The Hand Model: Understanding What Happens in Our Brain When We Face a Threat
Our brains perceive intense threats as if there are still predators that exist, like Saber Tooth tigers, waiting to chase us. How do we react when our boss yells at us, or someone cuts us off in traffic almost causing an accident? Our brain may pull a fire alarm, causing an intense threat reaction that may feel as if a Sabre Tooth tiger is near. So, what’s happening physiologically inside our brains whenever there’s a threat perception?
The Hand Model, created by Dr. Dan Siegel, helps us better understand our brain physiology. By understanding our physiology better, we can come to greater levels of compassion, empathy, and understanding for ourselves and others in moments when we experience intense reactions.
The Hand Model also helps us understand what’s going on in our brain whenever there’s a perceived threat that’s causing us to pull away and protect ourselves.
To understand the Hand Model, hold your hand up, palm facing forward and fingers together. Your wrist represents the spinal cord, and your palm represents the brainstem. The brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain, and it’s aptly referred to as the survival brain.
Because the survival brain is hardwired for survival, and it reacts in a nanosecond. If there is actually a Saber Tooth stalking nearby, this part of the brain will cause your body to react before you have time to think. You will experience fight, flight, freeze, or some other nervous system state to maximize your chances of survival. A more practical example of a survival reaction is flinching if you touch a hot burner on the stove. That’s happened to all of us, and the flinch happens before there’s a chance to think, consider options, and make a decision. This is simply how the survival brain works.
Next, oppose your thumb toward your pinky finger. This represents the limbic area of the brain, also referred to as the emotional brain. Within the emotional brain is the amygdala, and one of its functions is the brain’s fire alarm. The amygdala responds to signals from the body and will pull the fire alarm when it perceives a threat. Because the amygdala is emotionally driven and takes information from the body, it’s prone to perceiving false threats and pulling false fire alarms.
The nervous system pathways from the brain to the body and back are a two-way street. It turns out the information going from the brain down to the body makes up only about 20% of the traffic on those pathways. The other 80% of traffic on that nervous-system-superhighway is the body sending emotional and sensory information up to the brain. This means the brain is receiving significantly more information from the body than it sends to the body.
When the amygdala in limbic area receives emotional information that doesn’t feel good, it might pull a false fire alarm, tricking us into believing there’s a threat that we need to fight, flee, or otherwise survive. In reality, however, there is no real threat, even though the false fire alarm made us think there was. When the false fire alarm goes off, it’s called an amygdala hijack.
Finally, fold your fingers over your thumb, making a loose fist with your thumb tucked in. The fingernail segments represent the Prefrontal Cortex, which is part of the brain behind your forehead. The Prefrontal Cortex is the smart part of the brain that allows us to be reasonable, rational, kind, and compassionate. It allows us to lean in and socially engage with other people, to cooperate and collaborate whenever we’re not perceiving a threat. Therefore, we can think, make smart decisions, and be rational and intellectual when our prefrontal cortex is online and in charge.
What happens to the prefrontal cortex whenever the amygdala within the limbic area pulls a false fire alarm?
We “flip our lids!”
When we flip our lids, the prefrontal cortex goes offline, and we are operating purely from the emotional and survival aspects of our brain. The brainstem and the limbic system are working together to save us and protect us from a false threat that doesn’t really exist. This leads to moments of irrational thinking and behaviors–moments we aren’t so proud of afterward.
The Hand Model is a great reminder because it helps us understand the physiological responses happening in our brains when we face threats, whether they’re real or imagined. Understanding this can lead to greater levels of compassion, empathy, and understanding for ourselves and others, especially during reactionary moments.
To get our lids back on, we must work toward calming our emotional brain and re-activating the prefrontal cortex so we can think rationally, again. One way to do that is through the breath.
I recommend a slightly modified version of the HeartMath Quick Coherence breathing technique. Begin by focusing your attention on the area of the heart. Place your hand over your heart if it helps to keep your attention focused there. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of the heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual.
