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4 Things You Can Learn from Your Lizard Brain

Have you ever experienced a fear so intense that you started to shake and get dizzy? A recent experience left me with a new appreciation of my ‘fight or flight’ response and taught me a few things about my lizard brain.

Let’s rewind to last Friday afternoon.

We left Portland for a bike camping adventure. We were both excited to spend time outdoors, ride our bikes, and explore a new state park. The beginning of the ride was fantastic. The air was warm, fresh, and the scenery was incredible. Everything rolled along smoothly until we turned onto HWY 212, near Boring, Oregon.

Yes, the road was legal and had a bike lane, but there were too many cars, going way too fast, and when a 18-wheeler semi-truck passed me, I completely freaked out. I started to get scared and became sweaty, dizzy, and felt sick to my stomach. I yelled ahead at Logan to “stop” but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the traffic. I kept pedaling behind him yelling for him to stop. Once Logan noticed my distress he turned around and asked “what’s wrong?”.

Logan was adamant that we only had a little more pedaling to do before we reached our turnoff to the park. But I was determined to find a new route to the park and get off the business road. Rather than argue on the side of the road, we decided to walk back to a less trafficked road and take a break. The break gave me a chance to calm down and look at a few maps. Interestingly, we discovered that we’d been going the wrong way and my lizard brain helped put us back on track.

So what exactly is the lizard brain?

Seth Godin describes this part of our brain as the resistance.

…the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

…The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because her lizard brain told her to.

There are a number of lessons you can learn from my story; ways you can acknowledge the lizard brain, but not engage it.

1. Acknowledge it.

Acknowledge fear. Acknowledge the resistance. And remember you can always change your direction. That might be literally changing your direction, like we did on our bike camping trip or changing the course of your career.

2. Plan ahead.

To some degree planing can calm the lizard brain. For instance, we should have planned alternative bike routes to avoid really busy roads. The same can be said for folks who are planning on leaving a day job.

The resistance will scream at you and say things like: “What are you thinking? Why would you leave a day job during a great recession? And what about health insurance?”

You can quiet the resistance and make your path a lot smoother by doing things like saving money and connecting with mentors.

3. Listen to your instincts.

I think it’s important to listen to your instincts before they start screaming at you. A lot of us go through life following the crowd and engaging in activities that society deems acceptable. Many folks aren’t happy on this path.

So it’s essential to listen to your gut, the little voice that says: “Hey, this doesn’t feel right. Maybe we should take a different path.”

Listening to your instincts might give you an amazing new opportunity. I think it’s a whole lot easier to find success if you stop chasing it.

4. If the lizard brain wins, what can you do to make the best of the situation?

It’s hard to regroup after you’ve experienced a high stress situation. With that being said, you can make the best of a bad experience. To do so, you have to give yourself time to calm down and make the best of what you’ve got.

For instance, after we regrouped on the side of HWY 212 we decided to keep pedaling. We turned away from Boring and headed to a different camp ground. Our ride to the new park was amazing. Being able to see local farms and Mt. Hood in the distance reminded me of why I love bike camping so much.

The lizard brain can take over in high stress situations. So it’s important to recognize the lizard when he or she appears. Take time out to quiet your mind, acknowledge fear, and think about what you can learn from the situation.

Micro-action: What can you do today to acknowledge your fears and move forward? What is your absolute worst-case-scenario?

Write that scenario down and then figure out how you can work through it, in the unlikely event that it came true.

And write down a list of possible benefits from you worst case scenario.

Note: Image from Seth Godin

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandi August 16, 2010, 5:52 am

    I’m fascinated by the lizard brain. The turning point for me came when I realized it’s never going away and it’s never going to keep quiet! So if I wasn’t going to get rid of it, how could I live with it? I came up with similar strategies, my favourite being – talk to it. Sounds weirdly simple, and yet I’ve found it works every time.

  • Mollie August 16, 2010, 6:50 am

    I am so thrilled to find your blog. The timing is perfect as this is my last week in the “cubicle” world. I will be going back to school full time. Choosing a simpler life is what has made my dream of finishing my degree possible. I love voluntary simplicity but when you are surrounded by consumers it can be difficult. Reading your blog makes me feel less alone in this endeavor. Thanks!

  • Alistair August 16, 2010, 7:03 am

    A nice reminder, thanks (I just found you blog last week, attacted by the word smalltopia)

    I find simply being aware of lizard fear very useful, as unaware it stirs up whatevers handy in my brain, then I get angry (or scared) about things that aren’t real. To fictionalize your bike situation: when you were shouting to your partner to stop, here’s where I might go if I don’t pay attention to my lizard self.

