We share our survival instincts with the most primitive of living creatures, such as reptiles. This means we have the same instincts as crocodiles and snakes. When a snake or a crocodile is threatened, the creature will either attack and bite, or withdraw and escape. These are two of our basic survival reactions. They are also called instincts because they do not require conscious thought: they are fast reflex responses.
An important part of our brain that produces these reflexes is called the amygdala. The Amygdala has nerve connections that go almost directly to our eyes, so that the message of danger can reach it super fast, helping us to react instantly. Next time you feel rage well up inside you when a motorist cuts in front of you in heavy traffic, that is your Amygdala producing the strong reaction. Or when you feel a rush of fear as you go on an amusement park ride, that is your Amygdala warning you to be careful.
The important thing to know about the Amygdala is that it produces our instinctive reflex reactions, and does not require conscious thought. When it is a matter of life and death we need our instincts to survive. There are several problems caused by our reflex Amygdala defense system.
Firstly, once the Amygdala has been activated by a threat, it tends to remain active and control our thoughts, emotions and behavior, long after the event, even if we consider it to be unwelcome and unnecessary. Fears and aggression linger on, even if subconsciously, affecting our mood and judgment.
The second problem is hat we cannot exert conscious control over our reflexes. Under stress our reflex system tends to takeover, leaving us feeling out of control. The combination of these two features of our reflex system conspire against us and screw up pour judgment when we need it most.
This is what is happening to you when you have feelings of fear that you cannot control at crucial times, such as when you write an exam, ask a girl out, or are confronted by your boss; causing you to forget the answers to your exam questions, stutter when you ask the girl out, or shake uncontrollably when questioning your friend’s morals. Instead of helping you, your fears are messing up and interfering with your performance and your outcomes.
Overreactions like these typically mean that your Amygdala has been activated and is in over drive, producing too much fear for the occasion. Has it happened to you, that you are perplexed and frustrated, because you struggled to control your reactions?