Daniel Siegel has illustrated the process of the anxiety response with the example of the hand [1]. 

It goes something like this:

Hold your open hand in front of you, looking at the palm.

(No! Don’t just visualise it. Do it!)

Fold your thumb across the palm of your hand and then fold the four fingers over the thumb.

Your wrist and palm represent the brainstem, responsible for survival instincts (automatic functions).

The thumb represents the midbrain where we store and integrate memories and hold fears.

The fingers over the thumb represent the cortex which processes perception, motor action, speech, and what we normally call ‘thinking’.

The fingernails represent the prefrontal cortex (approximately behind the eyes), a primary integration centre for the brain. This is responsible for various functions such as regulation of the body through the autonomic nervous system, emotional control, management of interpersonal relationships, response flexibility, intuition, self-awareness, and morality.

When we’re stressed or overwhelmed the frontal cortex shuts down temporarily. And thinking is ‘scrambled’.

Now lift the fingers from the palm of your hand so that the thumb is exposed. This illustrates the removal of the prefrontal cortex from the process.

The ‘high road’ through the pre-frontal cortex is blocked off and the stimuli are now going straight from the sensory thalamus to the amygdala along the quick and dirty ‘low road’.

Higher functioning coping strategies such as anticipation, altruism, humour, self-assertion, and self-observation are deactivated.

The trick is to keep on thinking and keep on the high road as much as possible.

But how?

This might all seem rather fatalistic if there’s nothing we can do about the situation.

But there is, and part of the answer is through gaining resilience by mentalising

Firstly, resilience … 




[1] Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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