    “Oh yea, he can hear me fine he just doesn’t want to stop becuase he thinks we left late, but someone had to clean the cat litter. He never does. It’s like last Tuesday when … ”

    Not usefull or decent. Plus for two weeks everyone will wonder why I seem to be so grumpy when I change the cat litter.

    Cheers, Alistair

  • Sylvia August 16, 2010, 9:21 am

    What you call “lizard brain”, fear, or a warning anticipation, I think of ESP- Extra Sensory Perception.
    Years ago, my children still very young, living in Brooklyn, I went out, Saturday evening, to get the Sunday papers. About to walk home, I had a premonition of danger.From the store, I phoned my husband and asked him to walk to the corner, so he could see me walk down the block. Where I was walking, across two streets, there was a small wooded triangle block between the streets. When I was partially across, he yelled at me to keep going and go home, and he started running. When I looked over my shoulder as I neared my house, I saw him chasing two men. Later, I learned from his description that these were two former students in a school where I used to teach. One had been hiding in the wooded triangle area, with his pants open; the other was following behind me.
    If the rape had succeeded, they would have had to kill me as I knew them.

  • Harmony August 16, 2010, 9:29 am

    Great post! One thing I heard loud and clear, was the intricate communication that you experienced from the “you” that knows you are going the wrong direction, and the “you” that didn’t. It may have manifested in shock and terror, :-), but the guidance was there nonetheless.
    PS. So glad you arrived home safe and sound!

    • Tammy August 17, 2010, 1:20 pm

      Thanks Harmony! I’m glad we arrived safely at home too. πŸ™‚

  • karenhinoki August 16, 2010, 9:40 am

    I appreciated this post. Just a note that trauma, especially early trauma, can turn a lizard into a seeming-dragon!

    • Staying Anon August 16, 2010, 8:06 pm

      I agree with you about the link between trauma and fear/anxiety or the lizard as Tammy puts it. There are times when these things can get out of control and it’s very difficult to reign it back in. I guess there is the grey area where you may be able to do something about it, or maybe not…then there is that place where you really need some help to control what has essentially become a major problem of fear/anxiety within your life. Life is tricky sometimes.

  • Anonymous August 16, 2010, 9:44 am

    Damn, that lizard is what’s been driving me crazy today! Whispering all sorts of things to keep me where I am and not where I want to be. A lot of stress lately through a bereavement has stopped my mind functioning rationally – go from calm to jittery within seconds – letting the lizard take over. Time for deep breaths and a realisation that although I can’t change what has gone before I can change what is to come.

    Thanks for helping me see what my mind was doing!

  • Rayman August 16, 2010, 12:45 pm

    Excellent story about being careful, following your feelings of dread and danger. Too many bicyclists are killed or severely injured on our roadways, bike lanes or not. First, the two wheelers can be virtually invisible to car drivers. Reflective vests, safety blinking lights and helmets are a must. Secondly, too many drivers can be distracted, under the influence of legal or illegal drugs or modern conveniences like cell/text devices, nav units, radio systems, etc. By the way, for those with motor vehicles, Mrs. Strobel’s writings are an example of a calm and simplified approach to life and can also lead us to a calm and simplified approach to driving our cars. We do not need to rush every where we go, to pass all vehicles on the road, to run all stop signs and tailgate all those who are driving at less speeds than we wish to drive at. One of the major benefits is to be more relax and happy at our destinations, to have more gasoline in our tanks and to reduce the pollution we generate by driving. The Strobels have opted not to have any motorized vehicles. Most of us are unable to do just that. But, we can take it easier, use our turn signals, and obey traffic rules. We all profit from that. Regards.

  • Joanne Keevers August 16, 2010, 2:35 pm

    Wonderful advice, Tammy. We all have an inbuilt intuition within ourselves. The trick is to listen when it speaks. In comment #4 above, from Syvia, she explains it perfectly, when discribing how ESP saved her life. I saw an Oprah episode a few years ago, when she devoted a whole show to the topic. She emphasised the point that when something “feels off”, it is!

    I hope you enjoyed your bike camping trip, after finding the road you were meant to be on, but I’m sure you did. It’s a wonderful example of how our intuition never leads us astray. I love your sense of freedom and adventure! πŸ™‚

    • Tammy August 17, 2010, 1:19 pm

      Thanks Joanne! We enjoyed our biking adventure. The scenery was amazing! πŸ™‚

      Thanks for reading the blog!

