My Amygdala Made Me Do It!

alarm
By April Hadley LLMSW

Imagine a world where each time you messed up or said something mean, you yelled, “My amygdala made me do it!” Although that may sound funny, it could be just the thing to help you step back from reactivity and take more responsibility for your actions.

Why?

The amygdala is the portion of the brain responsible for sounding the alarm when we perceive a threat or some nearby danger (see Carol’s recent blog post: Change Your Brain). The time between the amygdala sounding the alarm and our reaction is so fast we usually do not realize the alarm has sounded until after the situation has remedied. The chain of reaction from potential threat to action is lighting fast and it can cause us to react in not so helpful ways.

However, with just a few minutes of mindfulness practice each day we can learn to listen to our alarm system and to use the information it is sending to make better choices. We can choose to RESPOND appropriately to each situation, rather than instinctively REACT based on the clanging noise of the amygdala’s alarm.

I remember the first time I caught a glimpse of the power of learning to listen to my amygdala’s alarm. My three children were very young. I do not remember why, but I found myself sitting on the couch in my living room for a brief moment. It’s just as likely that I had walked into the living room to do something and promptly forgot what it was.

Head in my hands and lost in thought, my daughter, who was 18 months old at the time, decided to take advantage of my stillness and climbed up next to me. I immediately jerked away as if she was about to attack! In the past, I would have become frustrated and maybe even lost my temper. But this time I was conscious of the fact that I jerked away and being aware of my reaction allowed me to do something I had never done before.

At the time of this incident, I was participating in my first 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. I took the course as a last ditch effort to figure out how to deal with the stress of parenting three small children. Thanks to the practice of mindfulness, I was becoming more sensitive to my own alarm system. And for one of the first times ever, I paused and listened to what my amygdala was saying (“Danger! Danger!”) BEFORE I found myself stuck in a cycle of action and reaction. I remember sitting there wide-eyed and thinking, “Whoa! I just jerked away from my daughter as if she was going to hurt me!”

After I was able to recover from my initial shock and slight dismay at my strong reaction to my daughter, I decided to check out my reaction by doing the exact opposite of what my amygdala wanted me to do. Instead of jerking away more, I leaned into my daughter’s tiny body. And, as you might imagine, there was no threat or danger to be found.

What did I discover instead of a threatening, scary, presence?

I felt my daughter’s soft hair, her warm body, the tickle of her clothing, and her sweet baby skin against mine. My amygdala received the more accurate message that this was not a dangerous situation and turned off the alarm. It was a life-changing and hopeful moment for me, because I was able to interrupt a very familiar pattern in my life. I realized I could say, “My amygdala made me do it…” and mindfully chose to respond in a wiser and more loving way. In the end, I was able to wrap my arms around my daughter and share a moment with her that I will never forget.