- When your amygdala hijacks your brain's response, you feel intense emotions about a situation before you can think about it.
- Stopping, breathing, and trying to identify the source of your emotional response can help you ease your emotional anxiety.
- This strategy can also help you be more self-compassionate.
Have you ever been surprised by the intensity of your own [emotional] response? Or perhaps by the intensity of someone else’s response to a seemingly innocent question or comment? It’s biological. No, I’m serious, it is. And scientifically, it’s referred to as an amygdala hijack.
The amygdala is a small but powerful part of the brain that serves as the seat of your emotions. Ordinarily, the brain works like this: The thalamus (the central processing system) takes in data, and then sends it on its way, first to the frontal cortex (the center of your logic and reason) and finally to the amygdala.
Yep, most of the time, we’re supposed to think before we feel.
Your amygdala also stores some of your long-term memory, including emotional trauma. And when it receives data from the frontal cortex, it compares your present experience with your past experiences, looking for patterns. Biologically, it’s a good idea to avoid repeating painful experiences. But sometimes it gets a little out of hand. In the amygdala’s search for patterns, it tends to peek over the thalamus’s shoulder to see if it thinks something matches an old and alarming pattern. If so, the amygdala can yank that data straight from the thalamus, bypassing the frontal cortex — and now you’ve been hijacked!
The amygdala doesn’t let you think before you feel. It acts immediately to protect you from danger. And your emotions go haywire.
Just because a situation is similar to a stressful or traumatic experience in your past doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to be traumatic this time around. Your frontal cortex could have told your amygdala that if it had stopped to listen. Sadly, your amygdala thinks you’re in imminent danger, and so your response to what is happening is wildly out of proportion to the experience.
When this out-of-proportion reaction happens to you — and because you’re human, it will — there is a simple way to soothe this overly protective part of your brain called the amygdala.
Step 1: Just stop and pause
Even though your body and brain are screaming, notice what’s happening and pause by taking a slow, deep breath engaging your abdomen. Notice your body’s physical signals and manage yourself before engaging with anyone else. I’m not talking about stuffing or stopping the anger, but pausing and naming it so you can express it effectively, which might mean walking away for a while.
Don’t underestimate the power of three soft, deep belly breaths in the moment you’re ready to react. The breathing will help the intensity subside, and once that happens, you’ll have space and time to get curious about the underlying emotions.
Step 2: Get curious
Open up the pathway between your amygdala and your frontal cortex, and allow yourself to think, as well as feel. Pausing and getting curious gives you the space you need to move through your anger in a more healthy and productive way.
Once you understand what’s driving your anger, you have an opportunity to meet yourself with kindness and compassion.
However, even if you simply address the current source of your anger, you’ll be better off just by knowing and understanding why you’re feeling the way you are. The most important part of this awareness is that you’re kind and compassionate to yourself as you explore what emerges and develop a plan to heal it. It might be as simple as realizing you didn’t draw a much-needed boundary, lacked a clear agreement or expectation, or felt taken for granted. Whatever it is, being able to articulate what happened and what you need to ask to move forward will bring clarity and resolution, allowing the energy of anger to move through you, so that it no longer drains you.
A word on self-directed anger
We all know anger when we see it — in others. Let’s say you’re engaged in an interpersonal conflict where you’ve just politely declined a request to cover a colleague’s or partner’s responsibilities and have been met with pushback and anger. You might take the other person’s reaction personally, reverse your original decision and agree to take over, sacrificing your own much-needed downtime.
And then you dread it. Your body’s physiology is speaking loudly: brain fog, generalized fatigue, and a pounding headache. The thoughts in your head are on repeat saying, There’s no one but me that he can ask, so I have to do this. I have no choice. Resentment builds as you make your way through the task you felt trapped into saying yes to.
To gain clarity on how you got here, get curious, not furious. What if the anger you feel towards your colleague or partner is a way to avoid feeling a deeper and very real anger towards yourself? Though saying yes may not have felt like a choice at the time, you chose it. Your utter exhaustion has, once again, taken a back seat to the needs of others. Did you fail to reinforce a personal boundary? If so, why? Is it possible that you’re angry with yourself for not taking a stand and saying “yes” to what you needed?
This more covert dynamic with anger is a silent conversation happening between you and yourself. Don’t be fooled — the quality of your self-talk matters. Self-directed anger can quickly undermine your self-trust and ability to heal. It’s a lot easier to blame and criticize other people’s behavior (projection). It might be easier to focus on how inappropriate it was for the other person to have asked for the favor at all. You might think, I think it’s pretty obvious how overworked and tired I am. The nerve! He knows I worked last weekend because we were short-staffed.
However, there are two equally responsible parties here. And let’s face it, it’s harder to take accountability and see your own part in a situation (healthy personalization). When you slow down and look within, it’s almost like looking at your reflection in the water. Our external interactions often mirror how we relate to ourselves.
At moments like these, ask yourself, “How might my reaction have contributed to what happened? Am I really angry at the other person, or at myself?” Perhaps a desire to stay safe or preserve harmony drove your behavior. Maybe your natural instinct is to please others, and it’s a pattern for you to self-sacrifice rather than communicate healthy boundaries. Whatever the reason, the most important piece is that you recognize the patterns that are often subconsciously resulting in negative self-talk.
The antidote to self-directed anger is compassion, grace, and forgiveness.