Understanding The Primitive Instinct To Defend Yourself

Dr. Walter Cannon was a truly remarkable man. In addition to being the first to summit several mountains in North America (And have one named after him), he brought X-ray technology into medical research, he’s also the scientist who introduced the case-study method to medical schools during his tenor as the head of the Department of Internal Medicine at Harvard Medical School in the late 1800’s and early 1900’.

As impressive as all of that is, he’s most known for his work during World War I.

When World War I broke out, Dr. Cannon decided he could serve his country better by quitting his job at Harvard and going to France to serve as a battlefield physician.

He soon discovered that more people die in battle due to shock than from their wounds alone, which is still the case today. At the time, though, there wasn’t a model for understanding what shock really was, so he developed one.

He found that when you’re in shock, the body’s flooded with adrenaline and blood rushes to the major muscle groups. This isn’t so great if you’re gravely wounded, having a catastrophic loss of blood pressure causes you to bleed out and die. He then coined the phrase “fight-or-flight” syndrome.

Scientists have been building off his research ever since, and have made some fascinating discoveries.

Amy Arnsten is the director of Arnsten Lab at Yale Medical School and studies the effects of adrenaline on the brain. (Any time you have a lab at Yale University named after you, you know you’re doing something right.)

In her article The Biology of Feeling Frazzled, she describes what happens in a stressful (even minorly stressful) situation.

Adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) floods your brain and acts like a switch. It turns off your prefrontal cortex — the logical reasoning part of your brain — and it turns on the amygdala, which is the gateway to the lower brain — the part we share with reptiles.

When that happens, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is, when you’re operating out of your lower brain, your reaction time is much quicker. Your hearing is enhanced and your vision becomes more acute.

The bad news is that your verbal skills drop to almost nothing.

This is fine if you’re squaring off with a vicious predator, but if you’re facing your boss or spouse, it’s not a good thing.

Tough conversations in high-stakes situations can often put us in this “fight or flight” state where we’re likely to turn to silence or violence — to withdraw and avoid the conflict or lash out in a hostile way to defend ourselves. Neither way is healthy, and almost always makes the problem worse.

A skill we teach in Crucial Conversations is ‘Master My Stories’, to help you reduce the adrenaline and take control of the conversation when you’re angry, scared, or hurt. Master my stories helps you stay in control of your emotions and move towards healthy dialogue. We do this by following three skills:

1 – separate facts from stories.

2 – watch for three clever stories

3 – tell the rest of the story

Crucial Conversations helps you develop the skills and strategies for leveraging out of our more primitive reptilian brain back into our prefrontal cortex where we can come up with logical, rational, and understanding based solutions.

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