Cira Center for Behavioral Health

The Monster Within Part II – Understanding Your Monster

by | Jan 4, 2016 | Blog

Ok, we can agree on the fact that we all feeling like losing our sh*t every now and then and it’s, by definition, can be quite ugly sometimes.  I hope we can also agree on the fact that feeling like were losing our shit doesn’t make us monsters, it simply makes us human.  Fine, fine, you say, but it SUCKS.  It feels terrible, sometimes we act terrible because of the feelings and then we feel even more terrible because of how we acted.  Wah wah.

BUT by understanding what’s happening inside our bodies and brains when we’re melting down, we put ourselves in a position to better manage our emotions when we’re feeling our most monstrous.

So let’s nerd out about this for a second.  Very generally speaking there is an animal part of our brains (limbic system and more specifically, amygdala) and a human part of our brains (prefrontal cortex).  The animal part is ALL FEELING and even more specifically, mostly rage and fear.  It doesn’t understand time, place, person, CONTEXT.  Just feelings.

So when your toddler screams “no” at you for the 15,367th time that day or your husband walks out of the room in the middle of an argument (and you’re a bit sensitive to loss), the amygdala is the part that goes CRAZY.

Remember the scene in Titanic where the water gets into enough compartments of the ship that it activates the alarm because the system has determined that it’s going down?  (Don’t tell me you haven’t seen Titanic and don’t tell me you don’t love it.  Lies!!).  Horns are sounding, lights are flashing and all panic and anarchy ensue?  Well THAT is what is going on in your brain (and then body) when it feels threatened.  Seriously.

Crazy huh??

Let me refer you back to the examples that I gave.  Your toddler and husband being shits are not in fact mortal threats (though YOU may be a mortal threat to them if they keep it up ;)).  But try to tell your amygdala that.  If you are really scared or really angry, regardless of whether you could actually get dead or not, your brain goes into full on fight/flight/freeze mode, where you are literally ready to duke it out, run like hell or play dead.

Your body is being flooded by stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol primarily) because your brain has determined that you might die.  So your blood is pumping, your heart is racing, you’re possibly sweating, you might feel hot and flustered, you might even be shaking.  It’s that intense (you probably already know that).

So does this sound like the ideal set up to make good decisions??  For you to be on your best behavior?  To talk to your loved ones or boss in a healthy and constructive way?

Hell no!

The part of your brain that’s in charge of doing all that good stuff doesn’t have enough blood to make it work!  The limbic system has taken over and you have turned into nothing more than a wild animal backed into a corner.  Physiologically speaking that is.

The take home?  This is NOT, I repeat NOT, the time to discipline your child, finish the argument with your husband, give your boss a piece of your mind, etc.  Because it will not end well, I promise.  This is when you will act like a monster while your body is being operated by the animal brain and then you will calm down, begin to operate under your human brain again and feel like a monster because of how you behaved.  And if you’re anything like me, you’ll beat yourself up about it and rake yourself over the coals for god knows how long.

So do yourself (and your kid and your husband and your boss) a favor: take a minute to calm down.  Let the blood get back to the places it’s supposed to be.  Again, maybe you need to run, or swim or do something really physical to release the energy.  Or maybe you need to rest: meditate, nap, read, etc.  Figure out what that looks like for you and do it.  And whatever you decide that is, make sure it includes a lot of deep breaths…but more on that later.

Is there a time when your animal brain has taken over?  Does this help you understand what’s going on in those moments?  Let me know on my Facebook page.