  • Jim Abercromby August 16, 2010, 4:59 pm

    I’m feelin it:)

    Left dayjob in May.
    Going to Rutgers full time – Soc-Maj/Span-Min
    Selling my house

    Lizard brain talks to me alot these daze.

    I gotta keep the faith.

    Applied for some gigs in Portland and Seat. too.

    BTW-Did you used to do a bike related podcast a few years ago????

    Pura Vida

    • Logan August 16, 2010, 5:10 pm

      Hi Jim,

      We haven’t done a bike podcast yet although we’ve been thinking about starting something like that. πŸ™‚

      • Mark Owen-Ward August 16, 2010, 11:17 pm

        it’d be really cool if you fixed a camera to the handle bars – you could show how some of the drivers of those cars and trucks out there are using little more than their own lizard brains behind the wheel!

  • Katie August 16, 2010, 8:44 pm

    Oh, if I’d only listened to my lizard brain more often. Neat post Tammy and I like your micro-action. Often, just writing down that worst case scenario shows us that it isn’t really all that bad. Glad your safe and sound.

    • Tammy August 17, 2010, 1:17 pm

      Thanks Katie. Writing down the “worst case scenario” has helped me make many decisions (like leaving my day job). I think it’s a really good exercise. : )

  • Cajun Chef Ryan August 17, 2010, 9:50 am

    Tammy, great story and learning experience also.

    Suppose I could share a similar story, and more about what I used to call my intuition, but the Lizard Brain theory explains it in more detail now, especially with respect to the instinct portion.

    I was on a solo bicycle tour in the southwest, specifically, New Mexico and Colorado during the summer of 1987. I covered about 1,800 miles in two months, and crossed the continental divide more times than I can remember.

    I rode major US and state highways the entire trip, and on my second day out I was peddling along when I realized that I must have missed a turn, four miles later, it turned out that I had missed the turn. So, back tracking I found the correct intersection and made it to camp at the Jemez Canjon dam campground about an hour later than expected. But it taught me a lesson, to follow my instinct and “gut” feeling more when reading the map and observing the terrain.

    I have applied that lesson in life since and am grateful that I had made that mistake and learned from my actions.

    Your lifestyle is an inspiration!

    Thank you!

  • Charles August 17, 2010, 3:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Your story is so true. I have applied the strategy of being aware of situations that may cause panic attacks, but did not think about applying these things to my personal goals. One must always be ready for the nea-sayers.

    P.S. – I saw your New York Time’s article on MSN – Congratulations!

    • Tammy August 17, 2010, 4:16 pm

      Thanks for reading Charles! I appreciate it. πŸ™‚

  • Benjamin Bankruptcy August 17, 2010, 4:16 pm

    personally i freaking love cycling on highways you hardly have to pedal at all once your in the slip stream:) I remember looking down and i was doing 35mph without even pedling very hard. needless to say i tried to stay on the highway as long as possible

  • Preeti @ Heart and Mind August 17, 2010, 5:43 pm


    I think #3 is powerful, only if we listened to our own gut feeling. Many times I have regretted the choice when I did not listen to my instincts.

  • Lindsay August 17, 2010, 6:00 pm

    I AM very intrigued by this lizard brain stuff AND I am more intrigued by the fact that I just started following Seth Godin’s blog this morning and then I came to yours to check it tonight and you have written something in reference to Seth Godin. Serendipitous..

  • Eve August 19, 2010, 2:59 am

    I have been told that Dr Edward Bach’s rescue remedy is good for panic attacks and can help calm the mind when in states of fear and panic.
    I know what you mean about listening to your gut feelings though, many times I have been in situations where mine has proved right and I am glad I have taken notice of it and acted accordingly. Don’t ignore you gut feelings, it’s there for a reason. To help you.

  • Andrew August 30, 2010, 4:00 am

    Oh the poor Lizard brain. It’s like a loyal bad dog who loves you but cannot help his tendencies. When you take him for walk in the park as both of you go home for dinner he has to chase that squirrel when he sees one. Then that tennis ball, oh wait there’s a half eaten hamburger in the grass, nows there’s another female dog with a interesting smell.

    The poor dog cannot help himself running around from moment to moment each one gets his attention and forgets the previous ones.

    I have a question for you. Who is taking who for a walk in the park? Is the master taking the dog for a walk? or is the dog taking the master for one? The dog being the lizard brain and intellect, and the master being your consciousness.