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Conflict and Our Animal Brain

You've definitely seen it, and maybe you've been it: some who goes, like a light switch, from cool as a cucumber to hot under the collar, steam coming out the ears, during an interaction. Why does that happen and what is going on there? If we do this, how do we stop (if we want to) and stay centered or balanced, even-tempered, or at least handle the situation more skillfully?

First, it's about our interpretations. Our minds are constantly interpreting and making meaning of our existence moment by moment. That's how our brain works - it's how we make sense of the world and the thousands of experiences we encounter every day. We interpret to survive: Is that a stick or a snake? Am I being accepted or rejected? These interpretations are based on our experiences, and the outcomes of those experiences, over time, determine the patterns we are inclined to recognize and act on. Many of the experiences that form these interpretation inclinations are from early life, when the "wiring" or neural pathways got formed. When a stranger reaches out to shake their hand, some people get suspicious, while others are delighted and trusting. There is no right or wrong here about our inclinations, they are coping mechanisms we have carefully developed to keep us safe and sound! That doesn't mean, though, we want to keep reacting in the same way, especially if it causes regret for us or pain for others.

When someone says or does something that we interpret as any kind of threat to us, our amygdala, part of our brain that evolved from early in mammalian evolution, kicks into gear. A cascade of mental and physical reaction, chemical and hormonal signals, flood our system to aid in our defense (or offense). Even something as minor as someone stepping in front of us in a line, or not responding to our question with promptness, or making a remark that could mean we don't measure up in some way can bring up fear, resentment, or even rage. In a split second, we interpret and make assumptions, and the adrenaline and cortisol pump through our system. This is a natural, normal physical response, not a dysfunctional one.

Yet it's also the moment to intervene, to start trying to become more aware. It's the point at which we can continue to be hijacked by our limbic system or we can learn to recognize when that is about to happen or is in progress. Just becoming aware that a hijack is starting or taking place can help us slow it down, so there's a space for being at choice versus reacting by default. For most of us, the desire to change starts when we view the wreckage afterwards, and slowly we get closer and closer back in the process to the moment of hijack. So be patient and kind with yourself!

The process of becoming adept at recognizing and observing yourself in a threat reaction and slowing or stopping it takes time...weeks or months, sometimes longer. But what is the alternative? We will go through dozens and dozens of incidents before we have the presence of mind to start observing ourselves "from the outside" when a hijack is occurring. Most of us have decades of conditioning and internal scripting, and those neural pathways, or maybe ruts, have to be rewired. It's extremely rare that anyone can transform their reaction to perceived threats with a figurative snap of the fingers.

Something else: the feelings that arise in us when we feel threatened are actually valid, and discounting them as silly, ridiculous, or unfounded (or taking them entirely at face value) without examining them fairly, only brushes them under the rug, where they will trip us up sooner or later. Being able to tease them out...and take ownership and responsibility for them, goes far, believe it or not, in being able to stay in balance when there is a perceived...or actual...threat.

There are lots of books and programs out there if you'd like to explore this topic more fully. First Nature Foundation is one of those places, or we can refer you to other resources if they are more appropriate for you. Please reach out to us using our contact form, or subscribe to our announcements.

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