Don’t Flip Your Lid! The Simple Brain Science Behind The Workplace Spinout

Self-Regulation, an essential tenet of EQ and the secret ingredient of executive presence, is your intentional ability to stay cool under social fire. In any workplace, Self-Regulation can be a challenge if you’re not equipped to steer through emotional spinouts before they occur. The process begins with strengthening your Somatic Intelligence, which in plain English means settling down your central nervous system in moments of heightened tension. This requires maintaining a balance between your Sympathetic Nervous System and Parasympathetic Nervous System. Despite sounding technical, perhaps intimidatingly so, the solutions are surprisingly familiar and achievable, not to mention necessary.

If you’re chronically anxious and stressed, your “switch” may be “stuck” in the Sympathetic Nervous System mode, whereby a constant drip of the neurotransmitters cortisol and adrenaline enters your circulatory system. This not only means you’re all teed up to flip out at any moment, but that adrenal fatigue and burnout may be in your future! This is a bigger problem in our modern office environment than most folks realize, as is evident from my work with groups of professionals who overwhelmingly express a sense of anxiety and stress in their careers. Let’s take a more detailed look at that science.

You Better Believe It.

The science is there for the taking, but it requires being a true believer to become motivated to make a change in oneself and prevent flip-outs. My believer moment stemmed from my recent realization that I was an adrenaline junkie during my years in the restaurant business, hooked on those neurotransmitters (and a boatload of caffeine). Before each evening service, I sensed I was “getting ready for battle”. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’re probably familiar with that moment during service when you’re in the weeds and teetering on “losing it”. After a while in the profession, you begin to anticipate those weeds in the moments before service even begins. That added anxiety is enough to release adrenaline and cortisol into the body, preparing you for your amygdala hijack before the actual trigger event takes place (not exactly the picture of Self-Regulation!)

Those who make restaurant work a career find ways to compensate and prepare for the rush, setting aside their survival instincts when navigating high-pressure situations. But the best way for the rest of us to break free from this dreadful pattern is to deconstruct the brain. Let’s go there, from the perspective of knowledge workers like you and your colleagues, who aren’t constantly exposed to high-pressure.

A REAL Hand Model

It’s no coincidence that professionals who exude good Self-Regulation skills also get some great work done. When we train the brain to regulate, the prefrontal cortex can fully engage, thereby creating the mind-related work we were hired to produce.

Author and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine Dr Dan Seigel has developed a brilliant and simple hand model to represent the sections of the human brain and the functions they serve, with the purpose of illustrating the science behind an amygdala hijack. To follow along, simply hold up your forearm while clenching your thumb inside your four other fingers. Your wrist represents the upper section of your spinal cord, which connects the brain to the outer reaches of your body. Your lower palm represents the brain stem, which is responsible for receiving information from the body, and regulating the body’s involuntary functions (breathing, digestion, etc). This is also the ancient, “reptilian” part of the brain which triggers the fight/flight/freeze response during a threat.

The portion of your thumb that’s hidden beneath your four clenched fingers represents the limbic or “mammalian” brain, which interacts with the reptilian brain to form emotion, motivation, reasoning and human connection. This is also the region where the amygdala lives, which is responsible for memory processing, decision-making and, in relation to our discussion, emotional response.

Finally, your fingers and knuckles represent the brain’s cortex, or “human brain”, which works closely with the limbic region to associate, interpret and act upon the information taken in by the senses, most acutely via the frontal cortex. Represented by your knuckles and fingertips is the “lid” of your brain, known as the pre-frontal cortex, which integrates all other parts of the brain with the body and the social world. And as you will soon understand, depending upon how effective this integration is, it could mean the difference between emotional harmony and chaos.

“Preexisting” Conditions

In normal life situations, messages move from the spinal cord through the brain’s limbic region, where emotions are processed. When those messages reach the pre-frontal cortex, you can reason through the situation and respond appropriately. But complications arise in this progression when you’re drowsy, exhausted, stressed or anxious. If someone or something pushes an emotional button of yours during one of these times, you can “flip your lid”, thereby momentarily losing the ability to reason. This is when the famous amygdala hijack is likely to occur and punch a hole in your executive presence that’s difficult to repair.

There is some good news on this front. Using a little self-awareness and your Response Flexibility, you can bring yourself back online when you feel like you’re about to flip your lid. In my follow-up article, I’ll walk you through a few practical examples that we can all tap into.