‘Fight or flight’ and bit of a neuro-science.

My daughter told me a story about boy who has escaped the her school. During play time he has managed to sneak out from playground, jump over the fence and run away outside the school ground. Thankfully, teachers managed to catch him and brought him back to school. Our Hurricane was in a bit of a shock! It has never happened in this school before. She could not understand why somebody cloud do such a thing? The boy apparently said: “they were picking on me” when asked why did he run away. I explained, that this boy felt endangered. He perceived the other boys as a danger. So he run away. This was a simple ‘flight or fight’ reaction. 

It’s a heritage from our ancestors who lived in African savanna. They were constantly living with the fear of the predator who might attack them. In this case the boy was like this vulnerable prime human and those who picked on him were the predators hiding in the bushes. A simple message has been sent to boy’s brain: “DANGER! ESCAPE!”. And he did.  

Sorry… I could not stop myself from posting this picture… Anyeay, coming back to the subject… I was not trying to find any excuses for this kind of behaviour. I was just trying to help my daughter to understand why he reacted in this way.

Similarly… I visit my friend who has a two young children. Her 4 years old boy can be quite shy with adults.”Do you enjoy your pancake?” I asked him during supper. He looked at me, did not answer, just stick his tongue on me! Few years ago I probably would have think “How rude!”. But now after lot of research on human behaviour and mindfulness I just smiled and thought “What a little character”. I understand the science hiding behind this reaction. I am taller, bigger and louder than him. His brain detected me as a predator. He felt endangered, intimidated. His brain released “fight or flight” response. He didn’t run away, he decided to fight. I think it’s actually a good sign! A sign that he wanted to face his fear. The only way he could do so is by sticking his tongue out.

I guess evolution lest there prime instincts in our brain, therefore we still react this way. During my 8-weeks MBSR training we have learned about the scientific theory behind ‘fight or flight’ response. To make it short and understandable… There are three parts of brain.

“The oldest part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain. It controls your body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Your reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brain-stem and the cerebellum. The middle part of your brain is known as the limbic brain. It emerged in the first mammals. It records memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences for you. The limbic system is responsible for your emotions and value judgements. The reptilian brain and limbic system are quite rigid and inflexible in how they operate. Scientist call these two areas the primitive brain.” The newest part of our brain consists of the neo-cortex which is responsible for abstract thoughts, imagination and consciousness. Often called ‘higher brain’. The higher brain is highly flexible and has an almost infinite ability to learn. The primitive brain operates quickly and needs relatively small amount of energy. The neo-cortex, on the other hand needs more energy and it takes more time for these abstract thoughts to ‘kick in’. Therefore, we are more likely to run away from danger before we start to think logically. However, neo-cortex does also have a downside. It
spends a lot of time to analyse past and imagine future events. This may leads to mental suffering as it engages in remembering past moments of pleasure and pain and trying to figure out how to maximise future pleasure and avoid future pain. Our ancestors million years ago had to be constantly vigilant of an predator. But now we are also hard-wired to look out for danger. So… Big thanks to our pre-historical ancestors! Thanks to you we are basically FU***D UP! Deemed to depression and anxiety!

Practising mindfulness, either by myself and with my kids helped me to control these emotions, understand them, observe them and react more logically. We are who we are. Evolution and environment made us who we are. But mindfulness teaches us to observe and acknowledge difficult thoughts. Teaches us we ‘have’ those thoughts but we ‘are not’ those thoughts. It’s easier to take the control of something we ‘have’. I always explain it to my kids by referring to a pencil which we hold in our hand. We have it and we can control it. At the beginning we may have problems with control, as we only just starting to learn how to ‘write’ but with the time and lot of practice we can control the motion as we want. Personally after 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction training I became less reactive to those negative feelings and more stable. This is what I am trying to teach my children and husband. While I have had a bit of a success with kids, Mr Sting is still quite resistant… But I guess this is subject for later.

Mrs Sting

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