Dealing with the rage within

Hijacked by rage

Have you ever been triggered, just exploded and left wondering what happened?

Silly question, maybe, because feeling triggered by life and people is a common human experience for many. The word “triggered” captures the essence of what happens so perfectly, as we feel anger coursing through our bodies like a gun going off, blasting whatever we perceive to be the cause.

These incidents are called an amygdala hijacking, a term coined by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman in 1996. An amygdala hijacking is an immediate, over-whelming emotional response that’s out of proportion to what’s happened.

We hear about people exploding over a seemingly insignificant incident. Reports of road rage incidents are commonplace.

What kind of a person would act like that? What were they thinking? As it turns out, nothing. They weren’t thinking because they’d been hijacked and were out of control.

The amygdala, the fight-or-flight centre of the brain, is part of the reptilian brain. The amygdala doesn’t process rational thought, it simply reacts, bypassing the higher function and reason of the brain’s neocortex.

When we’re hijacked by the amygdala, reality becomes distorted. We don’t see or hear what’s really in front of us. Our sense of time is also altered when the amygdala is running the show.

The brain’s neocortex separates us from animals. It’s most evolved in the human species, allowing us to perform the intelligent things animals can’t. When we’re hijacked by the amygdala, the reasoning/thinking part of the brain gets bypassed because we need to react quickly. Don’t think, just react.

This is a good thing if we need to jump out of the way to avoid being hit by a car, or a bear is chasing us. It’s not such a good thing when it causes us to lose control and react to non-life-threatening situations.

Highly stressed people are at increased risk for amygdala hijacking. Living in a reactive mode easily becomes a habit, destroying relationships and families, resulting with people considered to be hot-heads.

People may believe they’re just wired this way and feel victim to this response. In truth, they may be wired this way because they’re living life in survival mode and exhausted. Even small things can be perceived as a threat or danger when we’re living this way.

The good news is the changeable nature of the brain. What you practice grows stronger.

We can change a reactive nature to gain better control over the reptilian brain, learning to allow the rational, thinking parts of the brain to kick in. That puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives instead of living life in reaction, always scanning the environment for immanent danger where there is none.

With awareness, we can learn the value of pausing when we feel the rush of adrenaline start pouring through our bodies. Pause and take several deep, slow, conscious breaths, to give the thinking centre of the brain a chance to kick in. We may need to walk away to allow this to happen.

With practice, we can gain self-awareness into what’s happening within ourselves before we explode and possibly create collateral damage. We may still take the same action, but at least we’ve thought about it, and can respond instead of simply react. We can become more skilled.

I’m grateful for my own less than stellar experiences of amygdala hijacking. It’s helped me understand and experience what happens inside a stress-filled brain and body.

Mindfulness practice has caused my brain to change from being wired by stress into one of greater calm and awareness. It reminds me to pause and take a moment allow my rational thinking to return.

The stress level many people are experiencing today is showing up in news reports. My heart fills with compassion now, instead of judgment, when I hear reports of road rage and similar incidents.

Learning to pause and just breathe may be one of the most powerful practices you can do to protect yourself from being hijacked.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

An assistant minister at the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, she is a retired nurse with a master’s degree in health science and is a hospice volunteer.  She is also an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan and currently spends her time teaching smartUBC, a unique mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. 

She is a speaker and presenter and from her diverse experience and knowledge, both personally and professionally, she has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people gain a new perspective, awaken and recognize we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts, stress or to life. We are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 44 years and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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