How many times did your mum tell you to count to ten, take a deep breath and stay calm – when you got hot under the collar about something as a kid?
My mum did this with annoying regularity. She also had an irritating habit of trying to get me to put myself in the shoes of others or at least to give them the benefit of the doubt – none of which I wanted to hear when I was JUSTIFIABLY angry about something! Ha!
That “drilling” however, has I think, instilled in me what I would say is now a quite “intuitive” way of responding to things that push my buttons.
Well most of the time! I am sure my friends and family will gleefully remind me of the multiple times I have lost my bundle!
As a lawyer helping clients manage the disputes that can follow over inheritances – I witness things get pretty heated. I have (probably quite annoyingly) told my clients to take some deep breaths, count to ten (or one hundred!) and try to stay calm in the face of what can be quite awful exchanges.
Last Friday I attended an advanced collaborative training course – and I learnt some of the neuroscience behind how we respond to things that push our buttons an why it is so important to try to stay calm – particularly during negotiations when rational decisions are pretty important to make!
While I don’t plan to discuss the neuroscience in depth here, if you can take a minute to understand it, you will likely be so much better prepared the next time something ticks you off, and you will then know how to cope with it quickly and effectively.
The Amygdala Hijack
We all know what it is like to react to things in the heat of the moment. When we do or say things that we regret later in response to something that we perceive as a threat or an insult.
This immediate emotional and often disproportionate reaction was first described by Daniel Goleman the author of “Emotional Intelligence” as an Amygdala Hijack. The frontal lobe of our brain is the part of our brain responsible for our logical thinking and conscious thought. The Amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for our emotional reaction. If something happens that we perceive as a threat or an insult our Amygdala can literally hijack that part of the brain that thinks logically and cause us to react in a way we wouldn’t otherwise.
When someone says or does something that pushes your buttons it will without a doubt trigger an emotional reaction in you. It might cause anger, fear, upset, confusion or it might just make you want to give up.
When that happens, adrenaline and cortisol is sent coursing through your body and you become ready for a “fight or flight” response. You know the feeling – you get a sudden rush of emotion that you can almost literally feel course through your body. You can feel cold and frozen or you can feel quite hot and animated – sometimes in quick succession! And it can take you quite a bit of time to calm down. In fact, research shows that the effects of an Amygdala Hijack can last like a “hangover” for up to four hours until our brain and body recovers to the point where it can once again function logically and rationally.
That’s the bad news.
The good news
The good news is that you can train your brain to deal with that type of hijack quickly. Many of our armed forces, our policemen and women, paramedics, doctors, pilots etc are all trained in this way so that they can react logically and rationally in circumstances where otherwise panic might set in for the rest of us.
My mum used to tell me to count to 10 before responding. Interestingly from a neuroscience perspective this is actually a very effective tool to use! Why? Because it makes you “switch on” your frontal lobe, logical brain which is the part of the brain you need to flip back to being rational. Counting actually makes you mindfully use your logical brain which can counteract the emotional “hijack”.
The other really effective tool is to take some very deliberate, long and slow, deep breaths. This works because you force your logical brain to focus on taking those long breaths and because in taking those breaths you stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system that gives you a feeling of calm and peace.
Prasad Mahnes puts it this way:
The mind is like water, when it’s turbulent, it’s difficult to see, when it’s calm, everything becomes clear.
Fascinating! But don’t you hate it when your mum was right for all those years!! Ha!
But it doesn’t stop there.
Better news – you can train your brain long term!
Yes these strategies are useful to help you cope in the heat of the moment. But research has shown that if you mindfully practice being calm (by breathing, meditating, praying, journaling etc) every day you will burn new neural pathways in your brain to alter then way in which your Amygdala reacts.
Those changes can even be seen as structural changes to the Amygdala on MRI scans! If you work at staying calm on a daily basis, you will give yourself the very best chance at not “overreacting” in the heat of the moment and making good rational decisions instead.
That’s the best “excuse” I have ever heard for taking time out for yourself each day to mindfully practice being calm. I love to meditate and pray, to listen to music that takes my mind off things and circumstance focuses me of the Bigger Picture. I never realised that when I do that, I am daily re-wiring my brain.
So – if you have been feeling stressed out and “reactive” to the circumstances in your life – why not give practicing calmness a go? Take 5-15 minutes of time each day to stop and breathe (at least 4 long and deep breaths – the kind that makes your tummy rise) . Meditate on the things that are good, the things you can be grateful for and resolve to do something little that day that will make you (or someone else smile – those babies tend to be contagious!). Make a note or snap a pic and post it on Instagram or Facebook and then look back at the end of the week to see how much better you feel.
If you are stuck for ideas on what to do – here are 40 of them!
What little thing will you do this week to bring calm back into your life?