To bring more relaxation into the body, inhale to a count of 4 or 5, and exhale to a count of 8 or 9. With your eyes open, focus your attention inside yourself, and feel your body relax a little more with each exhale. Notice your shoulders dropping, feel yourself sink into your seat, and allow your muscles to soften and your jaw to relax.
It doesn’t take long to get your smart, rational, kind, and compassionate brain back online so you can get on with your day. It just takes practice.
To support your practice, download two FREE Breathing infographics with step-by-step instructions.
I’m Jennifer Whitacre, trauma specialist, empowerment strategist and shadow guide, and I help people strengthen their internal relationships through a process of SELF discovery. I guide and support my clients through the transformative process of developing SELF presence so they can shift from rigidity, reactiveness, and chaos into more flexibility, responsiveness, and connectedness.
People who are able to make this internal shift find they have more agency, decisions aren’t as difficult, they have more emotional stamina to deal with life’s ups and downs; and they have much higher levels of empathy and understanding for themselves and others.
The process is similar and unique for each client. Healing the invisible wounds inflicted from past trauma requires that we become familiar with non-verbal communication. That’s because the subconscious mind communicates non-verbally and unconsciously, the opposite kind of communication valued by the conscious mind. By understanding our own subconscious minds, the two minds become coherent and our lives naturally become more integrated.
Learn more at: jenniferwhitacre.com
This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a practitioner/client relationship with Jennifer Whitacre or with Jennifer Whitacre LLC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional. If you are interested in becoming a client of Jennifer Whitacre LLC, please connect by visiting: jenniferwhitacre.com
What’s happening physiologically inside our brains whenever there’s a threat?
There might not be Saber Tooth tigers hiding in a bush waiting to chase us anymore, but our brains still perceive intense threats as if such predators still exist.
How do you feel if your boss yells at you? Or someone cuts you off in traffic, almost causing an accident? Your brain might pull a fire alarm, causing an intense threat reaction.
The Hand Model can help you understand what’s happening physiologically in your brain whenever there’s a threat.
We’re going to learn what’s going on in your brain, whenever there’s a perceived threat that’s causing you to pull away and protect versus what’s happening in your brain when there might be a perceived reward that you’re leaning in and reaching out for. And this comes from Dr. Dan Siegel.
Dan Siegel has created what he calls The Hand Model to help us all understand our brain physiology, and just a little bit better. Because when we understand our physiology a little bit better, we can come to greater levels of compassion, empathy, and understanding not only for ourselves but also for others around us.
I’ll walk you through The Hand Model but you can follow along using the visual below.
We’re going to start out by just holding our hands up. And this part right here, the wrist, represents the spinal cord. Whenever you move up to the palm of the hand, the palm of the hand represents the brainstem. The brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain. It used to be called the reptilian brain, it’s now being referred to as the survival brain. The survival brain is more about its function. Reptilian doesn’t have anything to do with function.
This is our survival brain. This is what is hardwired for us to survive, and it reacts in a nanosecond. If there is actually a saber-toothed tiger that’s that comes within a distance where it’s going to chase me or attack me, my brain is going to cause my body to react in a nanosecond. Before I have time to think I’m going to react into fight or flight or freeze, or some other survival state of the nervous system to help me get out of there. This is also the part of the brain that causes us to pull our hand back really, really quickly whenever we touch a hot burner on the stove.
This is the nanosecond reaction when there’s a real threat. Now let’s oppose our thumb over toward the pinky. This is the limbic area of the brain or the emotional brain. Within the emotional brain is the amygdala, which is the fire alarm in the brain. There’s also another part of this called the insula.
The amygdala is what pulls the fire alarm. This is the emotional aspect of the limbic aspect of the brain, it’s very emotionally driven, and it takes a lot of information from the body.
