That red almond-shaped spot in the diagram is our amygdala…from the Greek word for almond…the part of the brain that can send us into the fight-or-flight reaction. When it believes we’re in danger it shuts down the thinking part of the brain and orders the body to take action. Clearly in some situations that mechanism can save our lives. If we’re crossing a street, say, and a car suddenly comes barreling down on us, we don’t need to contemplate the situation, we need to get the heck out of there.
On the other hand, it can cause us no end of grief if we explode in anger when our emotional buttons get pushed. We need to understand what’s going on.
How It Works
How does it work? The above graphic and the following information is courtesy of changingminds.org.
- Sensory data is sent to the thalamus, which
- Sends the data to the amygdala and to
- The cortex (the thinking part of the brain).
- The amygdala does a quick assessment, based on what information we’ve stored about danger, to see if the danger is immediate.
- If it decides the danger requires a rapid response, it shuts down the thinking part of the brain, and
- Tells the body to take immediate action.
This system works great when the amygdala makes correct assessments. Unfortunately, in modern life going into the panic mode or exploding in anger is apt to make the situation a lot worse. So if our amygdala fires in the wrong situations, we need to retrain it. Jason Zweig at the Wall Street Journal just learned how to do this. He writes about his experience in How to Control our Fears in a Fearsome Market. (At this link he also talks about it in a video interview.) He spent an afternoon in a neuroscience lab practicing “cognitive reappraisal”. He learned to look at gruesome images, for instance a hand with the fingers chopped off, and change his reactions by questioning his thinking, by coming up with alternate ways of explaining the picture. For instance, it could have been modified in Photoshop, it could be a prop from a horror movie, etc.
Retraining Our Inner Nut
Being one who could never watch horror movies, I wouldn’t like to take that particular workshop, but I do something similar almost every day. When I look at our daily newspaper I don’t completely avoid distressing articles, but I do limit my time reading them. And I use them as chances to practice stress management. Mainly I slow down my breathing to relax my body, and I remind myself of the secret of happiness, which is simply to ask myself every day:
- What’s good about my life?
- What needs to be done?
- How can I get this done and enjoy the process?
That puts the distressing news in perspective, and it keeps me from wasting time on things I have no control over. It also reminds me to live my life to the fullest, by enjoying what I do.
The Traits of Stress-Hardy, Resilient People is another powerful resource…we’re not helpless in the face of adversity. Our deepest fear is always that we won’t be able to handle what the future will bring. The only antidote for that is to keep learning and growing and developing our inner strength.
So that’s what I do to train my inner nut. What do you do? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.