How Do You React Under High Pressure?

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Did you know that parts of our brains play a major part in how we react to high pressure situation?  Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen break down the reasons why certain people are more attracted to danger than others.


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Tana Amen: We are talking today about, would you run into a burning building?

Dr Daniel Amen: No!

Tana Amen: Why?

Dr Daniel Amen: Unless you were there.

Tana Amen: That's what I wanted to know. Would you run in after me?

Dr Daniel Amen: I would.

Tana Amen: I don't really trust you now. You just said no.

Dr Daniel Amen: Well, in general, there are people who run toward fires, and then there are people like me, that run away from fires.

Tana Amen: Yeah, but you'd at least call 911.

Dr Daniel Amen: Absolutely, I'd call 911. Well, for you, I would actually go in the building, because without you, I would be lost.

Tana Amen: Aww.

Dr Daniel Amen: I would be sad.

Tana Amen: Thank you for saying you would go in after me. I don't think people who would run into a building, I don't think it's a choice. I think we're just wired that way.

Dr Daniel Amen: Well, it's both. There are people who've been burned, and so they've been taught it's hot in there.

Tana Amen: Oh yeah, so okay-

Dr Daniel Amen: And so-

Tana Amen: Yes, that makes sense.

Dr Daniel Amen: So there's always sort of a biology to it, but there is a psychology to who ... And this is really important, because some people are wired to be firefighters, and some people are not wired.

Tana Amen: So when we say burning building, that's a metaphor. What we really mean is, would you run into action? Would you be the person to run in and save someone in a car accident? Are you that person that has to jump in to stop something bad from happening? Are you that person that has to always put your ... Help someone out that's in trouble? Are you that person that has to go into that building, even if it's dangerous? Doesn't have to necessarily mean a burning building, so that's the metaphor.

Dr Daniel Amen: You're an ICU nurse-

Tana Amen: Trauma.

Dr Daniel Amen: You're a trauma nurse, and so when something traumatic is happening-

Tana Amen: I have to jump in.

Dr Daniel Amen: You jump in.

Tana Amen: I can't help it. It's like-

Dr Daniel Amen: We're walking in the neighborhood with Tinkerbell.

Tana Amen: Why are you so amused by this story?

Dr Daniel Amen: Our black poodle.

Tana Amen: Amused by it.

Dr Daniel Amen: And there were two pit bulls off their leashes. I grabbed Tinkerbell, and you jumped in front of me and started screaming at the pit bulls. They went, "We're not going to deal with this crazy woman," and ran away.

Tana Amen: He makes me sound crazy. I'm not that crazy. I'm not crazy.

Dr Daniel Amen: I have to tell you, I was never more in love with you that day.

Tana Amen: He was laughing at me.

Dr Daniel Amen: It was hysterical, but I was never more in love with you that day, because I was in the Army. I was an infantry medic, and one of my first jobs was as an ambulance driver, and I realized that there are some people that go toward burning buildings, and there's other people than don't. I was one of the ones that didn't, and I used to sort of feel-

Tana Amen: And that's okay.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... Bad about it.

Tana Amen: Yeah, you shouldn't feel bad.

Dr Daniel Amen: That I'm, maybe I'm not hero material.

Tana Amen: No, there are different kinds of heroes, and I think we need to make that clear.

Dr Daniel Amen: Because when I was an infantry medic, I realized, I didn't like being shot at. It irritated me. It upset me. Like, "They're bullets!" You know? One could go through my skull. This is not fun. Where other people just thought it was the most awesome thing. "I get to jump out of planes? Well, how cool."

Tana Amen: See? Oh my gosh. That would be so much fun.

Dr Daniel Amen: Why would you ever jump out of a good plane?

Tana Amen: Okay-

Dr Daniel Amen: Why is that fun?

Tana Amen: See, I think I didn't get enough testosterone when I was born, because the idea of rappelling down buildings and jumping out of planes and shooting guns for a living, oh my ... That would be my dream job.

Dr Daniel Amen: Right, you asked me, isn't that what you always wanted to be?

Tana Amen: Yeah, and your reply? No, I wanted to be a Playboy photographer. What? Who says that? Who says that?

Dr Daniel Amen: Normal people.

Tana Amen: No, normal, like most men that I know would want the job, like jumping out of buildings and rappelling. That would be cool. Let's talk about the brain biology of what's going on in someone's brain that makes them run into a building, or not.

Dr Daniel Amen: It has to do with a circuit in the brain that involves an area called the basal ganglia. There are two big structures deep in the brain, and the pre-frontal cortex. On the inside of your temporal lobe is an area called the amygdala. We know the amygdala, when it works too hard, people tend to feel panicky, anxious, and nervous. That's also true for the basal ganglia. If your frontal lobes are busy, so like Chloe's, our daughter, she has really busy frontal lobes, she's likely not going to be that person who gets joy-

Tana Amen: No, she does not like karate.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... By running into a burning building.

