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The Emotional Flood of Stress

Stereotypically, women are thought of as emotional and men as logical, but biology says this is false. 

Scientists have discovered that men have a larger part of their brain devoted to emotional responses and a smaller region for logical thinking than women. This makes sense if you consider the energy needed to be vigilant for self-protection. Since men are hard wired for hunting, competition and dominance, a powerful emotion outbursts of anger is helpful to come out on top during a confrontation. 

Men in the hunter-gatherer world also needed a large amygdala to quickly respond when scanning the terrain for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registered as dangerous, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses–from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of adrenaline. Within milliseconds, men explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before their prefrontal cortex can even grasp what is happening. 

For example, say you’re in a crowded restaurant and the noise of chatter from dozens of conversations fills the air. Suddenly a waiter drops a tray with several glasses, which crashes and shatters as they hit the floor. Automatically, the restaurant comes to a dramatic halt as everyone simultaneously falls to a hush. 

There is an instinctual reflex to stop and freeze when there is a sudden loud noise. This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t immediately know if an experience is real or imagined. How can this be? While the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are working towards the same goal, to help you survive, they come at the problem from different directions. 

Say you’re watching a movie. If it is a scary movie and you hear a noise outside, your amygdala will say, “Get up and lock the door.” Your prefrontal cortex knows there is no ax murderer outside but you will likely get up and lock the door anyways. Or say you’re watching a sad movie. You know it is a movie and no one died, but you may begin to cry anyways. All of these circumstance sets off false alarms, which unleashes the same level of feeling as if the real event were happening. This means that if the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, everything seems like a threat. 

The amygdala’s emotional response provides a mechanism to work around the limitation of the prefrontal cortex’s reasoning. For example, the prefrontal cortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, that petite brunette who dumped you for a new lover. It is the amygdala that is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate. And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged memories. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your amygdala instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion. This means even vague similarities can triggers fear signals in the brain, alerting you of a threat. This false alarm happens because the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later.

The term “flooding” describes the release of hormones that “flood” or prepare your body for action.  These chemicals must pass through your body, be absorbed into the tissues and released into the urine before your body returns to normal.  This process takes 20 minutes.   

If the stressful situation endures, your heart rate will remain elevated, and your body will pump out adrenaline and your thinking will be clouded.  You will be physiologically reactive even if you “know” a different response is called for.  Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm. This cranial takeover occurs because your prefrontal cortex is simply out-matched by the competition from your amygdala. This race is not even close because emotion-laden pathways in the brain are faster the logical signals. 

Think of driving. Your amygdala’s emotional impulses zoom down your neurological express routes. However, the same information is also being processed logically, but your rational thoughts are transported via the local roads, stopping at other regions of your brain along the way. But because the emotional pathway in your brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving your logic, your judgment simply can’t intervene in time. It takes time to think, plan, analyze, and act. 

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of time. If they were confronted with a threat, they had to act immediately or they would die. They could not take a moment to weigh the pros and cons, analyze and act, “Well there is a bear in front of me. Do I look for honey? Shall I catch a salmon? Shape some wood into a spear? Grab a rock? Run away?” No, it was fight (attack) or flight (run away), It was not logical problem solving that helped them in that moment. It was their emotional reactions, which allowed them to survive.

The Emotional Flood of Stress

Aaron Karmin


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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2018). The Emotional Flood of Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/anger/2018/09/the-emotional-flood-of-stress/

 

Last updated: 10 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Sep 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.