Red light spells danger – or does it? Our internal warning system is not always right

red traffic light to represent dangerI have been doing a lot of reading and research lately into neuroscience – the way in which our brain and nervous system works.  As well as being totally fascinating I am finding that the understanding we now have has widespread practical application in the workplace and generally in life.  The more we learn about the interconnection between our brain and body, the more able we are to manage our own emotional wellbeing and be aware of our influence on those around us.

There is a process called neuroception within our nervous system which continually scans the environment for danger.  It  happens beneath our conscious awareness and was essential for the survival of our ancestors whose lack of secure housing and proximity to wild animals made them very vulnerable.  Although our brains have evolved, this primitive response still remains and affects us in our everyday lives.

When we feel safe our bodies release beneficial hormones such as oxytocin (aka the love hormone) which helps us engage more readily with others and make social connections, we may feel optimistic and trust others more easily.  We are able to learn better, collaborate and work together effectively.  Safety is a biological need, extremely important for young children,  and is key to living a happy balanced life.

When we sense danger, before we have the chance to consciously process the trigger, our nervous system automatically sets off a chain of physiological reactions which get us ready for ‘fight or flight’.  A rush of adrenaline causes our heart rate and our breathing to speed up, our bodies resources are diverted from our rational brain and our digestive system to send energy to our muscles, even our hearing is impaired as the middle ear shuts down.  In essence, our body is primed for a physical response – which is very helpful if our life is in danger – however life and death scenarios are few and far between.  Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are rarely in a situation where we must literally fight or run away.  

It is far more common nowadays for us to need our cognitive ability to get us out of a stressful situation, but often our brains let us down.  Have you ever felt that rising knot of tension in the chest, when you really want to say something that’s important to you in a meeting or in an argument, but then the words all come out wrong?  Or you are working to a deadline, you start to panic as it creeps closer, and you feel like you can’t think straight?  When the ‘threat’ response is triggered, the functioning of our pre-frontal cortex (the area primarily responsible for our rational, logical thinking) is impaired and our problem-solving ability and emotional control go out of the window.  

Anyone who has been through a period of chronic stress will be familiar with this.  A feeling of being on edge and fuzzy-headed, frequently overreacting to others’ words and making (often negative) assumptions about people’s intentions.  Some people have very sensitive neuroceptive circuits – people with anxiety disorders and autism live in an almost constant state of threat which drives them to display defensive behaviours.  People who are faced with discrimination day in and out are also affected and carry the additional strain of limiting or censoring their behaviour (sometimes called ‘emotional labour’) in order to fit in with the group. 

This feeling of threat or danger is also contagious.  When we feel threatened we start sensing more threats around us.  We misread signs and we can view other people’s faces as angry or threatening when perhaps they were fearful themselves.  It is a vicious circle of mistrust which is hard to escape.  And this has been hugely exacerbated by Coronavirus.  We have become used to literally stepping away from each other in the street, being nervous and mistrustful of people, and when we wear masks we have difficulty reading facial expressions. This continual feeling of uncertainty and stress is a real phenomenon and has been dubbed “Covid Brain” by neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann.  

It is an unfortunate fact that the brain tends to over-estimate danger – and our bodily responses are involuntary. So what can we do to mitigate the effects of the body’s automatic processes?  

The single physiological response that we can control is our breathing.  Taking long slow breaths where the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, sends signals to the brain that you are safe.  This is one of the reasons why Mindfulness and Meditation, which often focus on paying attention to the breath, are cited as useful, and help us to build our resilience to stress over time.  Taking some deep breaths allows us time for our conscious mind to re-evaluate the ‘threat’ and decide whether a defensive reaction is required.

Plassmann suggests that the way we think about stress can alter its effect on us. There is evidence to show that if you are able to ‘welcome’ feelings of stress as useful – for example to create urgency or to see challenging situations as opportunities for growth, then the effects will be less detrimental. This is part of a wider learning around reframing and  mindset (both personal and organisational) which can be extremely powerful though admittedly takes repetition and practice.

But we can also use the theory of emotional contagion to promote feelings of safety amongst those around us.  The importance of smiling, making eye contact, and talking in a voice with varied tone cannot be underestimated as they all help to make people feel safe around us.  And it is only when we feel safe that our bodies work in harmony with our brains and we are able to build strong social connections and to thrive.  This was an ‘aha’ moment for me – the science backs up my long-held belief that when we show kindness to others we are helping to send signals of safety which allow people to build strong relationships, work more effectively and to be healthier and happier.

Helen is a Mental Health First Aider and Wellbeing Coach.  She firmly believes that wellbeing at work is not a fluffy ‘nice to have’ but a pre-requisite for performance and productivity.


Hilke Plassmann reference:
If you are interested in finding out more I recommend this half hour YouTube video:
The Polyvagal Theory: The New Science of Safety and Trauma
And this article: