Walking along a hiking trail out of the corner of your eye you see a bear or a snake lunging at you. For a split second you could describe in detail the color and size of the apparent threat, distinct markings the whole nine yards. Letting out a yelp, your body goes into fight or flight mode, adrenalin pumps through your muscles, your heart races and your senses become keen. At the last second, you realize you have made a fool of yourself because you are preparing to fight an old tree stump or a well placed twig in the dirt.
What just happened to you? Why did your brain fill in so many details that actually were not there? The short answer is your brains normal neural path which travels through the logic and reason center (neo cortex) has been bypassed in favor of the emotion and passion center (amygdala) to protect you from the real or imagined oncoming threat. Growing up, I have probably stepped on hundreds of dead birds or mice, my pet cats had strategically left around the house. To this day, if my foot so much as touches something soft and mushy on the floor at night, I squeal and scream like a little girl. (not to mention my horrific phobia of dead animals)
Freaking out on a hiking trail or stepping on a stuffed toy, at most, is embarrassing.. However, at work or in a heated discussion with a family member or friend… Freaking out is not too funny at all. We have all seen it happen to someone… One minute they are fine, joking and laughing, then something is said… and they snap.
We have all been there. A word, phrase or facial expression, tone of voice, sets us off. The mind roars into high gear, a torrent of thoughts, fear, anger and outrage. We blow up and out of proportion what was said, what was done. After our apologies are accepted, our behavior dismissed, we are left asking “What the hell just happened?” Again, the amygdala has been activated, this is the part of the brain that houses instincts, fears and troubling experiences, it is the epicenter of our emotional catalog . It’s the part of our brain that should not drive a school bus or perform brain surgery. When the amygdala is our active filter it is extremely difficult to accurately process the data rushing at us. When this occurs the brain adds information and strong emotions to provoke a fight or flight response. We may hear things that were not actually said or imagine things that were not actually intended to enrage us.
During times of great stress or anxiety a person is more likely to experience this kind of low grade “high-jacking” where they are responding emotionally to even the slightest threats. Well times are tough, and we are all under a lot more stress…
Here are a few tips if you realize your brain has become “High-Jacked”:
1. Retreat : Stop your train of thought and try to suppress your over reaction. If you feel too emotional, change the subject or drop the conversation until you realize what set you off. This may take 30 seconds or three days… the point is leave it there.
2. Realize : Analyze your emotional catalog. Who or what does this trigger remind me of? Mom shaming me?… Dad criticizing me? A tragic or painful experience that “mirrors” a few key elements? A childhood hang up being exposed?
3. Respond : This is different than reacting, this is responding. Reacting is the raw emotional data “coming outside”. Responding seeks clarification of the triggering moment, moving the thought pattern back through the neo cortex. You may want to ask, Is this what you meant? (Are you calling me a “slut”?)(Dads overused noun for me.) or This is what I thought I heard. ( Are you saying I’m a “dirt bag”?)(Moms favorite name for me because I used to have long hair and no job)
After some practice, you will get good at this. The person may never know they momentarily high-jacked your brain. Often our brain can run this three step process in seconds or minuets. Hopefully, the chances might be pretty good, you have misunderstood what was being said. A simple clarification clears up the angst and you can have a laugh about it. However, if you actually are on the receiving end of a sharp insult, you won’t need to think about it or rationalize it… You will know it.
( For more on “The High-Jacked Brain” see Emotional Intelligence. Goleman, Daniel. Bantam Books, 1995 This book is an extremely rewarding read.)