Tana Amen: No.

Dr Daniel Amen: But if your frontal lobes are a little bit low, and your amygdala and basal ganglia are a little bit low, well, you're always trying to do things to turn them on. There are some people that are excitement seeking, drama driven.

Tana Amen: Yeah, see, I'm going to push on that.

Dr Daniel Amen: They love the fatal attraction for a relationship-

Tana Amen: Yeah, but I think-

Dr Daniel Amen: ... And that's not me.

Tana Amen: But wait, I'm going to push on that, because I think that's part of it. But I think there's another part of it. I think part of it might have to do with how you grow up, so like your experiences growing up. I know in my case, you came out ... I just have to say this, like preface this. He came outside, and Chloe and I were setting up a tent in the backyard, because, and you were like, "Why are you in the backyard in a tent?" So, it made no sense in your mind, and we are getting ready to do a survival course. A wilderness survival course. The second phase of the course, you don't actually get to use a tent. You have to build your own shelter, and you don't get to take food. You have to actually find your own food. So, you're like, "Why is that fun?" Like, "Why would you ever do that?" Now, for me, there may be part of it-

Dr Daniel Amen: Right, because I was in the Army, and I had to do that.

Tana Amen: Well, and-

Dr Daniel Amen: And it wasn't fun, so it's not like I have no experience with this. I've slept in a tent in the winter for three months.

Tana Amen: Right, and your idea of success is never having to do that again. But, part of it is, I didn't grow ... There was a lot of stuff from growing up, and I hate being a victim, like the word "victim" makes me ill. It's repulsive to me. So if something kind of scares me, like if I have a fear of something and it kinds of scares me, it's almost like, "Okay, I need to go figure it out." I have to figure out how to transform that fear into something more useful.

Dr Daniel Amen: So, bears scare you?

Tana Amen: Yes.

Dr Daniel Amen: You're going to hang out with bears?

Tana Amen: No, I have to figure out how to turn that into a more useful, resourceful energy. I don't like being scared. I don't like being a victim. I don't like it. There's this something about it that's like, "No, I don't feel comfortable living there, so"-

Dr Daniel Amen: So, you want to challenge yourself?

Tana Amen: Or turn it into something more resourceful, yes. I don't like ... Yeah. It's like, okay, what is this thing that's bothering me?

Dr Daniel Amen: I want to talk to the people who are more like me. If when something ... You've heard this in the news a lot, that if something is ... Someone's being attacked, that the people around them literally will freeze and not engage in rescuing that person. It's often because the anxiety centers in their brain are naturally overactive, and so in those stressful situations, they freeze.

Tana Amen: It's a biological reaction.

Dr Daniel Amen: Which is not the best thing to do, but it's what often happens when people become afraid. Rather than feel bad about it, what you're trying to do is overcome it, so that if you ever ... If we ever get to the end of the world, that you'll be able to live in the wilderness, right? In my mind, if we ever get to the end of the world, I'll peacefully-

Tana Amen: Say good bye.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... Transition-

Tana Amen: No, I'm going down with a fight.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... To the next state, right? Whatever that might be.

Tana Amen: You're hilarious. Yes. There are different kinds of heroes, right? We don't want to make anybody feel bad because you don't do something. I actually think we're sort of hardwired to some degree to do some of the things we do. I don't think to myself, "Oh, it would be fun to go jump in front of a pit bull." By the time I realized I was doing it, it was too late. There are people who we react in certain ways. I know women who have been attacked. Freezing wasn't what they wanted to do. It's a really scary thing. It's not by choice, I don't think.

Dr Daniel Amen: That there's a biology to it. And understanding yours, and there are ways to calm down those emotional centers in your brain, so that you can react in a healthier way than freezing.

Tana Amen: So what's one way?

Dr Daniel Amen: Well, the first thing to do is get control of your breathing. Is take a big breath, take a few seconds to blow it out. Because what happens when people freeze is their breathing becomes very fast and very shallow, so just something simple. Take control of it. Then make any movement-

Tana Amen: And the next thing is move your eyes from side to side. You tend to get tunnel vision, and if you can break that tunnel vision, that's one thing that will really help you as well. Yeah, start to move a little bit, because you start to freeze up, so for sure. Now, you could also train long-term-

Dr Daniel Amen: Understand your past has biology to it, and so if you've beaten yourself up for not reacting like you would have in retrospect, it may not have just been a choice. It may have had something to do with what was going on in your brain.

Tana Amen: We will be going out to the wilderness. You will be staying at home.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'll be rooting for them.

Tana Amen: Yes.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'll be texting them. I'll be taking care of the dog and the cat, and we will be inside, where it's warm, where there's cable, and having a good time.

Tana Amen: All right, so we will see you guys soon.

Dr Daniel Amen: They'll report on it.