March 11

Giving Your Amygdala a Timeout

Disclaimer: I am not a neuropsychologist (but if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll remember that I had an epic bad date with one several decades ago). So I’m going to try to share with you something I learned at a lecture last night about neuroscience but bear in mind this isn’t my area of expertise.

So it turns out the amygdala is quite the trouble maker. The amygdala is that part of the brain that allows 120 lb moms to lift cars off of their children who are trapped, soldiers to respond to threats and people to flee when they sense danger. When the amygdala is engaged — for fight, flight or freeze — the frontal lobes of the brain (the part that makes good and thoughtful decisions) take a little nap. Some researchers refer to this as Amygdala Hijacking. “Oh jeez. He comes the amygdala, always the drama queen! I’m outta here for awhile.” So when you panic in a large or small way, your frontal lobe and your ability to make good decisions is compromised for about 20 minutes. The amygdala, once activated, clouds your thinking and decision-making for that 20 minutes. So, for example, if you oversleep and freak out, racing around the house cursing and throwing you clothes on in a panic, you will not physically be able to think clearly for 20 minutes.

This is a life-changing concept, this isn’t just “don’t be a drama queen.” This is how can you and I change the way we react to frightening, frustrating or upsetting things so we make better decisions and act appropriately. How can understanding the power of the amygdala help us better manage stress? Without knowing about the amygdala I began last year taking a deep breath last year before I reacted to upsetting or frightening news. I’ve been trying to consciously question myself when I feel the amygdala beginning to take over. Before I react, I ask myself, what needs to be done at this exact moment? Is this a serious situation or am I just frustrated that I lost track or time and now am running late? What I’m finding is that I can “talk myself down” or at the very least, not allow my amygdala to compromise my good judgement, dignity and energy.