Five Things to Do When your Primitive Brain Hijacks You

Your primitive brain is not you. As author Dean Burnett suggests, the animal part of your brain is a function, not the part of you that thinks you’re a certain person with a unique personality. Impulses from the primitive brain shouldn’t be a reflection of who you are. This post will discuss how to respond to primitive brain hijack attempts.

In the book, Idiot Brain: What your Head is Really Up To, Burnett discusses a “primitive threat detection system” in the reptilian brain (amygdala) that calls the shots whenever it perceives a threat. The problem lies in the word primitive. This threat detection system adapted to the world our ancient ancestors inhabited, not modern society.

We all know what happens when an operating system is out of date.

Nothing works right!

• Eating a giant piece of chocolate can be interpreted as a good response to stress.
• Screaming at your children can seem like the best thing to do.
• Telling off your boss might be tempting.
• Impulsive, overreactions are the only choice.

Your rational mind, housed in the area of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) where your conscious identity resides, is taken out of commission by the primitive animal within. And the animal was not meant for modern society.

Our outdated threat detection system malfunctions constantly. There’s nothing wrong with it. The system was just made for operations that were common eons ago. Today, the same threats (largely) don’t exist. New, more socially nuanced threats do, however. We need to train ourselves to disobey the primitive threat detection system and follow a more rational course.

Things to do When your Primitive Brain Hijacks You

1. Realize that this impulse is not you and it is not the only choice. Drawing the line here, creating a separation between your sense of self and your primitive impulses is key.

2. Slow down. The impulse happened, yes. There’s nothing you can do about that. Sensory input passes through the primitive brain before you consciously know it, so, there you go. But slow down when you feel an overreaction coming on. Then, revert to point #1 above. Say to yourself, “This isn’t me. It’s an old warning system with outdated logic.

3. Ask yourself, “What kind of person am I?” This self-reflection awakens your newer brain, theoretically. You want your sense of rational logic to call the shots.

4. Evaluate your choices. Will devouring that piece of chocolate cake really solve a problem or will it only create more problems and stress?

5. Don’t look back. 

Your impulses, urges, cravings and animal instincts are not you. They are a tool you can use, but not your identity. Don’t blame yourself for them. Learn to ignore them and make logical choices. Easier said than done, but it all begins with knowing what’s going on.

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