The Reptilian Brain

Effective Stress Management

by Lynn Johnson, Ph.D.

Perhaps anger and fear are practical jokes that Mother Nature has played on us. After all, throughout most of our history as a species, the three stress responses (fight, flight, and freeze) could handle most problems. Hit it with a club, run, or play dead. Our ancestors who mastered those three instincts survived, and we carry the genes of their success.

But those three responses come from parts of our brain that are not particularly intelligent.

Effective stress management has a foundation in up-to-date understanding of how our brain works. In counseling with clients or in the courtroom, you want to use your brain at its most effective mode. This briefing will help you.

We all have moods. Sometimes if a child is acting up, the mother may say, "Oh, he is just in a bad mood right now," and sure enough, after a while, the child is behaving much better. So also with adults. When we are in a bad mood, the world seems dark, but often the mood passes and things look better to us.

So moods are like the weather. If your brain is functioning normally, moods will shift from time to time. If you don't like your mood, wait a while, and pretty soon another one will come along, one you like better. But what causes our moods to be high or low, happy or sad? Why do negative moods seem to have such a "hold" on us?

The Reptile Brain

We now know that when we are in those bad moods, a particular part of our brain is more "in charge." Bad moods are driven by higher activity levels in the lower areas of the brain. This means simply that when you are angry or scared, you are less intelligent. I realize some attorneys believe the opposite, that anger sharpens their minds. They are wrong; perhaps I can explain why.

The lowest area of the brain is the most primitive. We call it the "reptile" or alligator brain. It is a part of the brain that is located underneath the higher thinking part of our brain or the cerebral cortex. It looks somewhat like the head of a golf club, sitting on top of the spinal column.

The reptile brain is concerned with three questions:

Is it something I can eat?

Is it something that can eat me?

Can I mate with it?

The reptile brain is an action brain. The emotions that are present are primitive, like rage and fear. You who specialize in criminal defense work have probably run into some clients whose lives were run primarily by reptile brain dominance.So when you are acting in foolish or destructive ways, your reptile brain is most energized, and your higher brain functions are more quiet. Have you noticed that when you have fallen into reacting with anger or fear, you say and do the same old things and you aren't very creative? That lack of creativity is a sure sign the reptile brain is mainly in control of your behavior.

The reptile brain is probably 90% to 100% selfish, so when people are being controlled by that part of their brain, you cannot expect much cooperation out of them. The best thing you can do is just wait for things to pass for the mood to change. Moods always change. There is really no point in discussing things while you or your partner are in bad moods. It is better to wait until the mood lightens up and things look brighter to you.

The Primitive Mammal Brain

On top of the reptile brain we find the limbic system and cingulate gyrus. This is the emotional center of the brain. It is called the "mammal brain" because it shows up in the higher animals. I notice that these higher animals are higher because they have the ability to learn more and also the ability to cooperate and show unselfish behavior. While all mammals have a reptile brain and while the reptile brain can still control the behavior of mammals, they also have a higher brain, and when they are feeling safe they can cooperate well. Deer group together in herds to help each other to be safe from predators. The wolves group together to help each other catch the deer. The mammals take much better care of their young than do reptiles. So we might conclude that the mammal brain is perhaps 50% or more cooperative and is capable of some acts of self-sacrifice, like the famous cat that went into a burning house several times, burning herself in the process, in order to rescue her own kittens.

These parts of the brain are the centers of emotion, both positive and negative. The negative emotions, as we have seen, energize the reptile brain. The positive emotions of love, concern, and cooperation make mammals more successful and resourceful than reptiles.

The Human Brain

Above the emotional brain we find the neocortex (or, cerebral cortex), the newest part of the brain. The Prefrontal Lobes are the part of the cerebral cortex that makes us fully human. While our brains are much larger than nearly all other animals, our prefrontal lobes are where the real action is. We have large, powerful, creative, sensitive prefrontal lobes, and we are capable of greater acts of love, creativity, unselfishness, and cooperation than the rest of the creatures on this earth.

Our brains also have little switches in them, the amygdala. Our amygdala are located on each side of our brains, midway between the corner of the eye and the ear. If you put your fingers over that spot, you have located your amygdala. They are about the size of a small almond. When the front part of the amygdala is energized then your frontal lobe on that side is energized. And when the back part of the amygdala is energized, then your reptile brain is getting all the energy!

In brain functioning there is a process we call kindling. This is the process of developing habits or patterns. If your amygdala is often switched forward, then it becomes easier and easier for you to be in a positive, happy, and creative mood. In this state you are 100% cooperative and unselfish. Your own needs don't even come into the picture. You have forgotten yourself and are working for higher purposes.

And the opposite is also true. When we stay in moods of depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and so on, the brain pathways become worn in, fixed if you will. The brain is ready and able to go to those unpleasant states of mind at the smallest provocation.

Yet we are at our most intelligent when our whole brain is working well, when the frontal lobes are highly energized. Once we recognize this, the next question is obvious.

How do I energize my frontal lobes?

There are many ways for energy to shift to the frontal lobes when you are upset. I will cover three of them, but I am curious to learn what ways you are going to discover. So when you discover other ways, please let me know!

First, wait and distract. This is the most common way people have of bouncing back. When you are in your "alligator" brain and you are upset and angry and feeling absorbed in your self and your own problems, just wait for a while. Usually you won't stay in that bad mood for a long time, and if you realize you are in a bad mood and it is going to pass, it will pass.

Of course, as you have probably already figured out, it is important to distract yourself from thinking about whatever put you in the bad mood in the first place. If your spouse insulted you, if your senior partner was unfair to you, if your kids were selfish and mean, these things may have triggered some bad feelings in you. That is all right, it is perfectly normal to be in bad moods when those things happen. The key to solving them, however, is not to remain in a bad mood.

