Our alarm system

We are all wired with an internal alarm system that alerts us to potential danger. Put in terms of mindfulness, sometimes Emotion Mind will take over without our consent. The biological structure responsible for generating Emotion Mind resides in the most primitive portion of the brain. The amygdala sits just on top of the brainstem and acts as a threat detection system. When threats are perceived, the amygdala floods the prefrontal cortex with neurotransmitters that temporarily block our ability to use Rational Mind. The whole body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline to prepare us to eliminate or hide from perceived threats. It is best known as “fight or flight”. The trouble with this system is that it is a little too efficient, setting off the threat alarm when no threat exists.

Our alarm system is a lot like a home security system.

A friend of mine had a security system installed in her home. It was set up to detect any breach of doors or windows. She also had two dogs who used a doggie door to access their fenced portion of the back yard. Every time one of the dogs went out or came in, the alarm was triggered.
After several adjustments by the security company, they finally decided to create an exception by programming the alarm system to ignore breaches from that particular entrance.
In theory, someone could climb the fence and crawl through the dog’s entrance to break into the house without setting off the alarm. My friend weighed the risks and decided that she would rather have the peace and quiet every day even if it meant a slight risk of a break-in.

Early childhood experiences program our “fight or flight” system.

Early in life, each of us has experiences that train our amygdala. Unable to assess the severity of the threat on our own, we respond to threats by watching the reactions of others around us. Additionally, the way in which our needs are met also determines the amygdala’s responsiveness. Early childhood trauma can negatively affect us by training our amygdala to over-respond to perceived threats that may not truly be life-threatening.

The Emotional hijacking

As adults we might not understand why we over-react, but the fact remains that amygdala hyper-response happens to all of us.  Only our triggers vary. I like to call this an “Emotional hijacking” because the Emotion Mind assumes complete control. We can’t stop it. Suddenly we become completely irrational, much to the dismay of anyone observing the event. It can take a minimum of 30 minutes for our brain chemistry to return to normal and finally allow us to think clearly using Rational Mind again. Below is a diagram of this process.

Feel free to download a copy of this chart: Emotional hijacking PDF

Adjusting our alarm’s sensitivity

Just like my friend had to adjust the sensitivity of her home security system, we may need to do the same to our own alarm system. One of the ways to do this is by learning the skills taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Watch for more details, coming soon.

Mindfulness: observing what we experience »