Stan and Tiffany came to see me for marriage counseling after an argument over the children erupted into a shouting match. Although they were each embarrassed that they had screamed and used foul language, what confused them the most was what they had said to one another in the thick of the fight. Both of them had said cruel, blaming words, and they had been unable to reconcile and feel close again afterwards.
When I pushed for more details, Stan had said things like, “You’ve turned out to be just like your mother–I don’t know why I thought you were different–but you’re not! I don’t even like you anymore.” Tiffany hadn’t minced words either, screaming “I hate you–you’re not a man, you’re a child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Don’t touch me!”
Stan had stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He slept on the couch, and neither had been able to talk things out any better in the morning. When I probed them each to tell me where they were stuck, they both said essentially the same thing, Each of them was afraid that the cutting words shared that night were the other’s deep truth. “If that’s what he/she really feels about me, how can we stay together,” they asked me.
Stan and Tiffany, like most couples, have never been taught about what happens when emotions take over the driver’s seat and grab the wheel. What they had experienced that night was what Dan Goleman named “an amygdala hijacking.”
Here is what happens when emotions take the wheel: The seat of emotions is in the old part of the brain called the limbic system–the part we share not just with all our fellow mammals but with reptiles. Animals in the wild and our early human ancestors had to be vigilant in order to survive, constantly searching for something to eat and, at the same time, desperately avoiding being eaten.
Similarly, humans are wired to react instantaneously at the sight of danger. This is why we are able to step back out of the way of a car zooming in our direction. There is no thinking involved. Our bodies go into automatic pilot, telling us to fight, freeze or run like hell. Only after the moment has passed do we pause to think about what might have happened if we had not just reacted. (Squish).
The amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped structure, controls this response. When it feels threatened, it will respond not just irrationally, but often destructively. This is precisely what had happened to both Stan and Tiffany during their argument. Something each of them saw in their mate–a look on their face, a quick body movement, a tone of voice–triggered the characteristic response of the amygdala. Suddenly two lizards were facing off, battling for survival.
The person involved exhibits a very strong emotional reaction. Give your fear or anger level a number between 0 and 10. Zero is no emotional reaction at all, and 10 is when you feel completely out of control of your emotions, perhaps striking out physically or taking off at high speed. When you think about it, very few things should get a response of 8 or higher other than actual threats of violence.
Most conflicts between couples or between parents and children should merit a 3 or 4, causing us to feel frustrated, worried, embarrassed or hurt. When you respond to a 3-level conflict with an 8-level response, chances are that your limbic system has taken the wheel.
Another classic sign of an amygdala highjacking is an emotional response that comes on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. Since the neuronal pathway between the amygdala and the motor cortex is the shortest, fastest route in the brain, suddenly seeing red is a major clue.
Since the goal of this trigger is to respond with either fight, flight or freeze, you will see a cascade of physiological responses as you or the person you are with becomes flooded with feelings. The body gets a rush of adrenaline. Your heart will pound faster and harder, your face changes color, sweat begins to form on your face and palms, and your calm rational cool disappears.
You can find out if you are flooded by stopping and taking your pulse. If your normal pulse rate is around 74, an increase to 90 means that you are flooded. Once the arousal system becomes flooded, there is no possibility of resolving the disagreement because the thinking part of the brain–the prefrontal cortex that enables our good judgment–is now officially off-line.
Although your reaction seems appropriate in the moment, when you reflect on it later, you realize it was inappropriate. Unless you grew up in a home where this type of reaction was not only common but was condoned, you typically feel embarrassed or ashamed of how you responded.
Stop talking (since one or both of you are now in “lizard brain”) and take a time out for at least 30 minutes, the bare minimum for calming down. Don’t engage until your pulse rate is back to normal. It could well take hours.
Make an agreement beforehand to separate when either one of you is flooded. Time-outs are non-negotiable. If someone thinks they are flooded, they probably are. It always goes better to say “I need a time-out” rather than “You need a time-out”. (Need I say more about this?)
Learn how to express your feelings constructively. While taking a break from an argument, some people are helped by a good cry or temper tantrum out of earshot, others by exercising vigorously, others by writing in a journal or talking to a friend or counselor.
Practice the art of apology and forgiveness since none of us can help it when our reptilian brain gets triggered. It happens to all of us, and at times when we least expect it, so accept that it is normal and has a life-saving function. Forgive yourself and each other for the loss of control.
Remember to reassure your loved one that your lizard brain said things that you do not believe are true. What each of us really thinks is what we share softly, calmly, and far more constructively, once we have recovered your ability to think.
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Last reviewed: 14 Oct 2013