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Emotionally Hijacked

Do you wonder how all of sudden you are in an argument that you did not see coming? You are upset and agitated before you know it and embroiled in a disagreeable disagreement with someone you love. Literally, you can be having a casual conversation and within milliseconds you're in emotional turmoil. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Sharon May, you have been hijacked by your emotional brain. This happens when you perceive a particular situation to be threatening or stressful and your emotional brain kicks in gear taking out your prefrontal cortex or thinking brain. We are created to react rapidly when confronted with threatening situations and thinking slows our reaction time down.

This works great when you are confronted with a real physical threat and you either run (flee), attack (fight), or stand like a doe in headlights (freeze). You are dealing with danger in an adaptive, life preserving manner. The challenge for our relationships is we also react this way when we are confronted by what we perceive as emotional threats, and that is a different flavor for each one of us. Dr. Joseph Le Doux from the Center for Neural Science at New York University has mapped out what parts of the brain are affected by information coming in from our senses and obviously how we perceive what we are taking in is critical to which "brain" reacts, our "thinking/reflecting" brain or our "emotional/reacting " brain.

We are in an argument before we know it, and depending on how each of us responds determines how long or intense the argument is. We are all different, with different histories and temperaments that affect how we react. For those of us who are "quick responders" we need to learn how to slow our system down and engage our thinking brain. We can escalate a disagreement to proportions not expected and the argument quickly becomes something no one wants.

Interestingly, even the "slow responders" who remain calm on the outside are reacting exactly the same way on the inside by either freezing or fleeing. These folks are the ones that shut down and withdraw during conflict. The important point is that while they may seem reasonable and in control, their thinking/reflecting brains are not engaged so problem solving and compromise cannot occur.

For either type of "responder" the situation and person are not safe so self preservation not communication and reconciliation is the rule of the day. It is only when our thinking/reflecting brains are processing information that we can work through our differences. We must work to make one another feel safe; then we can connect and communicate.

Pay attention to what trips your trigger and how you react. Learn to distinguish between your emotional responses and your more calm thoughtful ones. Allow each other to come back to level before reengaging and trust that your loved one is not the enemy.


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