The Brain Chemistry of Perceived Threats

iStock_000001619589_LargeIn my last post on the brain, I covered three important parts of our brain and the various roles they play in our responses to sensory input. In this post, I want to look at how perceived threats impact our behavior.

I was coaching an executive who was having a problem with one of his employees arriving late to meetings. After several conversations with the staff member about the importance of being punctual, the employee arrived late to yet another meeting.

Upon seeing his staff member walk in late, my client felt angry and “blew up” in front of everyone else in the room. In his mind, he was aggravated because of his staff member’s behavior. It was only in our coaching call that he realized that the primary source of his anger was his own interpretation of his employee’s tardiness as a sign of disrespect or threat to his authority. We call these internal triggers “hot buttons.”

To stir the pot even more, my client later realized that his assistant had made a mistake and didn’t communicate to his employee a new, earlier meeting time.

So, at the level of the brain, what happened? My client’s amygdala got hijacked (see last week’s post) and thus my client was functioning from his reptilian brain. This means he was no longer able to access the higher-functioning prefrontal cortex part of the brain – the place where responses are weighed and clear decisions are made.

Biologically, the brain we have today is roughly the same one we developed, as a species, about 10,000 years ago. At that time, we were dealing daily with physical threats such as being eaten by predators or pillaged by enemies. Today, even though most of us don’t endure these perils on a regular basis, our brains can’t distinguish between the real physical threats we used to encounter and the psychological ones we are more likely to experience in our modern lives. In the case study above, for example, my client perceived the threat of disrespect and reacted like a man fending off a lion.

While the circumstances may be slightly different, this has happened to all of us.

Imagine you are sitting at your desk and your boss comes over and says, “Can you meet with me in my office tomorrow? I have something I want to talk to you about.”

Did you in any way feel the physical rush of threat creep up on you? What if I were to tell you that, as it turns out, what the boss wanted to talk with you about was what a great job you did on a recent project? Would that change your response?

The point is that there is usually a gap between what is really happening and our perception of it as a threat. In other words, just because we perceive that there is a threat (to our authority, for example) does not mean there actually is one. Understanding this is critical since our brains are wired to search out situations that threaten us first and find solutions second.

How often do you perceive a threat, react, and then discover additional information that expands your perception? We would love to hear your comments.


  1. Phillip Holland says:

    If this is the case, my boss is permanantly unable to access the higher-functioning prefrontal cortex. Seriously.

  2. Steve Busse says:

    I have worked long and hard to overcome my hot buttons. I often just have to bite my tongue.

  3. Dennis Lassiter says:

    I have had that last part happen to me several times. I get a message from my boss, usually an email, that only says “see me.” Nothing but bad stuff starts running through my brain and butterflies hit. Never was it a bad situation though. Always just letting me know something.

  4. Russell Farrell says:

    I can’t remember the first time I blew up at someone. I just remember what my baseball coach used to tell me about playing the field. He said that when the ball was hit, don’t react immediately, count to two to decide how to defend it best. Of couse this only worked when I played outfielder and I had more time to react and still make the play, but usually there is plenty of time daily situations.

  5. Elisabeth Bowling says:

    Hard to imagine that our brains haven’t evolved more than that.

  6. Vicki Salono says:

    It’s not the evolution of the brain. I think it’s the conditioning of the brain through experiences that allow us to better deal with situations.

    1. Marc-Andre Olivier says:

      Past experiences AND the conclusions we have drawn from them play an important role in what we perceive as threats or not. They can help us better deal with some situations and be part of the confusion in others.

  7. Charlotte says:

    Remember, the boss doesn’t want to see anyone late. It’s always a sign of disrespect. Shouldn’t that guy have called ahead?

  8. Frederick Diaz says:

    Maybe just the percetion of a threat really is just an evolutionary tool to help us survive and cope with things.

  9. Joy Mann says:

    Physical threats didn’t just happen daily 10,000 years ago. Come work at my place! 🙂

  10. Justin Goldberg says:

    Often I’m thinking people that react like this need to be medicated [chill pill]. Of course that would just be putting a bandage on it and not actually fixing them.

  11. Elisabeth Shaffer says:

    Maybe blowing up at the employee isn’t always a bad thing. It sends a message to the others.

    1. Marc-Andre Olivier says:

      It certainly does send a message. Is it a bad thing? Depends on what you are hoping to achieve. Considering that once feeling threatened people loose their ability to think at their best, I would rather focus on creating safety. Specially in a management meeting, whether I care or not about how they feel, when I pay people to think, I want the best of what they can access.

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