Why we react and then think

Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijac...

Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijack from optical stimulus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

  1. 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
  2. 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.


Filed under anger, Anxiety, counseling, counseling science, trauma

2 responses to “Why we react and then think

  1. chewingtaffy

    This resonates. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life (it seems). I’m learning to cope, but it’s hard to imagine the anxiety ever disappearing completely. At least not without a lifelong, constant supply of xanax. 🙂

  2. If I understand what you are saying, then one should try to stand outside oneself and try to find better responses to the things that push our buttons-stressing us out- and to not quickly condemn ourselves, but be patient. Seeking ideas for coping with stress such as anger and anxiety from Scripture is wise, as we can be working at redeeming our minds in the likeness of Christ. It can be very helpful to see that our emotions have a physical basis and a spiritual one, and that they are not necessarilly very separate in this life. Sometimes we have a very hard time being patient with ourselves when we are trying to be godly, better people. But we can’t even keep trying if we don’t forgive ourselves. The weight of failure and constant sin would be overwhelming!

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