Get to know your internal alarm system

Have You Ever Over-Reacted?

A lot of what I do as a therapist is talk about trauma and the physical responses and reactions the body has to being in a state of acute stress.

But, regardless of whether or not you have experiences of trauma and are struggling with the ongoing impacts of this, having a deeper understanding of how your body reacts to these types of situations can be so empowering.

Have you experienced a situation where you felt like you ended up completely overreacting to what was at hand and treating it like a threat when, in retrospect, you realized it wasn’t something to panic about?

This is okay and totally normal. Your brain is doing its job of protecting you, but it can be super frustrating if you don’t understand what’s happening.

The Amygdala: Your Internal Smoke Detector

So, if you’re a human, which I think I can safely presume you are, you have an amygdala.

This is the part of your brain that warns of danger and turns on your stress response. It’s kind of like a smoke detector. When something stressful or scary happens, all the sensory information (the sights, sounds, smells, etc.) make their way to your amygdala which determines the level of stress. It’s a bit more complicated than this in reality, but we’ll leave it at that for now.

At the same time, another pathway gets triggered and that sensory information is also headed to the frontal cortex of your brain (the area just behind your forehead). But that pathway is a lot slower. It takes longer for the frontal cortex to figure out what to do with the information.

Now, the amygdala, the smoke detector, is in an old part of the brain that’s been around for a lot longer and is less developed. It’s much more rooted in survival and trying to protect you from danger. This is superb when you’re being chased by a cheetah, but less so when you’re really upset by something your partner says and you want to try to stay calm.

You’re Not Crazy! It’s Just Physiology.

The amygdala’s response is what sends us into fight and flight mode (or sometimes all the way into freezing or collapsing). It can trigger a full on stress response where we feel panic or shut down completely. And when this happens, the frontal cortex of the brain actually goes offline. So when we are triggered by old trauma or wounds, or are just experiencing a very stressful situation in the moment, and the amygdala senses a threat – goodbye frontal cortex.

Since the frontal cortex is where our social engagement, communication, decision making and problem solving is located, when we are in fight or flight mode we simply don’t have the same capacity to respond as we would in a calm state. You’re not crazy! It’s just physiology.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for your actions in those moments. You still are. But it’s important to know that’s what is happening in your brain. And sometimes, your amygdala thinks there is a big threat when there isn’t actually one there.

2 Things You Can Do To Cope:

There are many ways we can help cope with this, but for today, I’ll share two things you can do to help support this system.

The first is proactive:

By engaging in activities like meditation, yoga, and regular calming and grounding activities we help increase the capacity of our frontal cortex to get back on board more quickly.

We can speed up the time it takes for something stressful to be interpreted by that wise part of our brain so that it has time to intervene before the amygdala sends off an alarm that might not even have been necessary in the first place.

The second is reactive, in the moment:

One of the best things we can do when we are noticing our internal alarm system going off and starting to feel panicked is to exhale. Our exhale immediately puts a brake on the systems in our body that are amping us up and instead turns on other systems that are important for finding calm and healing.

So if you can catch yourself in those moments and take some slow deep breaths, and make sure your exhale is longer than your inhale, you’ll start engaging those calming systems and send a message to your nervous system that it’s okay, you’ve got this.