In the simplest of terms, the human brain is made up of three parts that evolved at different times over millions of years. This is the theory of the Triune Brain, developed by Paul MacLean in the 1960s, and it may be the most useful brain theory for those of us without a degree in neuroscience who nevertheless want to understand something about how the brain works and why we act like we do. It also holds the key for learning how to regain calm from a state of high anxiety or even panic.
In MacLean’s model, the oldest part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain. This developed in animals over 100 million years ago, and not only does that ancient brain still operate in our nervous system, it’s often running the show. Which is not always useful, given that this part of the brain is instinctive, automatic, lightning fast, and hell-bent on survival (it’s the part that will make you swerve away from a falling object before you’ve even consciously noticed it). The reptilian brain controls the involuntary systems of the body (breathing, heartbeat, organ functioning, body temperature) and it’s also responsible for triggering our fight/flight/freeze responses. It gets scared or angry fast. It’s territorial, aggressive and horny – it wants to stay alive and to reproduce. It’s obsessive, compulsive, and easily scared (its job is to keep us alive), so it not only holds us back from applying for new jobs or pursuing our dreams – it can keep us held in a state of anxiety.
Which means that if you’re struggling with anxiety, the reptilian brain needs soothing. But to know how best to do this, it’s necessary to know something about the other two evolutionary parts of the brain: the limbic system and the neocortex.
Anxiety and the reptilian brain
We share the reptilian brain with reptiles and birds, but the limbic system (sometimes called the ‘limbic brain’) is the part we have in common with mammals like dogs and horses. This evolutionary addition emerged in the first mammals, bringing a huge increase in brainpower and the ability to feel emotions, experience motivation, store long-term memory and be able to learn. It contains the amygdala, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘fear centre’. The limbic system is tightly connected to the newest part of the brain – the neocortex.
The neocortex evolved in primates around 40,000 years ago, which is a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. This is the ‘clever’ part of the brain – it allows us to do complex things that mammals and reptiles can’t manage, such as advance planning and intricate social interactions. The neocortex is often referred to as the ‘executive functioning’ part of the brain, because it figures things out, makes reasoned judgements, calculates and handles complex concepts. It also provides us with imagination and creativity. Our neocortex is three times larger than would be found in a similar-sized primate, which perhaps explains why we’re top of the food chain and have populated the entire globe, while monkeys and chimps are still swinging from trees.
And here’s the thing: the neocortex can temper the reactive response of the reptilian and limbic brains.
When your reptilian brain leaps off the path after seeing a coiled something, your neocortex checks it out, realises it’s a rope not a snake, and sends out ‘it’s ok!’ signals to the whole nervous system. The neocortex can help us to reason our way out of an anxious or fearful feeling. The reptilian brain might get jumpy in the dark, but the neocortex checks for time, place and contex, and says ‘It’s just 3 a.m. and you’re in bed at home – everything is fine’. It’s this cognitive ability that is used in CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) to reduce constant worrying and high levels of anxiety through examining thoughts and changing unhelpful thought patterns and associations.
The CBT isn’t working! I’m still anxious!
The reason that CBT is often unable to help in a state of high anxiety is this: once our reptilian brain is triggered into ‘thinking’ there’s a survival threat, the neocortex effectively goes off-line. This is because it is not helpful to be wondering whether that’s really a rope or a snake on the forest path – you need to act. Fast. In a survival threat situation, the reptilian brain leaps into action and saves us, effectively shoving the neocortex and its slower thinking out of the way. Which means that we lose the capacity for careful, reasoned judgement, and now we’re acting instinctively. Like an animal.
If you find yourself living in a permanent state of fear, anger or very high stress, your mind and body will be reading this as a struggle for survival. And when that’s the interpretation of your current situation, control will veer between the reptilian and mammalian (limbic) parts of the brain. You won’t have access to your human, reasoning part, the neocortex. You may not be able to process emotions either, while the reptilian brain is screaming ‘RUN!’ (which may not be helpful in the middle of a work appraisal). In this situation, the world may be experienced as overwhelming, out of control and full of danger. What you need, in this situation, is to use one of the reptilian brain’s own tools.
Consciously taking hold of an involuntary process
The reptilian brain controls all our involuntary body processes, such as our heartbeat. And most of these are beyond our control, so they’re operating in a one-way system – they automatically (unconsciously) control parts of our bodies and we cannot consciously gain control over them. Except for one thing – the breath. Breathing is a function of the reptilian brain that we can take conscious control over, and as we do so, we can affect the other involuntary systems that the reptilian brain is controlling. The fight/flight/freeze response will show up in many ways, including fast, shallow breathing from the high chest area. But if you consciously take hold of the breath and change it – making it slower and deeper – you will be taking hold of the entire fight/flight/freeze response.
Slow the breath and you’ll slow the heartbeat. Slow that, and you’ll begin to bring the fight/flight system under control. This calms the limbic brain and allows the neocortex (which disengaged during the survival response) to come back online. Now you’re in a position to see where you are and what’s actually happening – you can assess the real level of danger. You can think clearly again.
The breath is a tool that’s always with you and it’s inconspicuous to use. You could be standing on a train packed with passengers and bring the breath into use to calm the reptilian brain without anyone noticing. You may even use this system unconsciously at times already to relieve stress, such as when you let out a huge sigh or a long deep breath when things begin to feel stressful.
How to calm the reptilian brain
In a moment of crisis, when you feel triggered into jumpy over-reactivity, stop what you’re doing and take your mind off your current stream of thought. Direct all your thinking to the breath and take control of it. Breathe in and out very slowly, drawing the breath right down to the belly, so that it expands (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly). Breathe in through your nose (over a count of about four seconds), hold the breath for one or two seconds, then very slowly breathe out again, over a count of six to eight seconds. Breathe out through your mouth as though you’re cooling hot soup on a spoon by your mouth. Slowly and smoothly.
Notice the difference in any shakiness you were feeling, as you bring the fight/flight/freeze response under control. Keep breathing like this until you notice that you are able to think more clearly again (a sign that the neocortex has reconnected). In a case of real danger, like an oncoming train or tiger, we need to disengage the slow-responding, “hmm, wonder what that is?” type of thought that the neocortex engages in, but for daily life, we benefit from its consideration. This is our higher, human brain, that allows us to function happily and healthily in a complex world. So if the reptilian brain gets triggered into driving the system, simply move it gently into the back seat again by using one of its own tools – the extraordinarily effective breath.