Ever wonder why? Check out this quote by Richard McNally¹ about the role of the amygdala,
LeDoux discovered two pathways for activating the amygdala, a subcortical structure integral to the experiences and expression of conditioned fear. One pathway rapidly transmits sensory input about fear stimuli to the amygdala via a subcortical route, whereas the second pathway passes through the cortex, taking twice as long to reach the amygdala. Subcortical activation of the amygdala makes it possible for a fight-or-flight reaction to begin even before information about fear-evoking stimulus has reached conscious awareness via the cortical route.” (p. 178, emphases mine)
If this is true, then in anxiety and intense emotion-producing events our brains begin the reaction phase prior to any thought processes. If true, then we might consider
- The goal of trauma treatment or anger management is NOT to avoid having reactions but to more quickly reach cognitions and alternative emotions that help moderate a negative reaction
- the empirical evidence for the clinical process whereby a client adopts a neutral reaction as opposed to a negative reaction is quite lacking. There are a number of models that process to “cool down” the amygdala, but these treatments often lack serious empirical support.
So, the next time you instantly react in a way that bothers you, don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead stop yourself, take a deep breath, work to analyze the situation and to lean into a post hoc truth. We have our hands full enough with what we know we need to do, we don’t need to worry so much about our first reaction.
¹McNally, R.J. (2003). Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.