Tending to Your Brain’s Alarm System in Times of Stress

Tending to Your Brain’s Alarm System in Times of Stress


Explore these concrete ways to re-program the "smoke alarm" in your brain for more calm and less anxiety.

One of my first apartments had one of those smoke alarms that went off every time we burned the toast or steam billowed out of the bathroom after a hot shower. Suddenly, my roommates and I would jump out of our seats and scramble to silence the alarm, usually by tearing out the batteries.

People with PTSD and anxiety can feel they have a smoke alarm like this in their minds. In a sense, they do. An overactive amygdala is like living with a smoke alarm in your brain that goes off every time you make toast. How well can you function when there’s an alarm going off? Probably not very well!

When the amygdala is activated, cortisol and adrenaline spike—and so does testosterone. Together these lead to aggression and a lack of empathy. If you want to survive, you do not want to think about how cute and furry that lion chasing you is. You do not want to slow down to wonder if it just wants to cuddle!

The primitive limbic system—your brain’s alarm system—becomes activated, pulling blood into the amygdala and out of our more evolved outer cortices, including the prefrontal cortex, where we regulate emotion, control impulses, utilize critical thinking, and make long-term plans. If the alarm rings long enough, the brain recalibrates itself for the long term.

The science shows that as we practice mindful self-compassion, the amygdala gets smaller and less active. This is not like tearing the batteries out of the alarm; it’s more like recalibrating it so that it goes off when a real danger is present, not a perceived one.

We can retrain the brain back into the window of tolerance while simultaneously expanding it. Through mindfulness, compassion, and positive psychology, we can come into an optimal mental state for thriving rather than just surviving. Here is one exercise to help you turn off that fire alarm—or at least turn it down!

Fire-Alarm Reset Protocols

If you find your nervous system ramping up, you might try one of these simple, perceptual awareness exercises:

  • Count the corners in the room.

  • Notice everything around you that’s the color green (or any other color).

  • Note the shapes around you and the spaces between them.

  • Even in a place where you have spent a lot of time, look around and see if you can notice something new, something that has changed, or something you’ve never noticed before.

  • Take a tip from polyvagal expert Deb Dana and build anchors of safety into your space: colors, objects, and artwork that cue your nervous system to feel safe.

Adapted from How We Grow Through What We Go Through: Self-Compassion Practices for Post-Traumatic Growth by Christopher Willard, PsyD.

Tending to Your Brains Alarm System in Times of Stress

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