The brain is a remarkable instrument. But sometimes it can cause a raging battle inside of us. Just one little thing — a news article, a statement, a perceived affront, a glance — can trigger our emotions and cause us to lose control. Ken Porter provides individual therapy at the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan and co-facilitates men’s support groups with Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Center. Porter sits down with Flood for this segment of the Revealing Men podcast to talk about how the brain can get “hijacked” by emotion and discuss how to manage these emotional triggers. Read excerpts (edited for clarity and space) of the conversation below, and then listen to the podcast for Porter’s directed meditation session.
What is Emotional Triggering?
Flood: Let’s talk a little bit about how we’re wired. Give us a sense of what happens when we get, what we call, “triggered.”
Porter: Basically, what’s happening is a very primitive part of our brain is kicking in and sometimes taking over. It’s the survival part of our brain that keeps us safe, keeps us out of danger. We can’t eliminate those or we wouldn’t last very long. Then there are more sophisticated parts of our brain — the emotional part of our brain and the thinking part of our brain — which all have different agendas and they don’t always play nice together, or they don’t seem to. Usually what happens when we get triggered is that the more primitive part of our brain is telling us that we’re in danger when we’re actually not.
Flood: Right. It feels like there’s an imminent danger in our bodies—this emotional arousal—and then, in those moments, we’re then at risk of making mistakes, acting out, withdrawing, doing something — freezing or something— that’s not necessarily the most constructive or adaptive response in the moment.
Porter: Some people call it “hijacking.” The higher-functioning brain gets hijacked by the lower-functioning brain and you basically lose your ability to just think rationally, think reasonably, and you can make some pretty impulsive mistakes.
Flood: I think some of us are more socialized and trained to attack the trigger. Rather than having this emotional intelligence or the skills to deal with managing what’s going on inside of me, I’m compelled to manage what’s going on outside of me and go in attack mode or aggression.
Porter: Which, of course, sets up a vicious cycle: I feel attacked by you, then I’m attacking you back, and then you’re getting triggered, and then we’re both escalating.
How are Emotions Triggered?
Porter: I want to say a little bit more about the way the brain gets hijacked because I think this is really important to understand and I think it helps people have compassion for themselves when they do get triggered and they do go off the handle.
There’s a tiny structure in the brain called the amygdala, it’s a little pair of organs that basically are the fear center of the brain that are highly reactive and very, very simplistic. And then we have our cortex which is the thinking part of the brain, the reasoning, rational part of the brain. When we really get triggered, the amygdala can hijack the cortex.
And the thing that I find extremely helpful to keep in mind is that the amygdalae, they respond to a stimulus in a tenth to a twentieth of a second and they’ve [finger snap] made a decision like “this is what’s going on, this is what I have to do, I have to gear up for battle.”
And the cortex, on the other hand, takes a half-a-second to process the stimulus. That’s like five to ten times as long for the cortex to process it. By the time the cortex gets around to figuring out what just happened, the amygdala has already fired the adrenal glands, there’s already adrenaline and cortisol flooding your system, and your whole system is gearing up for fight or flight or freeze. And when that happens, it actually has the effect of shutting the cortex down.
Taking Control of Emotion
It’s easy for people to get caught up in beating themselves up, “Aw, I got triggered again and I lost it.” But when you realize this is how we’re wired then you know we can’t help it. Nobody can help it when the amygdala [finger snap] triggers in like a twentieth of a second. It’s automatic. But what I want to do next is guide us through an exercise of meditation that can help you take back control. There’s no shame, I guess, in getting triggered and having your amygdala fire. But then, the secret is, what do you do next? How do you get back on top of things?
Flood: We know the brain is malleable – it has plasticity. When you do this practice of learning how to sit with emotion and not just react, then you start developing newer pathways in your brain and over time it becomes easier and easier to manage yourself.
A Meditation Break
[Ed. At this point, Porter provides an exercise in meditation that he uses in his individual and group therapy sessions. The exercise can help practitioners take back control when the brain is triggered. This directed meditation begins at approximately 7:35 into the podcast.]
The Power of Emotional Awareness
Porter: There’s kind of a rhythm between bringing awareness and mindfulness to our emotions which can really heat them up and then having the tools to cool them back down. Those are two distinct skill sets.
Flood: We see a lot of suffering that men have experienced themselves and have inflicted upon others, not understanding or not having this skill. A lot of men don’t realize that this is available. And, if it is introduced to them, they might see it as being a way of being emasculated, of being weak, or a way of being immobile or paralyzed. I wonder if you want to say something about how it can create a different kind of strength.
Porter: The ability to contain an emotion is a warrior act. It takes an incredible amount of strength and courage and determination to say I’m going to sit right in the fire of this intense emotion; I’m going to ride it out all the way to the other side. The power that you feel when you’re able to do that is a radically different kind of power. To me, it seems like it’s a much more fulfilling form of power.
Flood: There’s different forms of courage, different forms of power. This is a power that you’re building in yourself. It’s like you become this container, this crucible, to hold the emotional heat without melting, without it busting, without it shattering and hurting someone.
Flood: This is immensely helpful and I appreciate you coming and taking the time to teach us this.
Seeking Emotional Well-being
Listen to Randy Flood and Ken Porter’s podcast about men’s psychotherapy groups for more on their work with innovative therapies that focus on emotional well-being. You can contact the Men’s Resource Center for information about counseling, coaching, and consultative services. Also, feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.