We’ve all been there…Your partner said something that upset you and you responded with an emotional outburst…You received an email that annoyed you and you dashed off a knee-jerk reply that you later regret…
When we feel under threat and are scared and anxious, our brain’s processing shifts to primitive neural networks designed for survival. In this survival state, it is difficult to think clearly and to make wise choices; anxiety and fear inhibit the sort of processing required for good judgment, problem-solving, compassion and empathy. The more threatened we feel, the more likely we are to dig our heels in and fall back on rigid thinking and behaviours; there is no room for more adaptive behaviours such as negotiation and creative problem-solving, and growth (of the person and of his/her relationships) is inhibited.
The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex
The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain, which rapidly appraises sensory information for danger and, if necessary, mobilises the body into action by activating the sympathetic nervous system. The prefrontal cortex is a more recently evolved part of the brain, which converts our experiences into learning that can regulate and inhibit the amygdala.
Together, these two parts of the brain work to evaluate and remember the reward or punishment value of highly complex social interactions. On its own, the amygdala can process aspects of our environment of which we are unaware, making us automatically react to or avoid situations, places or people that have had a negative effect on us. It therefore has a very powerful influence on both our conscious and unconscious experience. So however aware we are of our inner experience in the moment, the amygdala can hijack us before we are even aware that it has been activated.
How to stay in control
So that you don’t say or do something you will regret later, you need to bring the prefrontal cortex online so that it can logically reevaluate the situation and give the amygdala suggestions as to how to react. It takes the amygdala hijacking chemicals approximately six seconds to dissipate. During those those six seconds, if you take deep breaths and distract yourself with pleasant thoughts, the initial impulse to lose control will pass and you will be able to involve the prefrontal cortex in deciding what action to take. You can then choose to assess the situation more fully and realistically: maybe the other person didn’t intend to hurt you; maybe they were just having a bad day, or maybe you just misheard or misunderstood. Perhaps it would be more beneficial for the relationship in the long term to make an empathic comment, to be assertive rather than aggressive, or to walk away and address the problem later when both parties are feeling calmer. The point is that when the prefrontal cortex is involved, you can make conscious choices.
Once the situation has passed, it is often helpful to reflect on it further, with the aim of identifying and understanding the triggers and storing your learning from the situation for future use. Over time, the amygdala will become less reactive to those triggers, which will be beneficial for your own personal growth as well as for your relationships.