Meet the Hijackers

In Parts 2 and 3 of this blog series you learned about the mental and physical consequences of stress. In this part of the series we will discuss triggers. When the brain perceives that someone has made or plans to make a change of perceived importance the mind is triggered and a stress response (fight-flight) follows. There are individual differences, including genetic predisposition, environmental influences, and sex-related differences, in humans and animals, that cause variations in triggering the brain mechanisms of emotional behavior. But, generally, one’s interpretation of events and situations act in a feedback loop with past emotional experiences. This feedback loop can lead humans and animals to exhibit any number of anxiety disorders, phobias, and post traumatic stress. That being said, let’s look into what items our mind might consider important enough to allow itself to be hijacked. It’s time to meet the true hijackers and learn how change arms them to hijack the brain.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is a theory of psychological health grounded in the idea humans strive to fulfill innate needs, by priority. Physiological safety is the foundational need; self-actualization is the highest order need. Recent research validates the existence of universal human needs, although the hierarchy proposed by Maslow is called into question. But for the sake of modeling some aspects of behavior Maslow’s hierarchy is still wonderfully illustrative.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs:” esteem, social belonging, security, and physiological needs. If “deficiency needs” are not met, with the exception of physiological needs, there may not be a physical indication. But the person will feel anxious or tense, in other words stressed. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire or focus upon higher level needs. The implication is also clear that once a need has been fulfilled, having it changed is a stressful and potentially traumatic event. Anytime the brain perceives that someone has changed or plans to change the attainment of one of the needs the mind is triggered, the stress response sets in, and the brain is a target for hijacking.

Meeting the Needs

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Physiological needs are thought to be the most important; they should be met first. This is the first and basic need on the hierarchy of needs. Without them, the other needs cannot follow up. Physiological needs include: air, water, food, sleep, and clothing/shelter. When these needs are not met, or there is a change in how they are met, the stress response is triggered rapidly and massively.

Security needs become the dominant behavior drivers once physiological needs are relatively satisfied. Security needs include: physical security, emotional security, financial security, health and well-being. In the absence of physical security, due to war, natural disaster, violence, etc., people may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or transgenerational trauma. In the absence of economic security due to economic crisis or lack of work opportunities, security needs manifest themselves as extreme or unreasonable preference for job or financial security or airing of grievances. Security needs are about keeping us safe from harm. If a person or animal does not feel secure, or there is a change in the level of security, the stress response is triggered nearly as quickly and aggressively as if an existential threat was being experienced.

Social belonging, the third level of need is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness, love, intimacy, and friendship. A strong desire to feel a sense of acceptance among social groups, regardless of whether these groups are large or small. Some examples of social connections include family members, intimate partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants. This need can sometimes override the need for physical security as witnessed when people stay in abusive relationships with parents, spouses, or friends. Deficiencies within this need due to hospitalism, neglect, shunning, ostracism, constant relocation, etc. can adversely affect the individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships or lead to social phobias, depression and anxiety disorders. When one’s sense of social belonging is threatened with a change, the stress response is triggered. Sometimes it happens more slowly depending how long it takes the triggered event to “set in.” However, the response can still be aggressive and seemingly out of proportion with the threat being experienced.

Esteem is the concern with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others. Esteem presents itself as the desire to be accepted and valued by others. People often engage in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. These activities give the person a sense of contribution or value. Psychological imbalances such as depression can hinder the person from obtaining a higher level of self-esteem or self-respect. The need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom are esteem needs. As with social belonging when one’s self-esteem is threatened with a change, stress is triggered sometimes more slowly due to the time it takes for the triggering event take to “set in.” And again, an out of proportion response can be aggressive with the threat being.

Self-actualization refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. It is the human desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed athletically. For others, it may be expressed in paintings, pictures, or inventions. This is the need for mastery in one’s field of endeavor. As with esteem the realization of the triggering event to self-actualization change can be slow to set in, however the response is often as strong as if an existential threat were being experienced.

In installment 4 of this blog series you learned the mental and physical consequences of stress can be set off when the brain perceives a change for something of perceived importance, hijacking the mind and eliciting a stress response. Managers and change leaders should know that just because a change is not a truly existential threat, the brain can perceive the loss of a fulfilled higher order need nearly as traumatically as if it were. In the fifth and sixth installments of this blog we will discuss five tricks that can be used immediately in stress causing situations to help the brain from being hijacked.

This blog post is part of a six-part series:

  1. Have You Ever Heard…?
  2. A Little Neuroscience
  3. That Can’t Be Healthy
  4. Meet the Hijackers
  5. Beat the Hijackers
  6. Strategies for Beating the Hijackers