The Science Behind “Flipping Our Lids”


Have you ever gotten really upset about something only to look back on it a day or two later and realize it wasn’t that big of deal after all? Most of us have had a similar experience. We find ourselves apologizing to a partner, child or co-worker for something that we said in the heat of the moment that we would never say when we’re in our “right mind.”

We might say that we “flipped our lid” or “freaked out.” But what is going on in our brains in those moments?

In order to understand the answer, we first have to understand a bit about how the brain works. The human brain can be split vertically into three parts: the bottom, middle and upper sections. The bottom of the brain, the brain stem, is responsible for our most basic functions like monitoring our internal body temperature or our heart rate. The middle of the brain is responsible for more sophisticated tasks like generating emotions and our fight-or-flight response. The top of our brain is the home of our most complex mental processing. It is the part of our brain that separates us from every other animal on the face of the planet. The top of the brain is the home of things like morals, ethics and the ability to step outside of ourselves and examine our situation.

In a healthy functioning brain, these three areas are in constant communication with one another. Scientists call this “high road functioning” because we are using the high road of executive functioning that exists at the top of our brain to help us regulate our thoughts and behavior.

However, when we get particularly upset, something interesting can happen. The limbic system in the middle of our brain – the part with the fight or flight response – can shut down traffic to the high road and instead, send more energy to the middle and lower parts of the brain. Scientists call this “low road” functioning – because we’re relying more on the lower sections of our brain – the limbic system and brain stem – than on the higher areas of logic and reason.

This high road vs. low road function can be enormously helpful from an evolutionary standpoint. For example, if you’re trying to run away from a bear that is trying to eat you, you want to send information down to the brain stem to increase your heart rate and breathing rate so that you can run faster.

Unfortunately, what works for escaping an attacking bear doesn’t necessarily work when getting into an argument with our boss at work. You’ve probably experienced the sensation of your brain releasing a flood of adrenaline that prepares you to run away as fast as you can. The only problem is that, with your boss, instead of running away, you have to try and stand still and think logically. (Both of which seem to have instantly become infinitely more difficult to accomplish.)

In those moments, the awareness of what is going on in that moment – all of this information in this blog post – can become enormously helpful. Over time, by focusing your awareness on your internal state like your rising heart rate and faster breathing, you can actually begin to control them. By reminding yourself that you’re not trying to run away, but that you’d like to try and have an intelligent conversation, you can actually signal to your mid-brain that you’d like to re-engage the executive function at the top of your brain.

In other words, when you find yourself getting worked up, take a deep breath. Consciously slow yourself down.

By doing so, you can keep your brain operating on the high road and prevent it from falling onto the low road. The high road upper level brain function is the area where we think about the consequences of our actions. By keeping it online, we’re more likely to stop ourselves from doing or saying something that we will regret later.

Eric McClerren, MA CIT
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