The Amygdala – Stopping Flight or Fight at its Source
by: Craig Peterson
Most people have no idea. Even less can say it correctly.
Let’s start with the pronunciation. Amygdala contains four syllables with the accent on the second one. Just remember to say “ah” three times.
Now that I’ve made you look silly, let’s move onto the message. It’s an important one.
The amygdala is a tiny yet powerful part of the brain – actually another bunch of neurons. It plays a huge role in our emotions, particularly those related to survival.
That’s right – SURVIVAL.
Buried under the massive cortex, the amygdala is part of the lesser known limbic system which also supports motivation, learning and memory. The amygdala – along with the hippocampus – determines not only which memories are accumulated but also where they are stored in the brain.
This includes the pleasant, desirable ones – as well as the not-so-good ones we’d like to forget.
In addition, fear, anger and pleasure originate from inside the amygdale – each connected to our ability to maintain emotional regulation.
That’s right – EMOTIONAL REGULATION.
For my children who experienced early trauma and were later diagnosed with PTSD, the amygdala went into overdrive. It even increased in size – as the research attests.
With “flight or fight” right around the corner, how did I respond?
The wrong way – I’m sorry to say!
Since their brains were stuck in high gear, I escalated behaviors into a full-blown rage – more times than I care to remember. My children heard my words but couldn’t process the message. Sadly, they were usually re-traumatized.
And “flight or fight” began.
With my newfound knowledge of the amygdala, how would I respond today?
For starters, I would avoid the direct, in-your-face approach. Commands – or demands – like “calm down” or “you need to stop” usually do the just the opposite.
“What’s wrong,” “why are you upset” or any statement requiring immediate insight probably won’t help either.
Based upon recent brain studies, I would put the much larger cortex – and its four lobes – to work and overpower the negative response from amygdala.
In other words, I would rethink “redirection” with highly intentional actions.
To engage the frontal lobe in reasoning, I might ask a relevant logic question based on fact – not a thought one based on emotion. Questions starting with “what, who, where or when” are a safe place to start.
“What did you learn yesterday in math class?”
“Where did you find your jacket?”
“Who’s the relative you trust most?”
To engage the parietal lobe, I might try movement if my child’s agreeable. Exercise has long been associated with emotional regulation.
To engage the occipital or temporal lobes, I might try visual or auditory stimulation. Pictures or instrumental music often do the trick.
Now it’s your turn.
Since no two individuals respond the same, don’t be afraid to learn from trial and error. Frankly, you have little to lose by trying.
Lessons learned – wishing I had another chance.