For a nation that prides itself on remaining calm, the past few months have brought a rollercoaster of emotion.
Whether we voted for or against Brexit, many of us are still feeling bruised by the campaign and its immediate aftermath. And far from this unusual period being over, we now likely face two leadership contests and months or years of negotiation to decide the UK’s fate.
These are not the kind of circumstances in which the human brain tends to do well. Rather, when faced with uncertainty, particularly something over which we have little – if any – control, our natural response is to feel stress. Our bodies respond to this stress by releasing the hormone cortisol, which revs us up for “battle” and essentially helps us to cope. In the short term, this natural reaction is very effective.
However, over longer periods of time, high levels of cortisol can lead our bodies to retreat into what is known as ‘survival mode’ – a reaction engrained in us since humans’ earliest days that, despite our evolution in so many other ways, remains almost primeval in its effect.
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This is because when we are in survival mode, our brains respond to the perceived danger by literally drawing blood away from all those functions that it deems not absolutely necessary to physical survival. Unfortunately, some of the functions included as ‘unnecessary’ are the higher executive ones, such as our ability to regulate our emotions, as well as to empathise and think creatively.
In survival mode, the bonding hormone oxytocin falls to a low, making it harder for us to trust and to collaborate. This is why when we become stressed for long periods at a time, we tend to become snappy and uncooperative. Human biases (whether age, race, gender, sexuality) that have to some extent been ‘soft wired’ into all of us become harder for us to suppress.
Furthermore, in survival mode – for both men and women – we release the hormone testosterone. In the wild, this would have helped us to feel brave and to face up to the menace that threatened us.
In the business or political world, a boost of testosterone will drive us to be riskier, more confident and more competitive, which in normal circumstances can help us to stand out from the crowd. But extra testosterone when we are under stress means that we are taking risks at a time when they are far less likely to be calculated or well judged.
On the bright side, it is possible to override our natural instincts to sink into survival mode. From mindfulness apps that help us to refocus to magnesium supplements that counteract the cortisol, regaining our brain’s higher executive functions will be critical over the next few months.
Those who can do it in business will be at an advantage. And if we can do it as a society, rebuilding oxytocin and collaboration may hold the key to redefining human survival in the modern world.