The amygdala – the reacting part of our brain – determines our emotional responses by classifying incoming information as either potentially threatening or pleasurable. Whatever is deemed pleasurable goes on to the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of our brain – where it is analysed before it is responded to. But whatever is perceived as threatening is blocked and instead of moving to the prefrontal cortex results in an immediate reflexive reaction – what is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
While this is usually helpful (e.g., if you’re in the way of a moving car), the amygdala doesn’t make a distinction between what is real and what are just perceived threats. Thus, a reactive response might be triggered that is unwarranted and/or problematic. For example, you may freeze in a stressful situation that is not actually dangerous, but just perceived as dangerous like talking in front of a crowd or returning to work. Another name for this type of behaviour is unmindful behaviour (i.e., unmindful because the reaction occurs before your mind gets a chance to think about it). Conversely, when we consciously process information, i.e., when we think about things rather than just react to things, a time buffer is created between input and response which gives us time to analyse, interpret, and choose the best course of action. This is called mindful behaviour, a response that happens after our mind thinks about it.