Monday, October 10, 2011

Adrenaline: Everyone Gets the Same Shakes

Everyone gets the same bodily shakes and tremors when facing acute stress, so how is it that some people thrive under pressure while others disintegrate in panic?

To answer this question, we need first to have a basic understanding of how our brain functions.

Our brain is made up of three layers, each layer representing an era in our evolutionary heritage. The lowest and earliest layer is our Reptilian brain, followed by the middle layer, our Paleomammalian brain, and topped by the newest layer, our Neomammalian brain which makes human beings uniquely powerful. The functions of the 3 layers are as follows:

Brain Layer

Reptilian brain or Basal ganglia

Basic survival instincts of fight, flight, and copulate. Also controls our autonomic functions like breathing and heart rate.

Paleomammalian brain or Limbic system
Emotions involved in feeding, mating, and parenting. Motivated by pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Neomammalian brain or Neocortex
Human abilities of language, reasoning, abstraction, conceptualisation, and planning.

Whenever our five senses pick up information which our Reptilian brain assessed is a potential danger to our life and limb, it triggers our endocrine glands to churn out an instant dose of adrenaline hormones. This spurt of hormones is pumped around our body through our blood streams. The adrenaline rush produces the effects of:

Physical Changes

Survival Function
Raised heart rate
Increased action potential
Increase breathing rate
Increased action potential
Blood leaves digestive system
More blood for muscles
Blood leaves extremities
More blood for muscles
Blood goes to major muscles
More energy to fight or run
Less heat when fighting or running
Decreased general focus
Increased primary focus

Every one of us human beings feels the same bodily sensations. This adrenaline rush is a relic from our evolutionary past when our ancestors have to be constantly alert in order to survive the threats from predatory big cats, bears, wolves, snakes, and even hostile humans. These bodily reactions prepare our bodies to either fight or flee.

While all of us get the same shakes from our adrenaline, it is up to each one of us to interpret what the sensations mean, and hence it leads to different reactions and outcomes.

The bodily sensations are neutral. How we interpret the bodily sensations is based on what we believe is happening to us, and around us.

People who excel under pressure believe that their raised heart rate, increased breathing rate etc are signs that their body is “primed”, “revved up”, “pumped”, “juiced”, “amped up”, “charged up”, “energized” for peak performance. They feel an empowering surge of confident energy as they begin their task.

People who crumble under pressure, believe that these exact same bodily sensations are warning signs that “things are going out of control”, “things are falling apart”, “I am not good enough for this”. Power and energy is drained from their mind and body.

When you believe that your shaking body is a prelude to disaster, your mind and body weakens, and your performance suffers.

When you believe that your shaking body is a purring cat ready to pounce, your mind and body are strengthened, and your performance is enhanced.

Pause, and choose your beliefs when you feel that adrenaline rush. It makes the difference between being calm or panicking.

Try it. You will be amazed how a simple switch of thought like this could make all the difference.

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