Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

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The problem with being good at running away from lions

Humans are good at running away from lions. (Like, yes, a lion’s gonna catch us, but we’re good at trying.)

Danger equals adrenaline equals quick speedy fight or flight. Human bodies are good at this.

Some people grow up running away from lions every single day. Lions that sound like dad yelling again or the cool kids taunting you again or your relationships failing you again and again. Every day is scary and unsafe.

Traumatized people get really good at running away from lions.

Problem is, to a traumatized person, everything begins to look like a lion.

What good things have you been running away from?

When in conflict: 1 question you HAVE to answer

Fight or flight. Adrenaline’s pumping. You’ve been pushed and you’re ready to push back.

STOP!

Remember to ask yourself one question!

It’s a question we forget about all the time, but it’s what really matters to you in a conflict. We have a tendency to make knee jerk decisions before we stop and think. And even if we do take time to think, we tend to base our decisions on what would feel good. Running away, lashing back out, proving a point, putting someone in their place, taking a stand, not backing down. Sometimes when we make decisions that feel good–that our fight or flight instincts tell us to make–we later regret those decisions. We didn’t stop to really think about the one thing that mattered:

What do you want out of this situation?

It seems so simple. And it is. But we get stubborn. We get scared. We get angry. We get vindictive. We get tired. We get embarrassed.

Especially we get stubborn. A lot of the moves we make in conflict tend to be moves we don’t really want to make, that will get us to a place we don’t really want to be, just because we’ve been pushed and we don’t like it. . . . “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” – Aubrey de Grey

So before you burn a bridge, turn tail and run, or stubbornly refuse to compromise–ask yourself: What do you ACTUALLY want out of this situation?

Sometimes the way to get the thing you actually want is through boring, unimpressive, unflashy communication. Sometimes getting what you want will mean not doing conflict the fun way, the feel good way, or the badass way.

So when in conflict, STOP–before you do something you’ll regret–and ask yourself: What outcome do I ACTUALLY hope to arrive at? What do I really want out of this situation?

And then focus on that. Not winning. Not proving a point. Not defending yourself. Just on thatthe outcome you want.

Howard Baker - take emotion out of conflict