The body responds to 3 types of threat:
1. Internal – like illness,
2. External – like a predator or bad weather, and
3. Social rejection – exposes us to the first 2 types of threat.
When we are presented with a threat, our intelligent brain switches off and our instinctive reactive brain takes over. The reason being that our brain was designed by nature to live in very dangerous times. If presented with a threat – like a snake, for instance – we just need to run, not think. Thinking could delay escape, and consequently get us killed. So, our slow-thinking front brain is switched off and our fast, reactive amygdalae in the middle of our brain are switched on. When the amygdala takes over the frontal intelligent brain, we call this the “amygdala hijack”, and we are then in the Fight, Flight, Freeze, Faint or Faun response. During this state, there is limited rational thought because rational thought comes from the frontal brain. The amygdala hijack results in our brains going into emergency mode while front brain is shut down. This explains why we find it difficult to think rationally during an argument, as our brains are in “fight” mode.
If you were to wear a heart rate monitor during an amygdala hijack, you would find your pulse would rise to over 100 beats per minute. In this article, I explain how you can escape the grip of the amygdala and move to rational and clear thought – the first phase being relaxation.
The Relaxation Phase helps you to release GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) through activation of the Vagus Nerve. This is one of the longest nerves in the body, and is named accordingly because it wanders like a vagrant through the body from the neck to the diaphragm. It also slows the heart and is associated with the release of gaba and oxytocin, which are both calming chemicals. The Vagus Nerve has the opposite effect to the amygdala, and helps the body to move from flight and fight into the “Rest and Digest” calm state.
How to stimulate the Vagus Nerve:
The Vagus Nerve is stimulated by diaphragm breathing because it has huge bundles near your diaphragm. In order to achieve stimulation, you must breathe from the stomach. Imagine your stomach is like a balloon, and concentrate on breathing through your nose into your stomach, rather than your chest. Next, deflate your stomach by breathing out through your mouth, while producing the sound “Haaaaaaaaaaa”. This practice activates the Vagus Nerve bundles in your throat, and should be part of your daily routine. A good indicator of just effective this can be is to wear a heart rate monitor and check your pulse every 2 hours before performing 5 or 6 diaphragm breaths (if you are stressed, do between 12 and 20 breaths), and noting the results.
The relaxation mantra:
Count from 1000 to 1010. Each number will need to be spoken after you breathe out – so breathe out and just before inhaling, say “1000”. Repeat the process until you reach 1010.
Say: “Thoughts and feelings are just a reaction,” and “These thoughts and feelings are just a reaction,” then “It’s just a reaction”. Every second the body has 10 trillion reactions; just saying the word “Hi” – equates to 10,000 processes per millisecond. Our thoughts and feeling are just reactions.
The Middle Phase
This phase directs you toward the calm and rational thinking of the prefrontal cortex.
Having a “safe song” can be used to calm the amygdala further. In other words, sing a line of a silly song to yourself, and repeat the word “safe” at the end. Do this 3-4 times. Personally, I like to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I then sing, “I am safe…safe” about 5 times. One of my friends sings “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work I go”, and another “I have thoughts, thoughts, worrying thoughts in my head” over and over. The key here is to make it really silly!
The next step is to say (or sing) “I am safe, even if I don’t believe it” a few times – the amygdala never believes anything because its job is to cast doubt in order to keep you on your toes (whilst the amygdala has no intelligence, it uses feelings to signal uncertainty that seems very real).
Give your amygdala gratitude – I like to call mine “monkey” or “myggie”. I will say to monkey: “Thanks mate, really appreciate you looking after me for all these years” and “Thank you for sending these warning sensations (feelings) to my stomach”.
Keep showing gratitude and compassion until you feel calm. This will produce oxytocin and to counteract cortisol, the fight or flight stress hormone.
Rational Reflection Phase
The Rational Reflection Phase moves you to the top of the stairs into the neo cortex. At this stage, you need to ask: “What story am I telling myself”. Don’t be surprised if you fall back into the amygdala hijack – just repeat the above until you are back to a calm state.
Offer yourself validating and balanced neutral insight. E.g. “It’s ok, this is an understandable reaction, considering what I have been through in my life. However, I am learning to cope, taking one day at a time”. You may even want to leave this phase response for a day or so.
If you’re in an argument with your partner or friend, try to give your partner space. Otherwise, two amygdalae could be activated which means double the anxiety, double irrationality, and double the hurt in fight mode. To help you both move to rationality, validate your partner and acknowledge their concerns. Tell them they are worth your effort, worth your protection, they are safe, that you have their back – even if they don’t believe it.
Also, if you are generally anxious, try implementing a “worry box”. Write out your worry and put it in a small box or envelope marked “worries”. Each of you check the box regularly and respond with rational, validating comments that acknowledge the other’s concerns. Remember, it’s ok not to know the answer to worries.