We all get our buttons pushed. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Our child throws a tantrum in the check-out line. Our spouse makes a critical comment about the dinner we spent a long time preparing. Rather than responding to these events in a calm and reasonable way, we may react in a way that suggests our higher brains have been “hi-jacked.” Each of us has our individual buttons or triggers, but when they are pushed the results are usually not pretty. (My children will happily tell you about the time I threw cold water at one of them when I “lost it.”)
The area of the brain responsible for this hi-jacking is part of the more “primitive” or “reptilian” brain. It was the first part of the brain to develop evolutionarily, and is responsible for scanning the environment to determine whether we are safe or in danger. The amygdalae, a pair of small almond shaped areas in the brain, help put our body on high alert when any threat is detected, and do so in a split second before we even have time to think about it. They send a message to the rest of the brain to run, fight, or freeze. This is helpful if we suddenly encounter a saber-tooth tiger, or need to move quickly to avoid a speeding car, but if the threat is emotional, the fight, flight, or freeze reaction is usually NOT the desired response.
The part of the brain I lost when I “lost it” is the prefrontal cortex: the more highly evolved part of the brain behind the forehead that is responsible for rational and reasonable thinking and impulse control. Even though I had no intention of throwing water at my child, when I became upset I went into the “fight or flight” mode. Thankfully the higher part of my brain regained control fairly quickly, and I apologized. We later laughed about my reaction, and my children now put me in “time out” when I seem to be close to the “water throwing” state.
Neuroscience is showing us how we can learn to calm our own fight or flight reactions when they are not in our best interest, and thus become our own “amygdala whisperers.” When we calm our own reptilian brains, we are also more able to be “amygdala whisperers” for our children, partners, or patients.
1) The first step is to become more aware of your individual “buttons.” What is most likely to cause you to “lose it?’ What circumstances predispose you to these reactions? (Fatigue, hunger, and stress are common predisposing conditions.)
2) When you recognize you are being triggered, BREATHE. Slow, deep breathing helps activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which acts as an antidote for the fight or flight reaction of the sympathetic nervous system. This causes your heart rate to slow down and gets the prefrontal cortex back on-line.
3) Notice the sensations in your body. You may become aware of a tightening in your chest or abdomen, teeth clenching, or muscles tightening. As you breathe, try to relax these areas. Mentally naming the sensations or emotions you are experiencing helps to calm yourself.
4) Mindfulness practices such as meditation or yoga have been shown to strengthen the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, and can help keep our “higher brain” in control. Brain scans have even determined that certain parts of the brain involved with integrating these areas increase in size with meditation and mindfulness.
5) Oxytocin, the “cuddle and bonding hormone”, can help calm the amygdala. Oxytocin can be increased in the midst of a tense interaction by putting your hand over your heart, a hug, or even holding a pet. (You may not feel like hugging the individual who is triggering the fight or flight reaction at that moment, but putting a hand over your heart and taking a few deep breaths might help you calm down enough to respond in a more thoughtful way.)
Just as it takes time and practice to build muscles when you begin an exercise routine, developing the ability to calm your amygdala takes practice. Paying more attention to the patterns of the “button pushing” moments in your life is a good first step on the path to being your own “amygdala whisperer.” Taming the primitive part of the brain can be vital to good communication and healthy relationships.