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This Is a Scarf You Don’t Want to Wear

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I wrote last time about how our limbic systems are constantly on high alert, ready to activate the stress response at the sign of a threat. That’s a good thing when we’re in physical danger. But unfortunately it also can turn on in traffic jams, layoffs, arguments with our loved ones … fill in your favorite stressor.


This response is dangerous not only to our physical health, as I described in the last posting, but also because it causes us to lose IQ points—temporarily at least. When the limbic system perceives a threat, it dampens access to our prefrontal cortex, the highest reasoning part of our brains and impairs our ability to remember. This means that when faced with a challenge, if we experience it as threatening, we’re less smart when we most need our best judgment and recall. Uh-oh!


And here’s the kicker—social scientists have discovered that part of what the limbic system is always on the lookout for are five kinds of perceived social threats. The acronym for the five is SCARF:


  • Status: Where do I stand in relation to others?
  • Certainty: Can I count on the future?
  • Autonomy: Am I able to do what I want?
  • Relatedness: Are you a friend or foe?
  • Fairness: Is this fair or not?


If a situation triggers a sense of threat to any of these for you, off sounds the limbic alarm and you’re in fight or flight, unable to think at your best. I’m guessing that given the times we’re living through right now, many of us are feeling that SCARF very strongly around our necks.


Recently I spoke to a group of forty Realtors in a town in Northern California that has been in the heart of the real estate meltdown. Property values have decreased over 30 percent in the last year. I asked them to raise their hand if they felt threatened in status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness. Every person raised their hand for all five! So not only are they dealing with the economic realities of their livelihood, they are doing with impaired cognitive resources.


So what are they—and we—to do? Scientists say two things work and one doesn’t. The one that doesn’t is suppression—trying to deny that you feel threatened. In fact, that actually causes you to stress more, and lose even more reasoning ability and memory. It has one other bad consequence—it actually raises the blood pressure of people around you. Because they sense you are triggered but you’re pretending you’re not and so they start to feel agitated.


The two things that work? Tune in next time.

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