Ever notice how certain things can trigger your boiling point faster than you can snap your fingers? Oh, you know…that certain tone of voice that your spouse sometimes uses, or your children whining about something trivial for the zillionth time in five minutes? Certain things have such great power that they aggravate us instantly, and not by just a little. One minute you are calmly asking your children something when they roll their eyes at you and the next minute you feel like you’re turning into the Hulk you’re so filled with rage.
Well, to a great degree, this is not your fault. (Isn’t that a relief?) Your brain takes in everything it experiences and send it to two places simultaneously: to your amygdala located in the emotional center of your brain and to the thinking part of your brain called your cortex. Thing is, the route to your amygdala is quite a bit shorter than the route to your cortex, hence our tendency to act before we think.
Secondly, it is the number one job of your amygdala to protect you from harm. That is why it gets all incoming brain information before the rest of your brain does. If you are about to become lunch for a saber-toothed tiger, you really don’t have the luxury of time to think about what to do. In this type of circumstance, you really need to run like the wind, and immediately!!! Your amygdala considers every single thing that comes into your brain and evaluates whether or not threat is present. If your amygdala thinks you are in imminent danger, it will signal your body and the rest of your brain to move into “flight, fight, or freeze” mode on the double! And one of the side effects of this reaction is that your cortex really is out of the loop; due to decreased blood flow, oxygen, nutrients, and a flood of stress hormones, your brain can’t really think very well when your body is in this state.
While this is helpful when fleeing sharp-toothed predators, this life-saving aspect of your brain tends to cause quite a bit of commotion in our modern lives. You see, your amygdala is, well, hypersensitive. And everybody’s amygdala defines “threat” differently. So, while the eye-rolling thing doesn’t trigger my amygdala, it might totally trigger yours. Meanwhile, that certain “look” that my spouse sometimes sports brings out my Dr. Jekyll on the spot.
Now that you know about this, it will be interesting to notice when your own amygdala is hijacking your thinking. Even more entertaining is observing this in others! It really would be so helpful if we all came with a digital read-out on our foreheads that read, “HIJACKING IN PROGRESS – NO THINKING HAPPENING” when this occurs. But knowing your family as well as you do, you can probably identify some of your triggers, and theirs. This can be extremely helpful in managing your own temper and in helping your children learn how to manage theirs. Recognizing that your amygdala has been triggered and taking the time you need to calm yourself down before interacting with others is a good first step in improving our relationships with one another when tempers begin to flare.
Dr. Cheryl Blau is a middle school teacher at New Morning School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.