Evolution has programmed us to be on the lookout for danger. Without us knowing it, our amygdala – the “threat detector” and one of the oldest and more primitive parts of the brain – is constantly scanning our environment to assess our level of safety and alert us to any signs of trouble. It’s a basic survival mechanism with the goal of protecting us and keeping us safe. It was especially useful to us in prehistoric times when the threat of physical danger loomed large. But, location and the way our brain is wired, the amygdala can bypass the prefrontal cortex, the “executive center” and more newly evolved part of our brain, and rapidly alert the body to danger.
Previously, I shared an excerpt from my new book, Loving Like You Mean It discussing the importance of growing emotional mindfulness and reviewed the 4 steps to grow our capacity for it. Now, I’d like to share another excerpt about how and why our brains become programmed to react to perceived threats, and what we can do to avoid being controlled by this old programming.
When trouble’s afoot, the amygdala “hijacks” our brain and we spring into action before we’re even aware of what’s going on.
Here’s what happens:
When our amygdala detects that we may be in harm’s way, it sends out a distress signal, our nervous systems gets activated, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol get released, and our body is put on high alert. The sympathetic branch of our nervous system, an accelerator of sorts, revs us up and readies our body to fight off a threat or flee to safety – the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response. Our awareness heightens, our breathing quickens, our muscles tense up, and we get take action. Or, when escape from danger seems impossible, our body shuts down and we become immobilized as a way of protecting ourselves. In any case, the whole process happens in a flash, before our slower moving prefrontal cortex weighs in with an assessment of the meaning and significance of the situation. When it’s clear to our brain that we’re no longer in danger (“Ha! That’s a twig, not a snake!”) the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system steps on the brakes and our system calms down and returns us to a state of rest.
The amygdala’s ability to hijack our brain is a nifty trick when our survival is dependent on our being able to respond in a flash and without thinking. I know I’m grateful for its talents when, seemingly out of nowhere, I find myself slamming on my car’s brakes and avoiding a near accident (and a costly trip to the repair shop, for that matter). I’m willing to wager a bet that you do as well!
But, in general, the kinds of “threats” we encounter in our modern-day lives are more symbolic (like someone cutting in front of us in line, getting dissed by a co-worker, or the flash of an angry look on our partner’s face), than the life-threatening scenarios our early ancestors faced (cue the saber-toothed tiger). Unfortunately, our amygdala isn’t so great at telling the difference and we get thrown into survival mode when it’s not really warranted. Here’s where our rapid fire, non-thinking response to a perceived threat can be a liability, especially when it comes to navigating our emotional experiences in our relationships.
Remember, our amygdala perceives threat based on past experience. When we start to have certain feelings, needs, or desires with our partners, and our experience is similar in any way to emotionally-charged memories in which we were negatively responded to in our early life, we get triggered.
Regardless of whether our perception is accurate, our amygdala sounds the alarm that we’re in danger, our nervous system responds accordingly, and our defenses spring into action. Although the original threat of loss no longer exists, we respond as though it does and become unwitting contributors to our own suffering.
When we’re triggered, we go from stimulus to response in a nanosecond.
A button gets pushed and our default programming takes over. It all happens so quickly. But, if we could slow things down, if we could widen the gap between impulse and action, we’d afford ourselves some necessary space to be able to do things differently.
The key to being able to do just that lies in allying with our prefrontal cortex which resides in the upper part of our brain. The prefrontal cortex has been likened to an orchestra conductor. It oversees all the different “players” and gets them to work together to create beautiful music. Similar to a conductor’s ability to guide, balance, and shape the sounds coming from different sections of the orchestra, the prefrontal cortex has the capacity to calm our amygdala, regulate our nervous system, and say “no” to instinctive survival responses – essential skills for navigating the emotional terrain of our relationships.
But, the “top down” neural connections that run from our prefrontal cortex to the lower part of our brain where our amygdala resides are not as strong as the “bottom-up” connections that run in the other direction. That’s how the amygdala can so easily get the upper hand. That’s how we’re designed. Fortunately, our top-down circuitry can be strengthened and we can tip the balance in our favor. Mindfulness helps us do just that by strengthening our capacity for self-observation.
We can intentionally enlist the help of our prefrontal cortex by bringing our “observer” on line. Our observer is the part of us that’s able to see, watch, and identify what’s happening. It’s not thinking, it’s not assessing or judging, it’s just watching. For instance, imagine gently holding your experience in an outstretched hand where you can examine it in front of you. You can turn your hand to consider it from different angles. When we observe and describe our experience, we create a little space between us and it. Instead of being completely absorbed in our distress, we step out of it just enough so that we can turn and look at it more objectively. We can then identify and name our emotional experience which also helps to shift the power back to our prefrontal-cortex. We can more accurately see what’s happening in the moment, and avoid being controlled by our old programming.
When we’re triggered, we’re at risk for getting overwhelmed and helpless to do anything about it. Observing changes our relationship with our emotional experience. It becomes something that’s happening for us rather than the totality of who we are. We can look at our feelings without being unduly affected by them. In the doing, we not only change our relationship with our feelings, but our experience itself changes as well.
If we slow down and stay present to our feelings, we can disentangle ourselves from our early wiring.