I’ve had an unusual invasion in my office lately. Lizards. I’ve had lizards in my waiting room, patiently waiting for their turn to be seen. I’ve had lizards in my therapy office, keeping a watchful eye on clients who are distressed. I’ve encouraged more lizards than I’ve ever met before to return to their outdoor homes. One day, while meeting with a client, I informed her that I had encountered a lizard earlier who I had not yet been able to release to the wild. I wanted her to be prepared in case he decided to be a guest in the session. She joked about the concept of the lizard brain and suddenly I was struck by how appropriate the presence of these little reptiles in my office were.
The lizard, or reptilian, brain refers to the most primitive part of our brains where our very instinctual processes reside. It is concerned with our most basic needs of survival, such as hunger and safety. It’s the very basic structure in our highly complicated brains that has us react without thought. When you’re barreling down the interstate and an 18-wheeler veers into your path, you don’t need your higher level brain in command. That takes a few seconds too long. You need your lizard brain, immediate reaction to swerve out of the way, slam the brakes, speed up, whatever it takes to survive.
The good news is, we are hard-wired for survival. We are capable of almost superhuman feats, not just physically but also emotionally and cognitively, to stay alive. But when the dust settles and the threat is no longer there, sometimes this survival network in our brain remains activated, alert, vigilant. It makes sense, but the intense surge that keeps us alive can feel quite overwhelming when the threat is no longer present.
When we’re highly triggered with traumatic memories or significant anxiety, we are in the realm of survival. Even if we’re sitting in a comfortable space, fully fed and totally safe, that very basic system remains activated. Consider all that our brain and body has to do to survive being pursued by a lion, for example. This might be happening as you sit in a meeting, at the dinner table, in your car, in your classroom. Imagine how overwhelming that must feel. Inside you are in a fight for your life, but outside normal life goes on for those around you. People tell you “let it go,” ” everything is fine,” “you’re overreacting,” “get over it,” “just chill.” They don’t get it.
It’s often the over-activation of this most primal part of the brain that brings people to my office. Because we have a very highly complex brain, we have the capacity to learn to manage triggers and access the reasoning parts of our brains, to be in the midst of stress and not return to basic survival instincts. But this cannot happen until a certain sense of safety is attained. And there are many skills we can practice to attain and maintain this sense and create a sort of workaround when the lizard brain is overactive. I am honored to witness the courage and perseverance of clients doing this work. Another testament of our amazing abilities and sense of resilience.
Thankfully, my little green visitors seem to be moving on now. But if I encounter any others and usher them outdoors, I’ll be grateful for that basic instinct hard-wired in our brains. It’s why we’re all still here, after all.