Taming the Wild Amygdala…and compassionately breaking emotional habits

A friend of mine calls them “The Toothpaste Tube Wars.” In some households, they’re the “Battle of the Toilet Seat” or the “Why-on-Earth-Do-You-Load-the-Dishwasher-Like-That Police Action.” They start with a small skirmish over something minor, and quickly escalate into a heated battle.

Over. And. Over. Again.

We can get so caught up in emotional habits — like getting all worked up when our spouse does something that, viewed objectively, just isn’t that big a deal. But we end up reacting in big ways, going down long, angry or anxious roads to nowhere.

As adults, we “know better,” and in our un-triggered states, we even tell ourselves that. And we may vow to cut it out, to stay calm. We read books (and articles, and blogs) about what to do to have better communication. We may even clip out and carry the little script or “response options” that these sources offer.

Still, the next time that trigger comes — we’re off to the races. There’s plenty that, as a psychologist, I could say about “it’s not about the toilet seat, it’s about years of disappointment and hurt.” Very true, and very important to get to the heart of those matters.

But what goes on in your brain that makes it so hard to stop those dysfunctional habits, leaving you with an ice cube’s chance in Hell of ever being able to get to the heart of it?

Taming Your Wild and Precious Amygdala*

Consider the amygdala, a little wild thing in your brain that stirs you up so well. It’s a plump little almond-shaped blob located deep in your brain.

In the way it functions, your amygdala might as well be on the other side of the planet from your high-level, “I should know better than this,” article-and-book-and-blog-reading neocortex (that wrinkly, highly-evolved outer part of your brain).

We don’t know nearly as much about the amygdala as we’d like, but we do have this big clue: It serves as part of the basic alarm system, vigilantly scoping for things which might be dangerous. Let’s say… a lion. Or a spouse who is about to yell.

And because this is a basic survival tactic, and because this is a part of the brain that isn’t so highly evolved, the amygdala is missing a few advanced features. Like a “pause” button.

All so that you can react quickly to “danger.”

Without wasting precious time thinking about it.

And that’s the point: Emotional reactions aren’t the same as thoughts. The structures which are most intimately involved in feelings are like a completely different country from your “thinking brain.” Consider them as countries without a common border, vastly different cultures, and a completely different language, not even a shared alphabet.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have a good international, multilingual diplomat to help those countries communicate and work together. Well really, we all have one, but it’s not well-connected, and it’s, er, rather flabby and out of shape.

This diplomat — an area capable of integrating different areas of the brain — is referred to as the middle prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The mPFC is but one neuron away from many important brain structures — including your limbic system (home to the amygdala!) and your neocortex.

So how do you get this diplomat into shape, so it can go to work and bring about cooperation and global peace in your brain?

As it turns out… mindfulness meditation, practiced regularly, seems to do just that. Neuroscientific research is showing that it literally changes the brain in areas like the mPFC, making them larger, more active, better connected… and leading to better integration between your thoughts and your emotions, allowing you to use your very smart neocortex to make better sense out of the alarms sent out by the very protective amygdala.

So that when your frustrated spouse yells, you have a broader, less reactive, more mindful range of choices for your response. By taming your wild and precious amygdala, you can be in charge of your reactive habits, and have deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Wanna start pumping up your mPFC? You can download a free intro to mindfulness practice I’ve recorded.

*(with appreciation and apologies to Mary Oliver and her poem, The Summer Day)

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