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Are You an April Fool? OR in Amygdala Hijack?

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"I'm a fool! I'm a friggin' fool!" Eve* eyes welled with tears. "Talking to you about it now* makes it clearer and clearer to me .... I'm a fool not to see the truth ! -- Adam doesn't love me anymore! He's slept on the couch for over a year...he doesn't come home from work in time for dinner with me and the kids .... we haven't been to a movie together in .... In... I' can't remember when ... " Eve was crying now. "We don't do ANYthing together ....!! Why didn't I s e e this before?! I've wasted the last 10 years of my life....!" ...sobbing now.

AMYGDALA HIJACK. No point in talking while Eve was sobbing. Her brain was in what neuroscientist's call "amygdala hijack" [a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 Emotional Intelligence book.]. What that means is: Emotion rules. Reason is 'offline.' It was "true" that she was unhappy: but it may or may not be "true" that Adam no longer loved her.

Specifically, our twin amygdalae lodge in the center of our limbic midbrain deep in our temporal lobes: they are the Grand Central Station of our emotional memories. The amygdalae form and store memories of emotional events a) making decisions and ruling our reactions to such events without logic or reason, and b) causing our bodies to respond defensively with a Fight, Flight, or Freeze reaction. Our 'newest' brain, the neocortex, is our "thinking brain", and it receives crucial information milliseconds a f t e r the amygdalae. Hence, when someone like Eve gets emotionally triggered, it's her reptilian limbic midbrain's amygdalae that are alerted to incoming danger and readies Eve to fight flee or freeze.

In Eve's case, her sobbing expressed her despair about her marriage: sobbing was her defensive response, like fleeing. She left her reason and logic behind, to stew in her growing recognition and alarm that neither she of her husband Adam were happy in their marriage. I showed her how to deep breathe, so she'd have a tool to calm and to soothe herself whenever she became upset. In our early therapy sessions, she would marshal an avalanche of facts, collected rapid fired into her amygdala's memory, and she became 'snowed under' by the her sudden conclusion. "Do we need to divorce?" she sputtered when she'd calmed down. [It takes most adults 15-20 minutes for their bodies to physiologically to calm down after an amygdala hijack.] "I don't know. Not necessarily. We don't need to know that answer just yet. " I said. "Let's first explore what's happening, and n o t happening, in your relationship before deciding on Next Steps.

FEELINGS ARE FINE. BUT ARE NOT FACTS. I assured Eve that she was entitled to her feelings, all of them. But feelings are not facts. Feelings are her amygdalae talking, not her frontal lobe neocortex with its reason and logic. When she was calm enough, we later did two things together.

CHALLENGE YOUR CRITICAL VOICE. First, I asked her from where came that critical voice in her head. "Oh my Dad!" Eve said immediately. "If I did the smallest thing wrong, he'd yell, "You're an idiot. How can you be so foolish to undercook the hamburgers... or... pile the snow of that side of the driveway ...or whatever." "And your Mom's reaction? " "She would say, 'Now Frank, Eve is just learning....' But he would turn on her too. 'Oh shut up! I don't suffer fools like you both!'". If Eve kept being critical of herself, like her Father, she would have a harder time thinking clearly and making well-informed decisions, let alone feel good about herself and her choices. So challenging that continuous Critical Voice inside her head was an ongoing part of our work.

NEOCORTEX BACK ONLINE. As Eve soothed herself more and more and better and better, over time, we together unbraided many aspects of her feelings about herself and her relationship. After several months of individual therapy, she was able to have a series of discussions with Adam about how unhappy she experienced herself, and him. They had numerous conversations in which both triggered the other into amygdala hijacks. But eventually they could stop shouting and talk. They finally agreed to seek out an experienced marriage counselor who would help them decide jointly what kind of relationship they each hoped for, whether or not they stayed together.

Feeling like a Fool - in not seeing your relationship as a disaster - is an amygdala highjack emotion. Not a fact. 1st: Quiet your Critical Voice. 2nd: Get your neocortex back online. THEN decide on your next steps.


*Names and situation are not real, but a composite of several patients. Stay tuned for May's blog: "April showers bring May flowers" about the process of how couples can best discuss difficult relationship topics.

Joy Dryer, Ph.D. is a psychologist/psychoanalyst, divorce consultant and mediator in New York City and Poughkeepsie, NY. Speaker, author, and regular HuffPost/Divorce blogger.

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