Overcoming Your Crappy Reptilian Brain

You’re downtown late at night, you’ve just said goodbye to someone after a great first date. When you’re walking to your car, you somehow find yourself walking down a dark alley alone. You hear footsteps behind you, your heart starts racing. The footsteps are getting closer. That fight or flight feeling that you’re having is part of our innate programming in the reptilian part of the human brain. It’s one of the reasons that we’ve survived as a species so long, so why is it so detrimental to us?

First let me address what is the reptilian brain? I’ve always been fascinated with human psychology and just how our brain works as a whole and there’s three main layers of the brain. The reptilian part of the brain being the oldest, which is responsible for basic survival instincts. Our limbic system, or the limbic part of the brain, is responsible for emotions and then the neo-cortex which is more thinking. The brain stem is one of the oldest and smallest regions of the human brain and it evolved long ago. One of the reasons people refer to it as reptilian brain is it actually is very similar to the current, present day brains of reptiles. So this part of our brain controls vital body functions such as heart rate, breathing, balance, as well as our fight or flight responses. The limbic brain actually first evolved in mammals and it records a lot of our memories and behaviors that were either positive or negative, so it’s responsible in large part for our emotions. Whereas the neo-cortex is responsible for much more of the critical thinking and the development of human language, imagination and abstract thought and our consciousness as we call it.

So one of the things … I’ve been in marketing for many years, so we’ve referred to the reptilian brain quite often. It’s one of the reasons you see a lot of ads and content that targets fear, or sex, or scarcity, things like that, because we have our base survival instincts that we often refer to these as the four F’s. So the four F’s are fight, flight, food, and fornication. Fight, flight, food and fornication. Those are the base survival instincts that we have. If you go way back in time where we’re foraging for food and hunting for animals and things like that and we hear someone, footsteps, behind us, that additional adrenaline, that heart pumping, was there to help us survive those, to make us aware that there’s fear and we should be fearful and maybe give us a little more energy if we need to run and, “Do I need to run or do I need to fight?” Those are the base survival instincts there but then I also need to eat food to survive and then of course to keep the species alive you need to fornicate.

So those are a lot of the reasons and when you talk about … hear marketers talking about, they’re really thing to get into some of our base thinking that a lot of the times, we don’t necessarily like to talk about but those are some of the base thought processes that go on for us. It is what it is. So obviously it’s been useful, it’s kept us alive for a long time. As a species it helped us continue and it’s responsible for keeping us alive in multiple ways, one is via the base survival instincts. Making sure we procreated and eat food and the other is … one of the reasons is why we stay alive when we go to sleep. We don’t have to keep thinking to keep our heart rate going or breathing. The reptilian brain is the natural process of heart rate and breathing and things like that is all controlled under that reptilian brain, so it’s just your overall survival. So, but why is it detrimental?

So a lot of the times … So if you think about it, it’s actually a large part of the reason that we as humans tend to look for the negative and it tends to impact us and we remember it much more vividly than the positive. And if you … It’s one of those things that you think common knowledge, but if you’re not sure, look online, you can get all the information on it. Naturally as people, we pay more attention to what may cause us pain or take more from us. Or cause … or fear, things like that. So it’s why you see the news all the time. In the news, they’ve tried to do the positive news in some ways, they’ve tried to do different things, but then their ratings drop. So it’s unfortunate, but they’re doing what is actually getting them attention and what gets them attention is unfortunately all of the death … You know, when they say, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The death, the destruction, the fear is unfortunately what you see on the news all the time.

I remember I was at 24 Hour Fitness, walking on the treadmill and I’m seeing multiple TVs with all these different headlines and it’s all, you know, “Death, Fear, Destruction.” You know, “Could this be the end of the world?” It’s just … It’s insane. So that feeds into it, when we’re seeing all that information, that feeds into the negative outlook that can happen with that standpoint. So if you combine that though, if you combine the reptilian brain with our pre-frontal cortex, which our … Our pre-frontal cortex is responsible in large part for forecasting the future. So if you take that and this fear part of the reptilian brain, you have all these possible “what if” scenarios running through your head of, “Oh my gosh, what if this goes wrong?” Or, “What if this goes wrong?” And you can just sit there and get so much anxiety and so much unhappiness because you spend all this time focusing on all these negative potential outcomes that may never happen, that probably will never happen.

We can easily … There’s never a shortage of things that can go wrong, we can always come up with things that potentially can go wrong. But that’s part of why the reptilian brain, you have to consciously combat that. So you might have some friends that are Negative Nellies, and that can just be part of the human condition as a whole because we often look at those things, and we look and you hear statements all the time like, “Oh that’s just my life, that’s the way it is, it just seems to happen to me.” And it’s unfortunate but they’re just reinforcing, often, some of the negative things. So you have to actually combat some of our innate programming. You have to kind of understand that that’s there and then combat that in ways that will actually kinda balance it. You know and hopefully balance … turn the tables to more of the positive side.

