by Mark Coleman
The most common situation is road rage: someone’s reckless driving triggers a moment of terror, and that terror instantly turns into rage or righteous indignation and the desire to retaliate, perhaps by engaging in the same dangerous behavior!
The limbic system is the emotional heart of the brain. The amygdala within that structure is our inner sentinel, always on the lookout for danger and possible threats. The amygdala is designed to catapult us into an alert, fight-flight-or-freeze state, and without that circuitry, we would not have survived as a species. For millennia it helped us guard ourselves against faster and more powerful predators.
However, that survival circuitry does not distinguish between physical and emotional threats. It gets triggered if a bus is about to knock us over or if someone insults us during a casual conversation. Threats to our self-image and social status are treated the same as if we had accidentally run into a grizzly bear: we become instantly ready to fight for our lives or run for the hills at the smallest of slights. As a result, we are bombarded with potential triggers all the time. It can be as simple as the perceived negative tone of an email. It can happen when a loved one speaks insensitively or curtly. A few careless words can easily spark a flash of anger and a desire to verbally retaliate.
This is why we need the vigilance that mindfulness practice provides, to skillfully manage our reactions in the way Jo did. In a situation of real physical danger, we are grateful for the amygdala and its fight-or-flight mechanism, but in most situations, this is an overreaction, and it would be inappropriate and counterproductive to act on it.
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Mark Coleman is the author of From Suffering to Peace, Make Peace with Your Mind, and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in clinical psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at MarkColeman.org. This article is excerpted from the book From Suffering to Peace. Copyright 2019 by Mark Coleman. Printed with permission from New World Library.
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