the curious case of the outraged amygdala

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a local psychologist talk about brain health.  

Specifically, he was talking about what happens to our brains when fear or anger surges inside of us:  the rush of chemicals in our amygdala, our "downstairs brain" that makes us ready to fight, flight, or freeze.  

And he was talking about how, instead of automatically flipping our lids, we can soothe ourselves and make calm choices.  

When we're feeling upset, he suggested that we take a stance of

gentle curiosity

toward ourselves. 

village house, Czech Republic (photo: Andy Bruner)

village house, Czech Republic (photo: Andy Bruner)

Then he suggested that we breathe in slowly, and exhale for as long as possible.  

We breathe until we're feeling calm enough to re-engage our "upstairs brain" and have some insight into what's going on.

And then we decide what needs to happen next.

Here's Dr. Dan Siegel, talking about how to help kids through a freak-out, but it works for all of us who have brains that get agitated, which seems to be approximately 100% of the human race as far as I can tell.

When we're adults, we don't necessarily have someone to connect with, but through the magic of gentle curiosity, we can do that for ourselves.  And once we've named it, we can probably start to tame it.

I don't know if you've noticed this lately, but it seems like the internet is hell-bent on keeping us in a state of extreme amygdala-outrage.

So I've started wondering: why does the internet want us to be outraged?

It seems to me that the internet wants us to do what we do when we're outraged:  don't think.

The internet wants us to pitch a fit, as we used to say back home.

Why does the internet want to keep that amygdala so fired up that calm, rational thought is no longer an option?

Because when you're outraged, you'll click.  

And you'll share that post so that other people will be outraged and click.

What does that do?  That clicking pays somebody, somewhere.

Bottom line: your brain is in pain and your body is thrown into high alert so that somebody, somewhere, can make a profit.

That is something I think we ought to be just a teensy bit outraged about.  Just enough so that we can think about how we want to handle it.

One of the things I've done is to unfollow every media source that's all about outrage.  Whether it's political, religious, or even satirical.  

If it's about seducing clicks through fear or anger or exploitation of the pain of others, I'm out.

For my brain health, it's not worthwhile.

I still see outrageous things on the internet, so I try to remember this:  anything I see that's especially outrageous is probably exaggerated.  It's probably being twisted and spun to make me click.  

So I'm going to stop, breathe, and be gently curious before I decide what to do.

After I've taken a breather and made my choice, I might want to employ some non-violent resistance.  I often do, in fact.  But I'm not going to do that successfully from a place of amygdala-outrage.  That's only going to work when I'm calm.

The thing is, the internet is just the latest manifestation of systems that profit from an outraged, angry, fear-filled amygdala.

  • Political parties profit, by telling us that only big walls, giant militaries, and nuclear arsenals can keep us safe.
  • Families profit, by telling us that if we have boundaries, we'll lose relationships.
  • Churches profit, by telling us that we're only safe from God's wrath inside these special rules that only this special church follows absolutely correctly.

Many times, online, all those threats to our peace of mind come together: relationships, religion and politics, all in one toxic stew. 

No wonder it's a crazy-maker.

So let's remember what to do when we get fired up:  


Be gently curious--with ourselves, and even with others.

Name it to tame it.

Choose a response that works--and it may be something different each day.  That's okay.

And one more thing:  radical self-care.  Every day.  Whether we need it or not.  (Because we always do.)

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