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Amygdala Hijack

Expansion or Survival Mode: Where Are You Located? 640 399 Thayer Fox

Expansion or Survival Mode: Where Are You Located?

Do you experience stretches of time when your brain feels like an old English manor filled with dozens of doors leading to unexplored rooms? Other times, does your brain feel like a cramped studio apartment? And like a Twilight Zone episode, you can be transported from the manor house to the studio in minutes? You can also spend years in the studio due to one traumatic event.

After my son fractured his skull three years ago, I spent two years in survival mode. Once the initial triage period spent focusing on my son’s recovery ended, I realized that the landscape of my brain was different. Assuming that my head would heal with my son’s, I sunk to a new depth when the doctor announced, “he can officially resume all normal 4-year-old activities” and all I felt was a claustrophobic dread.

When I am frustrated or threatened, my default setting is to use force so I picked up every heavy object I could find and banged it against the studio walls, trying to create an exit. When this didn’t yield any results, I reached for my AA tools. Surely I could coach myself out of this space after so many years of personal development work. This approach failed too because I still lacked acceptance.

Finally, a year later, I surrendered and saw a trauma specialist after reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. This book is easy to digest and should be on a universal required reading list. After a traumatic event, there is no returning to an old way of existing, the trauma must be integrated. If it isn’t, we subconsciously customize our life around it or numb out with the vice of our choice.

I was instructed to give up my warrior way and simplify my life so my brain could relax. Taking a break from triggers like crowded playgrounds was required so my brain could settle. Growth wasn’t possible if I was always cycling through some stage of recovery.  I started to read fiction again, upped my AA meetings, drank tea, walked daily and consciously reframed the way I spoke about my son’s accident. Internally and externally, I had said “the time my son almost died” hundreds of times. Trauma cannot be healed by talk therapy, retelling the dramatic version of the story creates deeper brain grooves, not relief.

I started meditating which was a never for a New Yorker like me. Desperate, I took a friend’s suggestion and signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. I will write a thorough article about that experience next because the subject warrants more than one sentence. Slowly, something started shifting, and some days I was able to stop by the manor for an hour or two.

It doesn’t take a traumatic event like my son’s accident to activate our reptilian brains. They can switch over into survival mode at any time, registering small events as significant threats. Our amygdala’s get hijacked regularly by everyday occurrences. My children press all my buttons and by 8 am some mornings, I am already seated smack in the middle of the studio. Other days I am there due to a bad night’s sleep or an argument with my husband. What makes the difference is re-orienting myself as quickly as possible.

By identifying my location regularly, I can usually avoid prolonged periods in survival mode. Because my thinking is curtailed in the studio, delaying decision making as much as possible and scaling back on potentially triggering activities ensures that I don’t unknowingly extend my lease. Once I settle into the cozy simplicity of the studio, my journey back to the manor can begin.

I love feeling expansive and long to inhabit my manor house brain always. I have to watch my tendency to feel entitled to permanent residency due to my optimal routine and habits. Shouldn’t daily meditation, exercise, healthy diet, and service work provide consistent access? Doing these things regularly guarantee that I will one day return, but it’s a day by day invitation. Time in the manor house is a gift that I can never take for granted.

When You’re Hysterical, it’s Historical 1024 683 Thayer Fox

When You’re Hysterical, it’s Historical

Have you ever experienced an immediate and overwhelming emotional response? As if a swarm of angry bees suddenly possessed your mind? Your heart rate accelerated as your body entered fight or flight mode? You called five friends to describe in detail the atrocity that occurred, later realizing that your reaction was disproportionate from the actual trigger? If so, then you have experienced an Amygdala Hijack.

Before I learned this terminology, I heard people in the rooms of AA say, “when you’re hysterical, it’s historical.” It took a while for this concept to sink in, but I knew right away that this applied to me regularly.

A few years into my sobriety, life got pretty good and yet I was often a wreck. Seemingly small incidents would set off my internal alarm system, and I would freak out. After a few hours, the overwhelming emotions would subside, and I would have to go and clean up the mess I made by overreacting. I got sick and tired of saying sorry. Around six years ago, I learned about an Amygdala hijack. Learning the science behind “when you’re hysterical, it’s historical” changed my life. Here it is:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala_hijack

The good news is that there are actions that you can take to diffuse this unbearable emotional state more quickly. Awareness is always the first step in creating change. Increasing your emotional intelligence will help you identify when you are in a hijack. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman is an essential book on this topic. Here it is:

Make a list on the notepad in your phone identifying your biggest triggers. Becoming familiar with your trigger list will immediately depersonalize the situation. Awareness does not prevent the storm from happening, but it will stop it from turning into a category 5 one. Once you realize that you are in the grips of a hijack, don’t react directly; focus on breathing and count backward in your head, starting at ten and repeating as necessary.

The sensation to release the upset feeling is powerful, and resisting the urge to share is the best tactic. If you cannot do this or need confirmation that you are in a hijack, speak to one safe person. Be mindful, that the more you tell the story, the stronger the swarm becomes. I sometimes ask my husband to support me, “I am starting to lose it, can you listen to me for a few minutes?” As soon as he confirms that my reaction is over the top, I stop talking. Another tool I learned in AA and utilize when triggered is restraint of pen, tongue, and email. Until the swarm is gone, it’s too risky for me to address the situation. An Amygdala hijack passes, and with older triggers, it can take an hour or two. The less time you spend giving it life, the quicker it will move through you.

My Amygdala was hijacked a few days ago. I haven’t experienced one for a while, and it was uncomfortable. I was caught up in a frenzy after a seemingly benign text message. Daniel listened to me patiently for ten minutes until I experienced a pattern recognition aha moment. One of my biggest triggers was activated – when I perceive someone has been dishonest by omission for personal gain. Sneakiness gets me every time, wiring back to a pattern in my family of origin. When I realized what was happening, I put my phone away in a drawer in my bedroom because I was tempted to respond. I counted backward as I paced around the apartment.

Walking is a great way to break up and redistribute negative energy- see my post below:

http://thegrowthproject.blog/move-a-muscle-change-a-thought/

I continued to kick the disturbance out of my mind every time it popped up and my heart rate finally normalized. I had done no external damage, so no apologies needed. I thanked Daniel and picked up a book.
That’s a win with an Amygdala hijack.