Does a ‘Reptilian Brain’ affect Mental Health?

The Reptilian Brain can have an effect on your mental health – what is it and how can you control it?

When faced with a stressful situation, the human body responds with the fight-or-flight response. The sympathetic nervous system reacts, resulting a racing heart beat and increased sweating. You know that feeling, right?  And then after the stress goes away, the body returns to normal and we think – why did I react that way?

Well, it’s the old reptilian brain – the bit of our brain that tries to protect us from danger – from wild animals and other crazy cavemen.  Every creature in the world has it – snakes in the grass – crocodiles, wolves and humans – it’s a really effective piece of kit.

However, there are not many sabre tooth tigers out to get us in the UK these days.  Yet when it is trying to protect us……..against stuff that happens at work, in relationships or as we commute to work – we still see red!  Reducing stress reduces the need for the Reptile in us to go into protect mode.

That driver you spotted, showing signs of road rage, the other day – that’s the reptilian brain at work


A person’s job can be a source of stress. An overwhelming workload or a difficult colleague can leave us vulnerable to it’s effects. Stress is a magnet to the red mist of the reptilian brain. The Smart Leader takes care not to say and do things they would regret later – they get their rational brain to kick in asap.


Divorce is the second most stressful life event on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, but even positive relationships can result in stress. Marriage is the seventh most stressful life event on the Holmes-Rahe list!  When your team are going through life changing events you’ll probably see the reptilian brain checking in from time time – be ready for it.

Life Changes

Certain major changes in life can cause large amount of stress – both positive life changes, such as a pregnancy or a move to a nicer house and negative life changes, such as the death of a loved one. The death of a spouse is the most stressful life event on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory.  Environmental factors  add to stress level – noise and excessive light, can attack our mental health. Wherever there is stress the old reptilian brain will rear it’s protective head. Your job as leader is not to allow it to get ugly.


Stress also can be caused by a person’s inner thinking. Unrealistic expectations and perfectionism can result in stress. Pessimism and negative self-talk also trigger it. So, with all this stress around – how can we keep a calm and positive mental health – and keep the reptile in check?

Try these 5 things to protect your mental health

1.  Live in the present moment, which is the only moment we have, isn’t it.

2. Learn to allow things to simply be, rather than trying to control, resist, or fix everything around us.

3. Pay attention to the what is good in your life.  Even small things that please you like the sunrise or the daffodils springing to life in March, your child’s smile or the way the sun sparkles on the sea.

4.  Learn to observe rather than judge. Just take a step back from the fray of the argument.

5.  Notice your “reptilian brain”.  The first step in controlling it is to notice it and identify the action and impact of it. When you catch it triggering – notice it and say “got ya.” Take a deep breath and invite your rational brain to kick in.

Protect your mental health – why not sign up now for our Smart Leadership Programme in Birmingham on 17th May. We’ll discuss this and lots more beside which will help you to manage your teams more effectively.