Who's the Boss—You or Your Lizard Brain?

Discover the 90-second gap you have to train your reactive brain to chill.

Posted Jan 24, 2020

Your inbox slog overwhelms you. The colleague who fails to meet his part of the team’s deadline infuriates you. A friend talks over you, and you seethe with anger. Your computer crashes, and you slam your fist. The morning commuter cuts you off in traffic, and you give him the finger.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. This is your lizard brain (also known as the reactive brain or survival brain) in action. We all get upset once in a while, but there comes a point when unbridled reactions can sabotage our relationships and our lives.

 Timothy Dykes/Unsplash
Your lizard brain moves at breakneck speed, even when you don't want it to, but you can train it to cool its jets.
Source: Timothy Dykes/Unsplash

You’re Destined to Freak Out

Even Pope Francis lost his cool at a Vatican 2020 New Year's celebration, angrily slapping the hand of an overly zealous congregant when she refused to let go of his hand, later apologizing. Quick and protective, your lizard brain, residing in your DNA, has an important evolutionary origin. It kept your ancestors from getting eaten by wild animals or attacked by vicious tribes. When our laid-back predecessors didn’t worry about danger and ignored warning signs, unsuspected attackers killed them off. The vigilant ones survived thanks to the diligence of the lizard brains’ warning system, which Mother Nature tailor-made to take charge in threatening situations to ensure we survive at all costs.

Once threatened, your lizard brain doesn’t waste time in thoughts. In lightning speed, it brings past experiences and well-worn assumptions to present situations. It hijacks your “thinking brain”—your prefrontal cortex or executive functioning—throws it offline before you realize it and prepares you for fight or flight to keep you out of harm’s way. When your buttons are pushed, it issues a warning, and the cells of your body heed its call, drenching you in a cocktail of neuropeptides that create a rapid-fire reaction to threat. You can feel the exact moment your lizard brain dumps a tonic of heart-pounding enzymes into your bloodstream. The surging adrenaline and cortisol act like a tidal wave, hijacking your rational thoughts, leaving your emotions to rush to action. You may sizzle on the inside or rant and rave on the outside—but you survive.

The problem is that ancient lizard brains were designed for a very different time, with a specific and limited set of threats. Your twenty-first-century lizard brain ramps up into survival mode not only over immediate physical danger but more psychological concerns as well. It doesn’t know the difference between lethal and non-lethal situations. It’s just as likely to blast a colleague for challenging your ideas, the server when you’re stuck in a long, slow-moving lunch line, or your hard-nosed, demanding boss for belittling you in a meeting. It will unleash its ire on you, too, for slip-ups such as misplacing your cell phone, accidentally dinging another car, or missing an appointment.

Even though studies show that 90 percent of worries are false alarms that never manifest, your lizard brain prioritizes and remembers the negative experiences in an attempt to prevent life’s unexpected curve balls from ambushing you. Think of all the times you brooded for countless hours over one negative aspect of a situation when, in retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. In fact, your lizard brain may have overlooked many positive elements. Your colleagues gave you rave reviews on your presentation, but you couldn’t get that one frowning face in the front row off your mind. The majority of your coworkers attended the retirement party, but the fact that your boss was a no-show continues to flash in your brain like a neon Failure sign. And what about all those times you wigged out over an upcoming presentation, convinced you would fall flat on your face when, not only did you not fail, you were a huge success—all that worry for nothing—the exact opposite of what your lizard brain predicted.

Nobody Can Trigger Your Lizard Brain Without Your Consent

It helps to know that, when your lizard brain takes over with reflexive reaction, you’re usually not in any real danger, as when Pope Francis smacked the hand of an overly zealous congregant who wouldn’t let go of his arm. Neuroscientists say, that in the heat of the moment, your lizard brain simply overestimates a threat and underestimates your ability to handle it. It’s often nothing more than you’re simply upset that people and things aren’t doing what you want, or life isn’t working out the way you planned—the way it’s “supposed to.”

Think about it. You expect daily aspects of your job to play out in a certain direction or adjust to your desires and whims. Of course, the job will never bend to your will—it doesn’t work that way. Bear in mind if you continue down the rabbit hole of expecting the workplace to be the way you want, you automatically set yourself up for disappointment, heartbreak, and your own unbridled reactions that will unmake your day along with that of others.

The problem isn’t your life; it’s your brain. You’re not jinxed, life doesn’t have a vendetta against you, and other people and situations are not causing your outbursts. You are. Nothing and nobody can unmake your day but you. Every time you lose it when a situation or person does something you don’t like, it’s your responsibility, not theirs. Think about it. When you’re unable to regulate your outbursts and flip your lid, does that really make things better? Or does it make them worse? After circling the parking lot a few times before finding the closest spot to your office, is it worth pounding your steering wheel? Does it actually matter if you don’t score the best restaurant table by the window for your business meeting? I mean, seriously. Do you really need to badmouth a colleague because they’re different from you?

Even for our modern-day selves, no longer dwelling in caves and running from tigers, the lizard brain serves a vital role in protecting us. Constantly on the lookout, it watches out when you’re driving in heavy traffic, searching for your car in a dark parking garage, or struggling to meet a tight deadline. If your office is on fire, someone breaks into your house or you’re in a car wreck or terrorist attack, it keeps you safe from harm. But when you live in that amped-up state for too long—alarm bells ringing at full blast—it drains your clarity, optimism, peace of mind, well-being, and resilience for personal growth.  

Sidestepping Your Lizard Brain Reactions: The 90-Second Gap

You’re not powerful enough to fend off unwelcome career challenges. Mishaps, unpleasant surprises, and threatening moments are going to happen no matter what. The key is what you do with them to stay cool under pressure. The good news is you are powerful enough to choose how you respond to them. It’s possible to sidestep your lizard brain from siphoning your energy by learning not to let every little hiccup throw you into a tizzy—whether it’s a printer paper jam, a traffic jam, or grape jam smeared across your clean floor.

You always have a choice to respond with either action or reaction—regardless of how small or big the circumstances. In an interview, brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor told me, “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” In other words, when you react to a situation, you make a choice to do so—an unconscious choice perhaps, but a choice nonetheless. You can be your own worst enemy when you allow your lizard brain to have open season on others and yourself.

The secret sauce is to discover the 90-second gap between what you feel and what you do. You might not recognize the gap is there. If you’re on autopilot, as so many of us are, chances are your hair-trigger reactions are in the habit of running roughshod over the gap. But once you start to look for and find it, you’re able to make a choice with action instead of reaction. That’s how you empower yourself, that’s how you prevent burnout and rekindle your energy, and that’s how you get back your mojo to thrive. The more you practice this approach, the more the gap will widen over time. The more resilient you will become in facing obstacles, tough decisions, and hard choices. And the more freedom you will enjoy in your life.