One of my next episodes I’ll be doing soon is called, “What you focus on is what you find.” And unfortunately, it’s a fact of life that when you focus on … It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, a lot of the times. If you think something bad is going to happen and you continue to focus on that, then you end up in that direction and I’ll go more into that in that episode, but it’s important to understand for this area, one of the reasons why it’s so important to not allow your brain to only focus on all the things that could go wrong. It’s okay to address and look at … You know, “Yeah, this potentially could go wrong. That’s a possibility. But let me also look at all the things that could go right.”

So that’s one of the ways that you can combat the detrimental aspects ’cause your brain goes through all these “what if” scenarios. “What if this happens? What if this happens, what if we get in a car accident? What if that person decides they’re gonna steal all our money? What if they go out of business? What if this happens? What…” And you can “what if” yourself right out of any possibility of taking any risk whatsoever and that’s what happens for most people when they’re thinking about taking something that’s a little outside our comfort zone or a risk. They get into all those “what if” scenarios. Well ask yourself, “What if it works? What if I do get the promotion? What if she does say yes? What if I win the race?” Whatever it may be. I know for a lot of men, and I’m sure a lot of women, if you’re trying to talk to someone maybe you’re attracted to, of the opposite sex, there’s that fear of rejection. “What if she says no? What if she laughs at me?” You know, “What if I have all this embarrassment? What if …” You know, whatever it may be. But what if he says yes? What if she says yes?

So it’s one of the ways you can kind of counteract the negative “what ifs” is by asking “what if this positive happens?” Because when you want to move toward something, what you focus on is what you find, you don’t want to focus on the negative, you want to focus on the outcome that you want to happen, the positive outcome. So it’s also important … One of the things I find interesting is … and I see it all the time, a few negative things happen. You have some negatives happen and then all of a sudden, oh gosh, it’s the end of the world, it’s the chicken … what’s the … The sky is falling. Running around, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling, oh my gosh, all these negative things happen.” But when you stop, and actually objectively look at everything, you can actually go through and count all these positives and the positives far outweigh the negatives. But because you’re focusing everything on these negatives, then that’s going to consume your whole thought process and hence, self-fulfilling prophecy, you head in that negative direction.

So one thing I recommend is take extra care to count your wins. Count the positive things, count the successes. Spend time … When something negative happens, we naturally grab onto that and store that into us. Grab the positives and take those with you as well and they can be the simplest of things. I’ve been really focusing lately on trying to smile a lot more. I naturally am somebody who’s just happy and they smile a lot. A lot of times, I find myself focused on something like that, but when I see somebody else … I was speaking this weekend at the Impactful People Event in Vancouver and it was at a assisted living, kind of, so a lot of old folks home and it’s just amazing, ’cause when you give this big smile and there’s a lady out walking her dogs and you get that smile back, you see the joy that happens in that little interaction, take those little moments and say, “You know what, that was a beautiful moment.” And just talking to this lady that was there.

So those happened all day long, but we tend to forget about all those things and we focus on the negative thing. Like, I got caught in traffic and didn’t make it aback to do my second session and speak on that. I can sit there and dwell on that, I spent a fair amount of time dwelling on that saying, “You know, what if I would have done this? What if I would have done this?” Fact of the matter is, I got caught behind an accident and it was unfortunate but it happened. So take extra care to count the positives. Count your wins, focus on those and please don’t watch the news.

I’m not saying don’t be informed, I think a lot of people think that automatically when they say, you know, “Well, I need to be informed, I need to know what’s going on in the world.” That’s fine, most of your general news stations, though, your public kinda news stations, you’re gonna see nothing but death, destruction, despair in the world and you might see a couple nice news stories sprinkled in there for the good of it. Which I’m really … I think there are some great stations here locally that do a great job of addressing and looking at like what small businesses are doing in the community and some of those things, but then you go back right to the other station and they’re like, “Okay, five people were murdered.” And if they don’t have anyone locally, they will go to the other side of the country, or the other side of the world to find that news to grab your attention.

You’ll notice the same thing when any snow starts to fall. They’ll, “Oh my gosh, snow watch. 24 hour snow watch and we saw a flake of snow in Portland fall, they may shut down schools.” So they’re trying to grab your attention and they know our base instincts towards fear, towards scarcity, towards potential pain. All these things that grab our attention and it’s innate for us that we pay attention to it. So you want to counteract that negative programming, try not to watch the news and then develop beliefs and patterns that help you counteract those innate programming.

What I mean by that is sometimes you can get into a negative spin cycle, is what I call it. You get into a negative spin cycle where your mind starts thinking of all these negative things and then you start creating these negative potential … I’ll give you … Say you might have known or seen someone who’s worried about their significant other cheating on them and they get into this negative thing and they think every single potential thing is them potentially doing something to cheat on them. Or that they’re going out on them or whatever it is. And what happens is that in that thing they tend to start pushing away the other person because they have all of this fear and then the fear turns into a different kind of behavior where they’re actually pushing that person away. It’s an interesting thing but … So instead … and that’s just one example, there can be hundreds of examples, you could be like, “Oh, this person is going behind my back and talking to this other person.” Who knows? Some of it may be true but ask yourself some simple questions. Questions keep control, they guide you and then stories create impact. So as you’re telling yourself these stories in your mind, you have to ask yourself a question, say, “Do I know everything about this situation?”

