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Almond's servant.

Sometimes while having a conversation, mostly it happens in one-on-one setting, after i’d said something that the other could find confronting or unpleasant, I would try to pull my words back by dropping some sort of a balancing disclaimer to avoid conflict. I have this pattern in my behaviour especially with some people who have a particular type of energy. When I feel anger or aggression directed towards me, manifested in a verbal attack or defensiveness, I immediately shut down.

Responsibility for such reaction is assigned to the amygdala. An almond-shaped part of the brain that has the primary role to process memory, decision-making and emotional responses, including fear, anxiety, and aggression. The amygdala is an incredibly important omnipresent companion which never sleeps. When a situation that increases our excitement occurs, the bodily sensations that accompany the experience are received by the amygdala which then decides whether this occurrence is positive or negative. Should we escape as soon as possible or should we engage with the excitement and experience pleasure? This process of assigning the quality of the experience is based on complex analysis of various preconditions including memories, context, unconscious biases and intuitive processes. The amygdala is our protector, making sure the experience we are in doesn’t get us into trouble. When it interprets the situation as potentially dangerous a particular reaction is triggered - fight or flight. If you are a fighter you activate aggression to defend yourself by attacking. In case you are, as myself, terrified of conflicts, you flight and as a consequence shut down and anxiety comes in.

For me it is a real struggle to convince my amygdala to react differently. It is pretty stubborn and rather inflexible. I can have numerous conversations with it trying to explain that everything is alright, we don’t have to shut down, it is safe. But reasoning never works. No matter what I do, it keeps insisting on familiar patters to stay safe, even if just in case. I find it rather unhelpful, especially, when I rationally and intuitively see the power and potentiality of risk-taking activities. For a long time I was struggling and trying to fight my amygdala responses, even suppress the reaction and make myself act against them. But it only made things worse. Next time it had to respond, my shutting down would happen much quicker, taking away any possibility to catch the moment and alter the reaction.

There is a belief that some mindfulness techniques can help and catch the moment and redirect the reaction allowing the amygdala to reevaluate the situation, making space for rationality to participate. To be honest I doubt that a meditation technique alone can make a difference. For sure these exercises can create the necessary space for such expansion, and that is where their value is. However, these activities shouldn’t be goals in their own right. They are just means to help you work on the actual change of amygdala’s response. The context seems to be very important in the process of judgement formation. Imagine the difference between a hunted house in an attraction park and an abandoned house down the road you pass by every night. Same house different context, different response.

Since this amygdala-desires-reasoning dissonance has been very alive for me since forever, I’ve got an idea what could be a good training strategy. It implies not addressing the situation to which the amygdala is responding, but focus on two things - the external environment where this reaction will land and my inner space where this reaction will resonate. The first one is altered by making sure the necessary measures are taken before the event, in order to create a feeling of safety. Even small details such as wearing comfortable clothing when entering a potentially threatening situation can help to sooth the pain. And the latter, my inner space, includes inner work to reinforce my anti-fragility capacities, to be able to hold any reaction the amygdala produces. The inner work can include various techniques - from cold showers to indulging in guilty pleasures. Keeping both spaces clean and tidy, with enough room to absorb any reaction, positive or negative, seems like a good way to not fight with myself, but integrate the emotion with whatever shade it comes in.

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