In the heat of battle with a friend or significant other, they suddenly throw a power punch. Heat prickles across your skin. Your heart rate increases. Your chest tightens. “Name one time…” they say. It was an easy question prior to the fight; now you’re at a loss.
Neuroscientists and psychologists call this experience “amygdala hijack” based upon the neurochemical mechanism underlying it. Most lay people call it the “fight or flight response.” In a nutshell, we all have two amygdala located behind our eyes/optical nerves. When we perceive a threat, they trigger a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones in turn prepare our body to fight or flee (increased heart rate, tightening of muscles, etc.). At the same time, they shut down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex (responsible for complex thought and decision-making), causing us to become disoriented, indecisive and forgetful in conversation (the talk’s over as far as our bodies are concerned).
Luckily, we can override this primordial biofeedback loop through mindfulness (the practice of being present). And we can achieve mindfulness amidst turmoil with a simple four step process. First, we must stay present: when we sense that we’ve been triggered, we have to focus on relaxing (many experts use visual cues, such as a tranquil pond, to latch onto). Second, we must let go of the story: the stress hormones will persist as long as we retain the negative thoughts in our minds. Third, we must focus on the body: feel whatever sensations we are experiencing without trying to exert control over them, paying attention to the different qualities/textures of those sensations. Fourth, and finally, we must breathe. Rhythm and smoothness are key here. For rhythm, inhale on a four count and exhale on a six count. For smoothness, focus on drawing in and breathing out the same amount of air each time. Using this sequence is extremely effective in short-circuiting “amygdala override.” With practice, the sequence can be completed fairly rapidly.