Have you ever felt overwhelmed by emotion? Have you ever been so angry, sad, or worried you felt like you just couldn’t think? Or your thinking was happening, but it all felt really fast, out-of-control, and going in an even more emotional direction? Or have you reacted in a way that (in hindsight) you think was out of proportion to what was actually going on, like screaming or running away or sobbing uncontrollably? If you’ve experienced something like this (and I suspect you have!), then you’ve probably experienced an amygdala hijacking!
Now, you might be saying “What the heck is an amygdala, and how can it hijack me?” I’m glad you asked! The amygdala is part of your brain that is responsible for looking out for danger and setting off the response to protect you if it sees danger.
This was a really great thing to have when there were things like saber-toothed tigers that wanted to eat us, and it’s still really important for protecting us from danger, but sometimes it causes problems for us too. See, the amygdala only knows a couple different things to do – fight, flight (run away!), or freeze (and maybe danger won’t see me). The amygdala also takes over the brain when it sees danger, because if we’re really about to be eaten this isn’t a time for making a thought-out plan – we just want to run! So, the amygdala actually turns off the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for logical thinking and planning). The problem comes if your amygdala sees something as dangerous when it actually isn’t. Say your boss or your teacher calls out to you and you get scared – your amygdala is in control now! Or your partner doesn’t come home on time. Or you’re walking down the sidewalk and think you see a snake. Well, your prefrontal cortex wanted to tell you that your boss/teacher could be saying something good, your partner had a meeting tonight you forgot about, or that thing that looks like a snake is actually a squiggly stick, but it can’t, because the amygdala turned it off!
So, the big question is this: What can we do when the amygdala hijacks us? The biggest thing we want to do is bring ourselves back into the present and turn our prefrontal cortex back on. There are two major ways to do this:
1. Breathe! I know that seems simple, but breathing helps us slow back down from all of the adrenaline and cortisol our amygdala told our body to get into circulation. Any kind of deep breathing exercise can help, but I’ve found that people tend to do well with what I call 4-5-8 breathing. That’s breathing in while they count to 4, then holding their breath while they count to 5, then breathing out while they count to 8. You’ll want to do this at least 3 times. The fact that the numbers are kind of strange makes us think and count – which helps turn the prefrontal cortex back on!
2. “Grounding” There are lots of exercises that people call grounding, and the most frequently used has us really notice the world around us by using our senses. When you notice your emotions are in control, first notice 5 things you can see and describe them out loud (I see that tissue box is green and blue with stripes), then notice 4 things you can physically feel and what they’re like (I feel my legs touching the chair I’m sitting in. I feel my chest rising and falling as I breathe.), then notice 3 things you can hear (I hear traffic on the street outside. I hear the air conditioner.), then try to notice 2 things you can smell (sometimes that’s hard!), and finally, try to notice 1 thing you can taste. Be sure to say all of this out loud. What you’re doing is reconnecting with your body and the present, and you’re also thinking about these things, which again turns your prefrontal cortex back on!
Want to learn more? Check out this great video about the amygdala from Kirsten Johnson!
We often talk about a lot of these tools as something that people can use if they have a panic attack or anxiety attack, and that’s absolutely true. However, getting our prefrontal cortex back in control is something that all of us can use, even if we’ve never had a panic attack! Anytime you feel like your emotions are controlling you, you can breathe, ground yourself, or use many other techniques to get back to thinking!
For help applying breathing and grounding skills or learning more about how to manage your emotions give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group Orlando at 407-355-7378 to set up a free phone consultation. Myself and our other Orlando counselors are excited to work with you in Orlando individual counseling and Orlando anxiety counseling to help manage anxiety, emotional overwhelm, grief, or other stressors that are making emotional management tough.
Remember to breathe! ~Krista Bringley