One morning two years ago, I decided last-minute to swing into a Dollar Store to pick up some project supplies. As I stepped out of my car, I had a thought that I should leave my purse in the car. I immediately thought, “That’s ridiculous. I’m going into a store. I need my purse.” (Yes, I was actually having an internal argument with myself in the parking lot!) Next, I heard “Spin your ring around, tuck your purse under your arm and walk fast.” I’m a little nervous about my wedding ring at times, thinking it could make me a target if in the wrong place at the wrong time. (To my defense, the work I’ve done in police departments and DA’s offices have taught me enough to know these aren’t completely irrational thoughts.)
I listened to my thoughts that day. I felt as though I was on autopilot. I had tunnel vision as I quickly walked to the back of the store and felt I was supposed to be quiet and wait. “Wait for what?!” This all happened in a matter of seconds but felt like slow motion. I didn’t notice how “frozen” everything was around me….until the atmosphere broke. Suddenly everyone sprang into action and started talking at once. “Did anyone call the police?” “Did you see which way he went?” “Everyone, just stay inside!” (I get goosebumps even now while recalling it all!) The store had just been robbed at gunpoint. I do not recall seeing anything unusual outside. I don’t know if I passed him as I entered, or what triggered the avalanche of thoughts that started in the parking lot. But clearly, my brain had picked up on something that I did not.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons that act as the “watchdog” of your brain. When it senses danger, it sounds the alarm to the lower brain, which releases chemicals into the bloodstream and orchestrates the body swinging into action (much like the moment in the Dollar Store when everyone suddenly came to life!). The human brain is amazing, isn’t it?
Often times, we react to things without an awareness of what’s happening within us. While my external awareness that day was pretty clueless, my internal body was in full defense, ready to protect. You’ve likely heard it said before that the amygdala doesn’t know the difference between physical and emotional danger. Its initial quick reaction is the same (until the prefrontal cortex kicks in with its reasoning). While this helps us survive, it also causes problems in our social life. When your spouse says something that feels like an emotional attack, you react defensively–quickly snapping back, without pausing to process what was said (let alone what was meant!) While the brain is predisposed to defend, we are not at its mercy when it comes to our responses. With time and awareness, we can strengthen the neural pathways between the lower brain (fight/flight) and the PFC (where all the logic is at). The first step is increasing your awareness of emotion in the body. In the moment, remind yourself to stop and take some deep breaths before responding. Getting oxygen to the brain will support the “rational” part of the brain to come back on-line. But practicing the following techniques will also train your brain for the future so you’re able to remind yourself that you’re not actually being attacked, and a defense is not warranted.
Sit or lay in a relaxed position and imagine a laser slowly scanning your body from head to toe. Imagine the laser is connected to a high tech system that is able to register what’s happening within your body in a very detailed way. Temperature, texture, pressure, color, etc.
Shot of Emotion
Imagine I have a syringe and before giving you a shot, I explain that I’m giving you a shot of emotion which you will feel in your body. As it travels through your bloodstream, you will experience the chemical reactions it causes, and it will dissipate in 90 seconds. Imagine that you’ll be asked to write a detailed report labeling and describing the emotion when it has metabolized out of your bloodstream.
Run some models! While it’s our thoughts that create our feelings, sitting with our emotions often helps people connect with the thought that preceded it. As shown above, sometimes the lower brain responds to a circumstance so quickly that we aren’t even consciously aware of the thought we had that caused it! Once you recognize the thought (or several) that caused the feeling, self-coaching can help you decide if the way you’re looking at the circumstance is factual or just a narrative that you’ve created.
Once you separate your thoughts from facts and assess whether your thoughts are helpful, you can decide whether you want to keep or change them, so you’re more intentional in your responses, rather than reactive!
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