While your thinking brain has several ways of containing and controlling emotional reactions (neuroscientists are mapping these out as you are reading this) your emotional brain has one giant kill switch that allows it to pull the plug on the thinking brain. The way this works is that your thinking brain has two sets of sensors for stress hormones. One set of sensors is sensitive to low levels of stress hormones and they increase the activity of your thinking brain. If you are a little nervous about making that presentation to your boss it can give you a little bit of an edge and you often actually do better. However, the second set of sensors are only sensitive to high levels of stress hormones. When high levels of stress activate these sensors they have the opposite effect, they pull the plug on your thinking brain, reducing activity. This second set of sensors are there to make sure that when a 500-lb bear is chasing you and you only have 3.5 seconds to make a life or death decision – that you are not going to over think it. If you have to make a life or death decision in 3.5 seconds, its not the time to brainstorm the pros and cons of the 10 best ways of getting away from the bear. The 7th option may actually be the best, however, by the time you get around to considering it, the bear is going to already be chewing on your ankle. So your brain is set up to give over the reigns to your emotional brain in extreme high stress situations.
So the next time you choke or freeze, the next time your mind goes blank at the very worst moment – just remember that its just your brain trying to protect you by making sure that you don’t overthink things.