond to difficult situations that involve threat!


Understanding the Threat System: The Amygdala


One of the most important parts of the brain in terms of the threat system is the amygdala. The amygdala is shaped like a little almond and lies deep in the brainstem in the limbic system, which consists of the hippocampus (responsible for memory), and the hypothalamus (which secretes hormones that regulate important bodily functions including the fight-flight response). The primary role of the amygdalae (we actually have a pair of amygdala) lies with the processing of information in order determine whether or it needs to signal onwards to the limbic system that the brain needs to take action and do something.


All information that you experience from your 5 senses (taste, touch, vision, smell, and hearing) passes through your amygdala, which sorts this information into either ‘threat’ or a ‘non-threat’. For instance, if you are crossing the street with your head buried in your phone and you hear a ‘honking’ of a horn and the screeching of car tyres and with your peripheral vision you notice a huge dark car-shaped object heading your way that is rapidly increasing in size as it gets closer, your amygdala will likely sense “threat!” and will stimulate your hypothalamus to trigger a ‘fight-flight response’.


Fight-Flight Response (aka ‘fight-flight-freeze-appease’)


This is a cascade of physiological activation designed to prepare you to survive. In the context of the above example, the “flight” part of this response will increase your heart rate while slowing down digestion (so blood can be pumped FAST to your larger limbs so you can escape), will dilate your pupils (to let more light in so you can see better), and it will create a surge of adrenaline (which will give the body an instant burst of strength) so that you can drop that phone and jump out of the way of the speeding vehicle to survive!


However – and this is both a blessing and a downside of the threat system – the threat system also receives information from the mind. This is where psychological problems emerge, because the mind can trigger a threat in the absence of a threat! Thankfully, when we come to understand and learn about our mind, we can learn to differentiate between these two sources of information: the information from our ‘mind’ vs the information from our ‘our 5 senses’. From this point (with skills training and some practice), we can learn to direct our minds in ways that can calm and soothe the threat system. The diagram below shows the two sources of information that can trigger your threat system:

Sources of Threat (Your Mind vs Your 5 Senses)


Information from your mind is not real – it is a construction. This includes: thoughts, images, memories, predictions, judgments / evaluations, daydreaming, self-talk, self-criticism, and ‘stories’ that we tell ourselves (e.g., the “I’m not good enough” story).


Mental experiences are NOT real - mental experiences are simply constructions of reality. If we imagine yummy food, we may salivate. If we think of something threatening, we may trigger anxiety and our threat system (e.g., remembering something that made you angry or fearful years ago can trigger your threat system which can make you feel as though it just happened or is happening again. And similarly, imagining or predicting something threatening in the future can trigger the threat system by flooding the amygdala with threat-based imagery that can produce fear or anxiety).


The information from your 5 senses is real: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. It is real (e.g., a bus heading for you as you cross the road without looking is REAL). However, we can confuse how real this information is with our minds – e.g., if we have a stomach ache, we feel this with our 5 senses but we may have the thought, “Oh no – maybe I have cancer!” (the mind). People who fear panic attacks do this all the time – they experience the sensations in their bodies (5 senses) and then tell themselves with their minds that the physical experiences are dangerous. This triggers the threat system and raises anxiety further which makes for an unpleasant – but not life threatening – panic attack.

Why is making this distinction important?


Aside from brief and relatively infrequent events like the example descried above (i.e., crossing the street and being honked at), it is unlikely that the information from your 5 senses is regularly telling your amygdala that you are being shot at, or that your life is in immediate danger. In terms of your everyday life, if you are living in a safe (war-free) country and are actually safe, and you have access to food, clothes, and shelter, it is unlikely that you are regularly experiencing ANY information from your 5 senses that is triggering your threat system at all. What you are thinking about your 5 senses is where you are likely triggering threat, e.g., the next airplane that flies overhead is NOT going to drop a bomb and it would be strange to look up and think anything like that that, or feel anxious. In other words, if you are experiencing any kind of psychological distress on a regular basis, chances are it’s your mind that is triggering your threat system: e.g., a panic attack does not mean that you are in danger or are losing control, yet what people think about what they are feeling in their bodies is what becomes the threat.


Ask yourself – which is responsible for triggering threat: is it your 5 senses (what you are experiencing?) or is it your mind (how you are thinking about things, including thinking about what you’re experiencing)?


Although it is understandable that we would want to act to reduce and/or to protect ourselves from threats, when we let our threat systems dominate, we are likely to act in ways that are disproportionate to the situation and this process will (often rapidly) get in our way. This typically happens when threat (or our sense of threat) is being created by our own perception and this is either happening without us knowing (due to undeveloped awareness) or is not being adequately addressed (due to a lack of understanding about the nature of the mind-body feedback loop, or low skill level in terms of ‘what’ to do about it).


How does this happen? (Getting ‘hooked’, aka Cognitive Fusion)


The mind is an amazing tool – what separates humans from animals is our ability to solve problems both in the present moment and in the future. For instance, humans have created transportation (cars, planes, and spaceships), the internet, and the ability to have climates controlled while indoors at the press of a button. However, our problem-solving prowess combined with the ability to mentally ‘be’ in the past or the future, is also our mind’s downside.


LET’S TRY THIS: Imagine you are on a beach in a warm, tropical location. Really picture it – imagine the sunshine warming your skin, the sound of the gentle waves as they lap up against the shore, and the fresh smell of salt in the warm sticky air. You're lying in a hammock between two palm trees soaking up your delicious surroundings...


