As we navigate through life, it’s important for our physical survival that we recognize and act appropriately to dangerous situations. In these situations, we often don’t have time to logically weigh up our options and figure out the best course of action, and so our brains have evolved in such a way as to save us time.
When faced with a perceived threat to our safety, a part of the brain called the amygdala (which processes memory, decision-making and emotional reactions) is triggered and ‘hijacks’ the rational, thinking part of the brain. In other words, the amygdala decides for us whether we should stay and fight, run and hide, or freeze completely.
This is what is commonly referred to as the fight-flight-or-freeze response: very handy if a car is hurtling towards you, or someone starts following you down a dark, secluded alleyway, but not so useful if we’re simply arguing with our partner or just said something embarrassing to our co-workers. The amygdala struggles to tell the difference between real, immediate danger and perceived danger, i.e. although it’s painful to feel humiliated in front of others, it’s not going to kill us like a rabid dog would.
So how can we recognize when we are reacting disproportionality to a situation?
How Does This Moment Feel?
Learning to recognize our emotional reactions takes some time, and becomes better with practice. The more we tune in to what we’re experiencing in this moment, the more we remember to do it going forward, and perhaps most importantly the easier and more natural it becomes to do so. Therefore the best way to start noticing our amygdala reactions is to start developing a regular mindfulness practice in general, in the same way that exercising regularly now will ensure that your body is strong and healthy later on in life.
An easy place to start is to begin regularly asking yourself, ‘How does this moment feel?’ Set an alarm on your phone, or place a few sticky notes around your home or work desk if it helps you remember. Just take a moment to check in with yourself.
Try asking the question after something upsetting happens, like an argument, some bad news, or an unexpected bill, and get familiar with what happens in your body and mind when this stuff happens. Do you feel scared (like you want to run away), angry (like you want to fight) or numb (like you just want to curl up into a ball)? Is your heart rate elevating, your breath quickening or restricting, your body tensing and tightening, or feeling weak and fatigued? If so, you may be experiencing fight-flight-or-freeze. This is a universal experience: if you have a brain, you experience amygdala reactions, end of story! So don’t beat yourself up about it. Just try to observe it as best you can, so that you know how it manifests within you.
Once you’ve started to notice these reactions, what can you actually do about it?
Research shows that mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala and also weakens connections between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This means that over time we become less reactive to perceived threats and more able to think about how we’d like to respond. For example, when our partner does something that usually triggers a fight-or-flight response (i.e. makes a comment that we perceive as critical or embarrassing, yet isn’t meant as such), we can react more calmly and not in a way that then descends into an unnecessary falling-out.
Once we’ve recognized a change in our mood, like an onslaught of disproportionate rage or depression, we can then apply some helpful mindfulness techniques.
This could be focusing on the breath while we observe our amygdala-triggered thoughts. Any time that we notice our minds getting stuck, we gently bring the attention back to the breath, and continue to breathe through the reaction until it passes. Remember that the emotional reaction isn’t wrong or bad, but at the same time, if the reaction isn’t appropriate or helpful to the situation then it’s better to let it pass.
We might also try using mindfulness ‘anchors’ around us to help us come back to the moment. For example, try focusing on sounds, sights or other physical sensations that can help ground you in the present, again noticing where the mind goes, and each time gently and kindly bringing it back to your point of focus.
It’s useful to view this practice as a form of self-care. By taking proactive steps to guide ourselves through amygdala reactions, we can not only save ourselves from the harmful effects of prolonged stress in the body, but we can also avoid further negative or destructive situations occurring because of our fight-or-flight responses.
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