Remember, the brain doesn't use all its resources when you are in a bad mood. The bad mood limits our thinking; we are not as intelligent and insightful and thoughtful. So, to solve the problem of how do we deal with our spouse, our boss, our kids, we have to get back into a more balanced mood. So just wait a while, and think about something else. Distract yourself by getting involved in a useful project, something that will interest you. When you feel your mood lift, then ask your creative brain, "Can I come up with a useful and positive way of dealing with this problem?" Don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, just ask the question and then stand back and wait. A good idea will come along.

After all, haven't you ever had the experience of trying to remember someone's name, and you just can't? But when you stop trying so hard to remember that name, after a while that very name pops into your mind. Well, that is how the brain works. When you are in a good mood, the brain works in the background to come up with useful ideas, without you worrying about it.

But if you are in a harsh, pressured, stressed mood, the name just never seems to come. So it is with good ideas. You have to be in a good mood to invent new ways of handling problems. So wait and distract yourself and soon the mood will lift.


To "reframe" something is to take the event and put a new frame around it. The event is the same, but the new frame changes the meaning.

A "frame" is a meaning we attribute to an event. For example, imagine you are in a line of people and the person in back of you keeps bumping up against you. The event is the bumping; you make a meaning around that, such as "What a rude person!" Finally you turn around and you see the person is wearing very dark glasses and holding a white cane. The event is the same but your meaning is different. And your emotional reaction changes in a moment.

So when we reframe, we take an event that upset us and try to find a new way to look at it. We try to find another meaning that will change our emotion from negative to positive, or at least to neutral.

When I try to reframe a problem to myself, I like to say to myself, "Yes that is bad. But it is also good. It is good because . . ." and then I see what meaning can come into my mind. I keep doing that over and over again, thinking of all the ways the bad event is really something good.

Good intentions behind a bad behavior

For example, perhaps someone did something mean-spirited to me. I am in a bad mood, and I want to bounce back to a good one. So I'll think of some good intentions that might be behind the bad behavior. Perhaps the person is trying to help me, but in a not-so-good way. Or perhaps the person mistakenly thought I was a threat to him, and is trying to defend himself, a perfectly normal thing to do.

Hidden or overlooked benefits

Maybe there is some benefit to me or others. Once I was counseling with an elementary student who would do homework but wouldn't turn it in. As we were discussing it, an overlooked benefit came to mind, and I mentioned, "Well, at least by not turning in your homework you give the teacher more time to pay attention to the other kids." That statement had a remarkable effect and he seemed startled. The next week he turned in the homework he was keeping back.

Choose appreciation

It seems that appreciation is a wonderful way to move the brain to higher functioning. When we feel grateful or appreciative, or when others give us appreciation, it is freeing and empowering to us. When you are confronted with a problem that takes you into a bad mood, you can look for something to appreciate, even if it is not related to the problem. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote of his experiences in a concentration camp during World War II. He was a slave laborer but he appreciated the song of a bird as he was marched out to another day of forced labor. He took pleasure in hearing the song of that bird. You can take pleasure in anything that pleases you, even if it is not related to the problem.


Practice good moods. Recall positive times, and recall especially the good feelings that went with those times. How did you feel? How did your heart feel? Your stomach? Your throat? Your arms and legs?

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan has found through her research that we can foster good moods by recalling good times and feeling appreciation for them. The more we practice good moods, the more we can feel them. Just as when you practice a skill - say, piano or guitar - the better we get at it. So also, good moods are something we can practice and get better at!

There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, notice and appreciate when you spontaneously feel good. Revel in the good feeling! Have you ever seen a dog prance around when he sees his master? Or when he sees another dog he is fond of? Dogs seem to epitomize joy in those circumstances. And dogs are really quite resilient and able to handle stress well, perhaps because they do enjoy their own enjoyment. So follow their example. Enjoy your enjoyment, take pleasure in your own pleasure.

Second, recognize when you are under stress and actively cope with it. Transform your bad times into good by stepping back from the initial reaction, focusing your attention on your heart, and recalling the good feelings. This energizes your frontal lobes, and you will find that you are much more intelligent.


It would be only natural if you have some objections to the ideas presented here. After all, being able to look critically at something is very helpful, and it keeps us from being swept up like children into useless and even harmful fads.

Here are some questions that people often ask:

"Don't you have to admit you have a problem in order to work on it?"

There is real truth to this objection. I haven't focused on that in this article. A person who denies he has a problem probably feels at a deeper level that he cannot deal with the problem so he or she ignores it. But if a person feels more capable by beginning to understand how the brain works, he or she is more likely to admit there really is a problem. As we practice having strong positive feelings, we are more capable and can handle things much better!

"When you are trying to keep a good mood all the time, aren't you avoiding reality?"

There is a real truth implied in this question. We do have to deal with reality. And I am not suggesting that we should be in a good mood all the time.

But I am suggesting that for important discussions, decisions, and plans, you do need to be in a good mood. And if you are not in a good mood, I suggest that you may want to postpone those decisions or discussions until your mood has shifted.

I am also saying that the more you are in a good mood, the better you get at maintaining good moods. So experiencing high moods is like anything else. The more you do it, the more you can do it.

"Are you saying that we should never be in bad moods?"

It might seem like that is what I am saying. But I don't think that. Bad moods are inevitable; they are part of how our brains are made. Actually, what I am trying to suggest is that we should know that we do bounce back from bad moods. Bad moods we will always have with us. When we realize we also have good moods, we can release the bad moods and bounce back.

May all your bad moods pass quickly, and may you discover your own genius and brilliance in your highest functioning mind!


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