A Cup of Coffee – When Your Emotions Take You Hostage

Welcome back!  Last week, we talked about Pandemics and what kind of food we should eat to maintain a healthy body.  If you missed that blog and would like to catch up, click HERE.

This week we are going to talk about emotions, particularly when emotions do all the thinking for you.  Why does that happen?  How can we identify it’s happening and change course?  Is it really a bad thing?

In our small town, our fire station has what’s known as a CERT program.  CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team.  It’s a training program civilians can take that teaches them how to respond in a disaster in order to assist an already overloaded system.  Firefighters can’t be everywhere, so you are taught how to properly size up a scene for safety, extricate people from the rubble, put out small fires, assess for injuries, assess buildings for structural damage, turn off gas lines, and triage folks who are in shock, injured, and in some cases, deceased.  You learn how to put together a makeshift morgue, sanitation stations, and…did I say put out small fires?  I did?  Yeah…about that.  I’m terrified of fire.  

I’m not sure why I’m terrified of fire.  I’ve never been in a fire or even know anyone who’s been in a fire.  It just scares the daylights out of me.  In order to pass my course and be certified by FEMA in disaster preparedness, I had to put out a small fire.  My head said, “Just do it“, but my emotions said, “Don’t do it!!  You’ll die trying!!”.

The day of my test came.  I watched the people ahead of me, including my 12 and 13-year-old children, put out the fire in the barrel.  Then, it was my turn.  I was it.  There was nobody else.  I was last to test.  The Deputy Chief who was fond of my children realized I was going to choke, so he got in my ear and said, “You have to do this.  Your children are watching you.  You have to show them that we do things, even if they are scary.  It’s called being courageous.  NOW PUT OUT THAT FIRE!  NOW, NOW, NOW…GO GO GO!!!!“.  

I did it.  I cleared my head, focused on the task at hand, and I did it.  But it wasn’t easy, and we are going to talk about why it was so difficult.

In order to understand why people’s emotions take over in times of stress (think about how folks have reacted to the COVID 19 Virus), we must first talk about our brains…how they are wired and for what purpose.

First, there’s the Amygdala.  Let’s learn how to pronounce this word, shall we?

This is a collection of cells at the base of the brain.  This part of the brain is where emotions come to life.  Our “emotional memories” are stored here.  Ever hear a song and you are instantly transported to another place in time?  You can see the jukebox, see your partner, feel their arms around you as you sway to the music…thank your Amygdala for that.  This is also where your brain processes fear and pleasure.  It is part of what’s called your limbic system.

Now let’s talk about the “Fight or Flight Response“.  This is something that has evolved in our brains over the years.  When confronted with something that creates fear, aggression, anxiety or anger, our Amygdala activates this Fight or Flight Response by sending out a signal that releases stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run.  When we were hunters and gatherers, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It allowed us to survive in very rough conditions. 

For me, the fire in the barrel triggered my fight or flight and I wanted to run.  You could have talked logically to me about that fire all day long, told me it was contained, explained that it was small, blah, blah, blah.  The fact of the matter was that my brain wasn’t having any of that.  It wanted to revert to the good old days and beat feet out of there.  

In modern times, the Fight or Flight Response is still helpful if, say, we are confronted by a dangerous situation.  The stress response gives us an adrenaline rush which allows us to lift cars off of trapped people, or run from someone wielding a knife.  

Moving on, as we tour our brains, we come to the Frontal Lobes, which are located in the front of your brain.  This is the part of the brain where thinking, reasoning, decision making, and planning happen.  These are known as “Executive Functions“.  

The frontal lobes are important because they allow you to slow down and think about your emotions, manage them, and respond appropriately to the perceived threat.  You are able to respond consciously to a threat, as opposed to the Amygdala simply reacting.  The Amygdala sees a threat and yells, “RUN!!!  RUN INTO THE NIGHT!“, but the frontal lobes see that same threat and say, “Oh…this again…no need to run.  Let’s just talk this out calmly and come to an agreement“.  Thankfully, the Deputy Chief was able to calm my Amygdala down and help me to cross back over to my frontal lobes, the part of my brain that cared what my children thought of me.  

Now, unfortunately, the frontal lobes can be “overridden” by the Amygdala if the threat is a strong one, or it goes on for too long, building up the tension.  This often results in sudden, irrational action that can be seen as illogical to those watching it happen.  

An example is a recent run on toilet paper.  The threat wasn’t the Covid 19 virus.  The threat was being quarantined and not being able to get toilet paper or supply chains going dark and stores not receiving shipments for weeks.  Logically, some said to themselves, “This isn’t such a threat.  We can use water and towels and wash them in the washing machine, just like cloth diapers” and “I only need one large pack.  That pack will last our family for three months“.  

Others watched videos online of empty store shelves, talked to friends who were “stocking up” on toilet paper, engaged with others online in chat groups about the lack of available toilet paper, and for some, they were suddenly triggered.  The stress became too much, and the Amygdala took over.  

These folks didn’t just buy a couple of packs of toilet paper, they bought shopping carts full of toilet paper.  Then they came back the next day and bought even more.  Their Amygdala disconnected from the frontal lobes and activated the Fight or Flight stress response.

A psychologist named Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to stress the “Amygdala Hijack” in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”  

An Amygdala HiJack, while being an overreaction to stress, can happen to anyone at any time.  It’s not abnormal, in fact, it happens a lot.  As a society, we just happened to witness it en masse during the recent pandemic, so we were talking about it more than usual.  

So what can we do when we feel this coming on to stop it from happening?  Well, first we have to decide if the situation really warrants the override.  Are you, or someone else, in danger, or is this simply a stress response?  Only you know the answer to that.  Other people don’t get to tell you what threatens you.  

If you feel as though you are ready to overreact, you will feel your heart pounding, you might have goosebumps on your skin, or you might break out in a sweat.  All signs that you are getting ready to jump from logic and reason to fight or flight.

The first thing to do is try to remain calm and walk yourself through the scenario.  Acknowledge the threat that is causing you stress.  Remind yourself that what you are feeling is the result of stress and you want your response to be rational and well thought out.  Focus on your breathing.  Make sure you are taking in measured breaths, not panting.  Slow yourself back down and consciously hand your thinking back over to the frontal lobes.

If you are struggling with stress and cannot find a way to self soothe and give control back over to the frontal lobes, then try meditating.  Find a good meditative video online and lay down for a few minutes.  Try to stay in the moment, listening to the video, may it be someone talking, music, birds or the waves of the ocean.  Focus on the now, not the stress.

If you find yourself being in fight or flight often, you may want to talk to your doctor.  Sometimes, especially when one has experienced trauma, it’s hard to stay in the frontal lobes.  Too many things trigger you and fear is what you live with all day every day.  Folks who have a diagnosis of PTSD often struggle with fight or flight moments.  Therapy can get to the heart of the matter and put you on the road to health.

This three-minute video gives you a great overview and offers suggestions to help us control our emotions and prevent them from being hijacked.  Enjoy…

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