Have you ever heard of the amygdala hijack? Chances are if you’ve ever taken a psychology 101 course you probably have. But do you know what it has to do with relationships? Let me explain!
First, some basic brain anatomy!
The amygdala is a structure in your brain, located in the deep temporal lobe. This area of the brain is where our emotional impulses and memories are stored and managed. When you see someone in the grocery store without a mask on and feel rageful (or is that just me?!) that’s likely your amygdala hijack taking center stage.
More likely, you may have encountered another really small, but common experience. Smell is a big trigger in memory. Have you ever come across a scent randomly that just made you really happy (or conversely sad)? It’s likely that scent triggered a longstanding memory for you. Maybe the smell of cinnamon reminds you of your family preparing Thanksgiving dinner or the smell of coconuts reminds you of your trips as a child to the beach because that’s what your sunscreen used to smell like. You have, in part, your amygdala to thank for that!
As you can see, the amygdala serves a really important function. It helps us tap into our emotions and memories (and process the emotions of others).
By contrast, the frontal lobe (which includes the pre-frontal cortex) is a very rational part of our brain. It’s the section that helps us regulate emotions, focus and problem solve.
So what does this all have to do with relationship management? Well, have you EVER been in a fight with your partner and just lost it?
Congrats – your amygdala wanted to say hi!
And you know what that means? When you’re emotionally charged your frontal lobe does not function as well. As a result, disagreements can devolve into really nasty, harmful arguments. That’s something we can work on to preserve the health of our relationships.
Why we need to be cautious about the amygdala hijack
Trying to make decisions when your amygdala is highly activated is not a good idea. You may end up suggesting or doing something you’ll likely regret later. That’s why it’s critical for one, or both parties, to realize when a fight no longer has current productive value and take a break. Taking some time to pause and wind down gives you time to literally breathe. When you do so, like magic, your reasonable and balanced frontal lobe makes an appearance. It then provides helpful suggestions on navigating the original source of disagreement productively.
The best we can do is try to be more mindful of when the amygdala might have “hijacked” our brain into a frenzy and just pause for a moment. Odds are you, and your relationship, will be much better off.
Jor-El is Co-founder of Viva Wellness and a foodie and film buff. He most often writes about mental health, relationships, food and mindfulness. When he’s not busy working, he typically can be found lounging or walking around NYC with his pup Nomi.