Here’s the interesting bit, and this shocked me when I first learned it — the nerves and pathways from the brain to the body and back are a two-way street. We’ve always heard that the brain is the master organ. Turns out that the information going from the brain down to the body makes up 20% of the traffic on that superhighway. The other 80% of the traffic on that superhighway is coming from the body going up to the brain. That means the brain is actually receiving more information from the body than it is sending to the body. Keep that in mind next time you hear that the brain is the master organ that controls everything we do. Not exactly because the brain actually reacts to the messages that the body is sending it.
This limbic area sometimes is receiving emotional information, and it will pull a false fire alarm tricking us into believing that there might be a saber-toothed tiger that we need to run away from. But there’s not really a saber-toothed tiger. It’s just our boss giving us feedback, no real threat at all.
I talked about The Scarf Model in a previous video and what causes us to perceive a threat and pull back and go into protection mode. Check out the different categories in the scarf model and you can see how your emotions can get triggered by sending a message to the brain in the limbic area pulling that false fire alarm.
Let’s go on to the next part of the brain. Fold your fingers over and the orientation that we’re now covering is the eyeballs. This part is the cerebral cortex. The front part right behind the eyes is the PFC or the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the smart part of the brain. This is our executive functioning. This is what allows us to be reasonable and rational. It’s what allows us to lean in and socially engage with other people, to cooperate and collaborate because we’re not perceiving a threat. Therefore, we can think and be smart and rational, and intellectual. Our executive functioning is super important for us to be able to thrive and not just survive.
What happens to the prefrontal cortex whenever the limbic system or the amygdala within the limbic system pulls a false fire alarm? We flip our lids! When we flip our lids we are operating purely from the survival aspect even though it’s a false emotional fire alarm. We’re still activating this whole aspect — both the brainstem and the limbic system — to work together to save us and protect us from this false threat that doesn’t really exist. That is what’s happening physiologically inside our brains whenever we get triggered and whenever we’re pulling away and protecting ourselves from a threat.
Are you asking “How I get my lid back on?”
What do you do when you realize you’re in this reactive knee-jerk state and flipped your lid?
Let’s shift to a quick breathing technique. This is a HeartMath breathing technique. I encourage you to do this with your eyes open. You can even practice doing this right now. Or you can practice while you’re on the go, driving your car, walking down the sidewalk, or walking your dog. The reason I’m encouraging you to try this at random times throughout your day is that it’s not always possible to remove yourself from a perceived threatening situation, such as your boss correcting you, or your mom or dad yelling at you.
The breathing technique is to focus your attention on the heart or chest area. Do this by thinking about the heart or chest area. Another way is to rest your hand over your heart. If you’re talking to somebody in conversation it’s easy to rest your hand there and continue the conversation. You want to have a tactile touch. As you focus your attention on the heart or chest area slow your breathing down. It should be deeper and slower than normal. As you feel yourself slowing that breath down, start to count inside your head.
- Inhale to a count of five
- Exhale to a count of eight or longer.
Each time you exhale focus your attention inside your body and feel your body relaxing. See if you can feel your jaw muscles relaxing. Are you unclenching your jaw and relaxing your tongue?
Next, let’s move to your body. Check-in with your body and see if you can feel your neck and your shoulder muscles relaxing. Are your shoulders falling a little further away from your ear? See if you can feel yourself sinking into the seat with each exhale. The more you do this breathing even if you’re driving or in conversation the more you feel yourself relaxing.
What’s happening inside of you physiologically is that a long slow exhale hacks the ventral vagal aspect of your vagus nerve.
What does that mean?
That is key to the parasympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system. If we want to activate the rest and digest or social engagement system which is a function of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system then the long, slow exhale, while you are focusing inward on your body relaxing is what’s going to create that relaxation in your body.
The more your body relaxes the fire alarm signal turns off and your lid comes back on!
The more that you can breathe and relax the more you can think and be smart and respond with grace to whatever situation you’re in.
Let me know if you found this information valuable. Let’s spread the word and help other people because the more we understand ourselves the more we can exhibit self-compassion.
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