I had this recently where I had a team member, on our team, seemed really like something was wrong and my mind started going down kind of a negative path. And I asked myself, “Do I know everything about this situation? Maybe they’re having a hard time at home. Maybe they’re stressed, maybe there’s something at work that’s stressing them.” You know, “Maybe …” And so, rather than focusing on, “Oh, how can this affect me and hurt me?” I started thinking about them and saying, “You know, there’s potentially …” And so, I kinda tried to do what I could to maybe help to see if they were okay. Turns out, they did have a lot on their mind and it seems like just our little conversation and some help here and there kinda helped them get past that.

So it’s important to ask yourself those little questions and those can come up in a lot of different situations but I do find a good question is, “Do I know everything about this situation?” ‘Cause chances are, there’s things that maybe you don’t know, so rather than jumping to this conclusion or jumping to all these negative possible scenarios, say, “Do I know everything about this situation?” Ask yourself some questions and often it’s … the majority of the time, it’s actually nothing, that’s the thing. Majority of the time, it’s nothing, and when it is, how much control do you have over it anyways? So don’t spend so much time stressing over it.

One thing that can help, that if you do stress over things a lot, is to just take it to the extreme. Say, “Well what if that did happen, how would I move forward from that point?” And once you accept the possibility of that negative potential happening and say, “You know what, well I would still survive, I would be alive, and I’d be able to do xyz and I can move forward by doing this.” And now you already know, I can handle the most negative possible effect there, so that’s one way of dealing with it.

But I’d also recommend, this is probably one of the most directly impactful things, is if you have people in your lives that are very negative, I recommend you creating space between yourself and those people. I was at a point in my life, my gosh, kinda little after high school, sometimes during high school, but little after high school as well where just some of the people that I was around, they were great people but the direction that their lives were going and some of the things that they were doing were not the direction that I wanted to go. And I know that as people we tend to become like the people that we hang around with on a consistent basis. So if you want to improve and become better, surround yourself with people that you want to be like. People that inspire you, people that, if you’re trying to be more impactful and have a positive impact on other people, surround yourself with people that are doing those things. And that’ll help elevate you because you’re surrounding yourself by these people. Rather than pulling you down, you’re going to lift you up.

So those are just a few things on that. I can kinda go on this subject all day but I wanted you to … Today’s micro action, I just wanted you to write down one thing that comes to mind for you that is around kinda your base survival programming. So this could be something that’s around the four F’s, like some kinda focus there. Now, I know you probably just went and set yourself a goal around fornication, because that’s your reptilian brain at work, but seriously though, if you worry often, or you have anxiety over certain things, maybe you …

So for me, one of the things that I’ve been working on and I feel pretty good about, because … My fight or flight mode, I used to react really poorly in traffic. When I felt like my family especially … When it was just me, it wasn’t as bad, but when I had family in the car or something like that and I got cut off, my reaction was like, you know, the typical as what you’d see as kinda like road rage. I would go into fight mode because I’m like, this person is endangering my family, ’cause they just cut right in front of my car, we could have got in an accident.

And so I went into this fight mode and the stupidest part of that is I often would do things that would put my family in danger because I’m driving up next to them and I’m kinda yelling at them. Just stupid things but it was really hard for me to control that until I started realizing … consciously saying, asking myself in that situation, rather than saying … I realized that, yeah, they were endangering my family, that’s true, but my reaction was probably endangering my family and other people more. So it was making it worse, so how can I de-escalate that situation and just slow down and really back off of that person so I’m not focused on them? So it’s hard, especially for someone with a strong personality to do that, ’cause they feel like they’re almost giving in to that person, when that person is in the wrong, but for me, it’s less about my ego and more about making sure my family’s taken care of and that … I might even wave to that other person, or do a quick little honk or whatever it is but for me, that was a big thing.

So depending on what you have that you determine is something that you wanna work on around that area, maybe it’s that you watch the news all the time and you have this anxiety about feeling like the world’s getting worse, and honestly, there’s been studies done and there’s so many things that are actually better in the world right now, whether it be crime rates, whether it be economic factors, there’s less extremely poor people in the world right now than has ever been. But when you look at the news, there’s death, destruction, poverty and all this kinda stuff and it’s in your mind all the time but one of the problems that you see there, is it’s we used to not have … The information that we got on the news was from a 100 mile radius maybe. Or even way back when, it was people directly in your community, that was all the news you got but now, it kind of expanded as we got newspapers and things like that, but now we have the whole entire world’s information and all of it, the majority of the negative being amplified, not only by the media sources but by our own minds and so we get all of that information so it can be overwhelming.

So I call it the access to information effect, so we have a much larger access to information and therefore we often see the world in a more negative aspect than it truly is because we’re not also being all of that positive amplified to the same point, based on our own psychology and also based on the way the media sources pull out that information. So write down something you wanna improve around that area. Again, could be something as simple as controlling your temper in a situation, it could be as simple as not worrying so much and kinda controlling your anxiety around potential future outcomes and all those kind things, but yeah, write that down and just commit to working on that a little bit. So that’s all I have for today, but I really wanna thank you for listening and being on this path with me and making a great day.