A multiple choice question: which of these experiences come from the alarm in your brain?
A. When you feel the adrenaline rush of the fight-flight stress reaction
B. When you explode with anger
C. When you can't get out of bed because you're too depressed
D. When you suddenly realize you need to wake up because your mind is wandering or you're daydreaming when you need to be paying attention.
If you picked any or all of the answers, you’re right. The amygdala, which we call the brain’s alarm, is a tiny, almond shaped region in the limbic system (the emotional part) of the brain. It's primary function is to call you to attention, and in an emergency, to mobilize or shut-down your body and mind so that you’ll survive.
It does this in two ways. First, in major alarm reactions, it creates an emergency response with a shot of adrenaline. That's what happens when you see your child walking toward a busy street and you bolt to bring him or her to safety. Second, in quiet alarm wake-up calls, like when you catch your mind wandering, it's the same part of the brain signaling you to stay alert—the situation just isn't as urgent.
The alarm in our brains fires without us even having to think about it. That’s the reason you wake up right before the alarm clock is about to go off. When you almost got hit by that car, but swerved out of the way before you fully realized the danger: that was your alarm alerting you to take action so fast that the thinking center in your brain (the prefrontal cortex) didn’t have time to process the situation until after you’d reacted.
And the alarm often fires when we're about to make a mistake.
When you get nervous over a putt in golf it's because you lined up wrong and your alarm recognizes the mistake. Or, it's a really important putt and your alarm is signaling you to pay close attention and do everything you can to be successful.
That's why we have nerves before a big presentation or a test. The alarm is making sure we're alert and ready. The jittery feeling of anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it’s not a sign of a problem if we know how to interpret the alarm’s message. The alarm is not calling upon us to worry or ruminate about all the terrible things that can happen; it’s signaling us to simply pay attention to what will help us succeed.
When we misinterpret the alarm signal as a message of gloom and doom, that has exactly the wrong result, reducing rather than enhancing our attention and alertness. That’s why anxiety, frustration, depression, and other chronic stress reactions can escalate into major problems—we’re not using our alarms as they’re intended.
Like any alarm system, the brain’s alarm works best and creates the least interference in our lives when we simply pay attention to it and respond its wake-up calls intentionally. That means responding to the nerves before a big event with preperation or in a stressful experience by stepping back and making sure where about to do the best we can in that moment. This focused and proactive attention signals to the alarm that we’re handling the situation, and that not only makes us better able to actually do what we need to do to succeed—it also turns down the alarm, reducing the feelings of stress.
For most of us, however, we live with the alarm constantly sounding. We don’t know how to turn it down because we don’t realize that paying attention to the alarm's message actually resets it. That's chronic stress. We walk around believing that something is wrong with us or other people or the world, when that’s often not the message the alarm is trying to send.
Before assuming that stress reactions mean there’s a problem or an emergency, it’s better to ask ourselves simply, "What needs my attention?" Then we’re working with our alarm instead of getting stressed out or becoming so immune to the alarm’s signals that we don't even notice how stressed we’re feeling. Too often, we're stressed all the time and not aware of the damage that does to our body and our lives.
Ironically, the first secret of stress management is not to get rid of or shut off the alarm in your brain. The best thing you can do is actually the opposite. Notice it. Listen to it. Like a clock alarm in the morning, if you hide under the covers and try not to hear it, or if you defer its signals by putting it on snooze, it doesn't go away and the brain’s alarm always comes back stronger than ever.
So what is it that the alarm in your brain is calling you to pay better attention to? It depends on the circumstance. It could be telling you that you’re running late and need to get back on schedule, or that you need to listen more and talk less. It could be telling you that a relationship needs more attention or that you should get a better balance between work and your personal life. In every situation, your alarm is pointing you to a part of your life that simply needs your attention—not worry or angst, but mindful creative attention to what’s important for your well-being and that of others in your life.
When you listen to the alarm, and think about what needs your attention in order for you to life fully and make the most of your life, that's when you can step back and figure out what it's trying to tell you. Most of us never step back and make changes in our lives because we didn't realize we had a natural way of figuring out what needs attention. Or we’re too preoccupied with worry, dread, self-doubt, anger, or mental and emotional numbness to give the messages from our alarm the thoughtful attention that they deserve.
How do you know when you've taken care of whatever the alarm wants you to notice? You feel better. You truly feel good because you're thinking clearly and paying attention to what’s important in your life. Not because you masked the alarm with drinking, drugs, or another temporary coping technique; rather, because you feel calm and control. It's in the moments when we feel in control that we know we have heard the alarm's message and focused on whatever we need to do to live a life worth living.