Now – stop imagining and think about the experience and feelings you just generated as you answer the following questions: Could you see the beach? Could you feel the sun? Could you hear the waves or smell the salt in the air?


Congratulations! You just did what animals cannot do – you triggered a change in your attention and your emotions by using your imagination. This is normal and easy for us to do – it’s called daydreaming. It’s fantasy – it’s not reality. Importantly, you were able to change how you felt, because even though your mind knows it is just daydreaming, the brain does not know the difference. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive fusion’ – you just ‘bought into’ what your mind was telling you.


Why is Cognitive Fusion a Problem?


As demonstrated, unlike animals, humans can imagine a situation that isn’t actually happening. It can feel real. This becomes problematic when we are imagining a problem that we cannot solve because we can become preoccupied with trying to solve it. We can experience anguish, stress, frustration, or even anxiety. So, like daydreaming, even though we may know that we are not in the imagined situation, the brain doesn’t! And like how daydreaming can trigger positive emotions – by imagining a threatening situation we can trigger the brain’s threat system and experience real emotions and distress to a situation that isn’t actually happening!


Understanding Your Triggers


Because we can feel consistent with whatever we are thinking about (‘cognitive fusion’), and because threat-based processing is part of our evolutionary survival instinct (the fight-flight response), our threat systems can be triggered VERY EASILY by what we are focusing on (e.g., thoughts, imagery, memories, predictions, or ‘stories’ we tell ourselves about either ourselves or the situation).


The following examples are some of the ways our minds can trigger our threat systems. See if you can identify which are triggers for you and your threat system:

  • Thinking about uncertainty or a problem that is unsolvable = agitation or stress

  • Worrying that others might be judging you or thinking badly about you = anxiety or shame

  • Imagining a future where something ‘bad’ will happen = anxiety

  • Imagining situations where you will not be able to cope = hopelessness

  • Imagining failure = hopelessness or fear

  • Imagining a confrontation = anger

  • Imagining being abandoned / alone = fear or defectiveness

  • Memories about the past = sadness, shame or regret

  • Ruminating over something that makes you angry = anger

  • Engaging in self-criticism or self-attacking = shame, self-loathing or hopelessness

Many of these triggers are often present in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression (and even psychosis) – and most people do not know how to deal with what their minds are doing. But it makes sense that when we deeply care about an outcome, this can trigger our threat systems (e.g., the fear of failure). Whenever we want to achieve something there is a risk of failing and so there is forever a risk (threat) of disappointment. This triggers anxiety and can also trigger self-criticism.


What You Can Do?


If you do not have a good awareness of the difference between threats created by your mind vs what you are feeling in your body (your 5 senses), it is probable that you are being ‘pushed around’ by whatever your mind tells you. This risks triggering your threat system, which is all about SURVIVAL! This in turn can launch you into fight, flight, or freeze!


Fight = Attack!

Flight = Avoid!

Freeze = Shutdown!


Understanding the threat system and what triggers it is an important first step in being able to begin to notice and differentiate between a ‘5 senses experience’ (information coming from your 5 senses) and ‘mental experience’ (information coming from your mind).


Next, you need to develop awareness of your mind’s ability to ‘hook’ you out of the present moment and into whatever threat it is focusing on (remember – minds are very busy and focus on: memories, predictions, imagery, judgments, evaluations and stories).


Then, you need to come back to the present moment using your 5 senses – What can you smell? What can you taste? What can you feel on your skin? etc. If you have become quite stressed you may even need to soothe your body (which will calm your mind) by doing a breathing exercise such as soothing breathing.


All of this is an active, ongoing process that requires awareness and lots of practice. Once we aware of our habitual patterns of responding, we need to learn how to respond differently. This often requires learning new skills, such as: learning how to self-soothe (breathing), refocusing the mind onto our 5 senses (mindfulness), responding differently to what our minds are telling us (defusion), and practicing self-compassion (because after all, it’s not your fault that you have a threat system – we all do – it’s how we’re built! It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to learn how to take charge).


Although the above information is exclusively about the threat system, it is important to understand the role of your brain’s other emotional systems, so that we can learn skills such as mindfulness and self-compassion, which help to deactivate the threat system by cultivating a sense of calm and the ability to self-soothe. The good news is that although it can seem difficult at first, all of these skills are things that can be learned.


All of this information forms part of a broader picture: know where you are at, know where you want to be, and know what you need to do to get yourself there. That statement in particular relates to self-regulation – knowing what ‘state’ you are in (vs what state you need to be in in order to achieve what you want to achieve), and knowing how to do cultivate the state that will be most helpful to you.

Summary

  • Our brains are hard-wired for survival (think: ‘survival of the fittest’).

  • Our brains are the product of thousands of years of evolution (our ancestors had good threat systems which ensured they bred and passed on their genetic material, to us!)

  • When triggered, our threat systems are concerned with only one thing: SURVIVAL.

  • We can inadvertently trigger threat with our own minds – in the absence of any real danger! Most of the time, threats get triggered by our mind, not our 5 senses (this includes when we appraise what is happening with our 5 senses as ‘threatening’).

  • This is not our fault – it’s just how our brain works!

  • The trick is to: know where you are at, know where you want to be, and know what you need to do to get yourself there.

  • If we want, we can choose to soothe our threat systems using a variety of skills that work with the body (breathing, 5 senses experiencing) and the mind (unhooking from thoughts, contacting our observing self, and self-compassion).


Adapted from https://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-threat-system/



 


Sally Edwards Counselling

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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