Remember Finding Nemo? Are you more like Marlin, who re-directs scatterbrained Dory? Or Dory, who can’t complete anything start to finish without becoming distracted? Marlin has good executive functions (EFs), or the abilities to carry out different goal directed tasks. Dory has ADHD and poor executive functions, and as much as we would like to think we bear no resemblance to her, the truth is that all of our brains have the capacity to go into scattered Dory mode if our fight, flight, freeze fear system (F3) is activated.
EFs are critical for us to plan future events and make sound decisions. Neuroscientists consider some EFs to be control over attention and impulsivity, mental control, mental shifting, reasoning, and problem solving. EFs are analogous to top company executives making higher-order decisions and are housed primarily in our higher-order thinking brain. But, just like in a company, if the fire alarm is going off in the building, nothing productive can be happening in the board room. Fear makes our brains react without conscious thinking and this can happen in the boardroom whether the fire alarm is real or just a drill. Your brain may create unnecessary fire drills when you simply think of a disturbing event and the result is that you temporarily turn into scatterbrained Dory even if you are normally a Marlin.
Although the F3 system has a good reason to exist in terms of our survival, too much of it depletes the body of energy, mental strength and overall quality of life. When the F3 system is activated, all non-essential functions in the body such as appetite, digestion, logic and reason shut down. This occurs because the body wants to focus all its available energy on fighting off the perceived threat. The F3 response also initiates the release of cortisol, a hormone that is inflammatory and interrupts your brain’s ability to form rational thoughts and make sense of events. Memories that form when too much cortisol is present can be triggered by events in the future and set off the F3 response again even when no threat is happening. So any external event or internal thought can set off the F3 response and creates stronger associations that lead to increased stress. Treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and Bi-Lateral Alternating Stimulation in Tactile Form (BLAST) can undo those associations, just like untangling the mess of Christmas lights from the attic.