Saturday, January 23, 2016

Forgiveness and the Amygdala: Part 3 of the 10 Guidelines for Beating Dysfunctional Systems

The way that human beings are designed makes it very difficult to forgive and nearly impossible to forget a past hurt.  The anatomical culprit is the amygdala.  This is the part of the brain that is our "emotional memory."

Within the last year I have learned a lot about the amygdala and I realized just how much it was coming into play when I was in the throws of parenting teenagers.   It was getting hijacked daily back then, and I had no idea how to control it.

Let me back up and explain what this part of the brain does.   The amygdala is what protects us and warns us from repeating past mistakes.  So, for example, if when you were a small child you were bit by a German Shepherd and it was a terrifying traumatic experience, there may still be, 30 years later, a physical response to seeing a german shepherd.  Your heart rate increases.  Your palms get sweaty.   You feel like you need to run away.  You find ourself in a high anxiety state of "fight, flight or fright."   And no matter how many times your rational brain repeats the phrase, "He's a nice dog" your body is not responding to those calming sentences.    

A personal example from my parenting of teens is in regards to the ring tone I had for our three toughest years.   It was the ring tone I assigned to everyone who didn't get their own -- you know, the generic one.  During those years the generic ring tone almost always brought some kind of stressor.  It was the school.  It was the police department.  It was the probation officer.    The ring tone was appropriately assigned:   "We live, we love, we forgive and we never give up...." but after three years, I had to change that ring tone.  Why?  Because when I heard the song on the radio my blood pressure went up and my palms got sweaty and I started feeling like I was going to puke any moment.

Thankfully those years are gone now and our kids are a bit more stable, but even today when I hear that chorus my body reacts.

According to Daniel Goleman, who is a world renowned emotional intelligence expert,  this reaction is an "amygdala hijack." The amygdala is the center of the brain that controls this response, and also controls empathy; when it feels threatened, it can respond not just irrationally, but destructively. This is as an amgdyala hijack."  Here are three signs of an amgdyala hijack: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and "when you reflect later, you realize it was inappropriate". 
The opposite of an amgdyala hijack is emotional intelligence: "the integration of the emotional center and the executive center. Interestingly, boredom also correlates poorly with emotional intelligence. "When your amgdyala is hijacked, or when you're bored, your performance is very poor, despite your abilities." The emotionally intelligent person is engaged, focused, motivated and attentive, and matches these skills to the situation.

So as time goes by amygdala hijacks can control our relationships.   If you have enough negative interactions with an individual your emotional memory kicks in and you start to feel the feelings you have previously had.  Anxiety is heightened, your body starts to respond and you find yourself back into that panic zone.  And suddenly rational thought isn't coming into the picture.

I hope you are getting the picture because I feel like I'm getting wordy.  So what in the world does this have to do with beating a dysfunctional system and forgiveness?

All of us have a history of situations and people who have brought us pain, made us anxious, and threatened our positive sense of self.   We may go weeks or even months without thinking about that particular time in our lives, but within a second our amygdala can get hijacked and we are heading down a very negative road.

We cannot stop the amygdala from responding the way that it does.  But we can calm ourselves down when it does and choose a different response.  Another example.

For three years you have worked with a person who has done everything they can to make you feel like an idiot.  They take advantage of meetings and personal interactions to diminish you in front of your boss and coworkers.  That person always starts their barrage of negative comments with, "If you don't mind, I'd like to point out something."

You quit the job and you move on and are sitting in a meeting and a person who actually kind of reminds you of your nemesis in the last place says, "If you don't mind, I'd like to point out something."   You guessed it.... you're back in that place of shame and anger and resentment that you were at at your old job.

But this time you are not going to let the amygdala hijack control you.  You tell yourself what is happening and you refrain from reacting to them for several minutes.  You let rational thoughts talk you down from the ledge.

There are many many examples of how this happens with our children or spouses in a family situation.   And the key is to wait, talk ourselves down, and respond to each reminder of past hurt with a rational mind.

We can't stop the emotions from coming back.... that is what we are wired to do.  But we can stop our mouths from speaking until we talk ourselves through the emotions.  We can remind ourselves that the past hurts have been forgotten and that we have forgiven.  It isn't easy, but it is possible.  And just knowing this and practicing rational thought, combined with God's power and strength, anything can be overcome.

Since I learned about the amygdala I am to the point that I can catch myself about 50% of the time from going down a very bad road.  It takes practice.  But slowly I'm making progress.

Next time you are overcome with negative emotion, watch for it.   Call it what it is -- an amygdala hijack.  Respond with emotional intelligence.  And then ask God to bathe you in the other person in his forgiving grace.

If everyone in a dysfunctional system can learn this one thing, it will make a ton of difference.

1 comment:

Beth in the City said...

I learned a lot from this - thanks. This totally happens to me, in fact, happened today. I motored through it. I wish there was a way to turn it off once I'm not really in danger any more.....