We all have a built-in fight, flight or freeze mechanism in the middle of our brains called the amygdala (part of the limbic system). It has access to information before the logical, reasoning part of our brain - the frontal cortex (prefrontal cortex).
The amygdala has the first right of response and it’s only interested in 5 things: 1. Safety, 2. Safety, 3. Safety, 4. Food and 5. Sex. After it determines you’re safe (ensuring your survival) then it’s ok to eat (further ensuring your survival) and then it’s OK to procreate (ensuring the survival of your genes). This worked well when we were a hunter-gatherer population. If a bear ran after us we didn’t need the frontal cortex to weigh all of our options, decide on a best course and then engage our bodily systems to respond - we’d be bear food. That’s where the amygdala comes in. It responds without thinking, rapidly pouring adrenaline into our systems, increasing our oxygen intake, increasing our heart rate and directing blood into our legs so we can do what is best when facing a bear attack - get out of Dodge in a hurry. We call that a limbic response. It follows the rule - react first and think later!
Trouble is the amygdala can’t distinguish a bear attack from a dirty look from a spouse. AND, it doesn’t care about your relationship with your spouse, your job, your reputation, etc. It goes into action rapidly and we are off to the races before we have time to think about the consequences of our response. Later, when we calm down and the amygdala no longer has control, our frontal cortex reviews the events more logically. That’s why we often get into arguments only to think things through later and come back to apologize.
We can see in the video (YOUTUBE) two people in one car get out and punch the driver of the other car. It doesn’t show what triggered the limbic response which caused the altercation. If there had been a police officer present and the two perpetrators of the assault had been arrested, then the frontal cortex would have had a lot to think about. As it were, the amygdala couldn’t have cared less about the consequences - that’s not its job.
What are we to do? Are we destined to be victims of our biology? The simple answer is - no, but it takes practice. Learning to recognize the amygdala is taking control is the first step. Maybe you feel your heart racing, your breathing accelerate, a knot in your stomach, the sudden urge to lash out or get out of Dodge. Whatever it is, you recognize the beginning of a limbic response. Then it’s time to take action:
1. Leave. Take a time out. Get away from what’s making you angry. If you’re stuck and can’t get away, make an excuse to leave. My favourite which ALWAYS works is simply say, “Excuse me. I need to go to the bathroom. Can we pick this up in a bit (later, tomorrow).” Then use the time to calm down and let the frontal cortex take control. You could also try, “You make some good points. Can I think them over and discuss this with you tomorrow?”
2. Don’t respond immediately. If you’re confronted by someone who is angry, be determined that you will not respond for at least 10 seconds. Count it out calmly in your head and breathe deeply. As you get really good at it, allow the other person to get everything out before you respond. If you allow them to get it all out, chances are they will burn out their anger and be calmer by the end.
3. Give priority to your frontal cortex. If someone is yelling at you, angry or does something to upset you, become analytical rather than reactive. In other words, notice what is going on. Start by saying to yourself, “They’re having a bad day. I wonder what’s up with them.” As you analyze the situation you’re giving control to the frontal cortex.
4. Keep things in perspective. If someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s annoying, but it’s not the end of the world.
5. Nurture peace in your life. Take time to de-stress - exercise daily, don’t work through lunch, do yoga, meditate, reduce caffeine, work at improving your sleep, etc.