When your partner loses it, should you blame their Amygdala?
Over the years, I find myself explaining more and more just how the brain works. I do it because it can really help clients when they are ‘doing’ or ‘receiving’ unwanted behaviour. For instance, the Amygdala, can hijack your reasoning faculties to the point of losing a job or ruining a relationship, which was happening to a client I had recently, let’s call him John.
John came to see me to give up smoking. He had given up successfully before so I wanted to know what made him re-start. He pointed to one particularly ‘bad’ episode when his partner ‘lost it’, blanking him and telling him to leave. His partner had displayed this behaviour before but John was always taken by surprise, unable to understand why it was happening. On that occasion they were on holiday, having a lovely time, and it ‘just came out of the blue’, he said. He was astounded, upset and very hurt, this time he thought the relationship really was over. I explained to him that, although I had not met his partner, it sounded like her Amygdala was jumping into ‘high alert’. This can happen to people who have been a victim of trauma or some childhood stresses, in which they learned a reaction which was then ‘triggered’ by something similar as they grew up.
The Amygdala bypasses all reasoning faculties and goes on the attack. It happens so fast, the rational brain (neocortex) doesn’t have time to intervene and say hey this is not a flight or fight situation, it’s okay. Indeed the reaction is incredibly swift. The person doing it, doesn’t consciously do it and often feels really badly afterwards, once their nervous system has calmed down.
John told me he felt completely relieved now that he realised it wasn’t him and that she actually couldn’t help it, it all made sense to him. I suggested she seek professional help to understand how to change this. John’s way of coping had been to try and fix it. As I explain in my talk What Women (and Men) Want? this is often what men do, as they are wired to try and fix a ‘problem’.
Unfortunately this is the last thing you want to do when someone is in that state. Trying to reason won’t work either. There are, however, many strategies to diffuse the situation whilst keeping one’s own equilibrium and causing minimum damage to the relationship (I will be writing an article on that topic shortly).
For now just remember, next time you see someone ‘lose it’, step away and wait! If that happens regularly wait until the person calms down and ask them if it is something they would like to resolve, if the answers yes, then assist them to seek help.