Sunrise on Christmas morning, before the kids woke up. I jumped in my car and wanted to wish my late wife Judy a Merry Christmas. I was dropping off a poinsettia at the gravesite.
This was the fifth Christmas since her passing, and with the kids home from college, it had been a very busy time. I really needed to spend some private time in reflection, love and memory with her, and had a lovely sunrise visit.
Pulling my car back into the garage post visit, one of my favorite playlist songs, Landslide by Stevie Nicks came on. And with those poignant lyrics, about change and the insecurity of being able to handle it, I was completely triggered.
Hysterical crying for the next fifteen minutes, I was completely frozen in sorrow. An understandable grief? Absolutely, but emotionally ambushed by sadness, loneliness, fears and tears all the same.
In grieving, especially in the beginning, we are often held captive by our emotions and something called an Amygdala Hijack. When you have an immediate, overwhelming and outsized reaction to a stimulus that shouldn’t have caused such an extreme reaction, you’ve been hijacked by your amygdala.
The amygdala consists of a pair of small almond-shaped regions deep within your mid-brain, responsible for helping you experience and regulate emotions and encode experiences especially regarding your most emotional memories. Emotional regulation and memories, no wonder.
When you are hijacked by your amygdala and emotions, like when I was triggered by that reminiscent song, your neocortex, the most evolutionarily advanced part of your brain that deals with logic and rational thought, is being overridden.
Conscious control is surrendered, as the more primitive, ancient “reptilian” infrastructure where the amygdala resides, is now in control. You feel the quick emotional reaction to the environment and stimulus you encounter, often before logic and reason can prevail.
This primitive brain is designed to not think twice about the situation, but to quickly react in order to keep you alive. The amygdala senses an issue, and without asking the neocortex for permission or advice, the amygdala triggers an immediate fight, flight or freeze response. This can translate to emotional tearful or angry outbursts, running away, or hiding alone and within. And sometimes all three.
When we are grieving, a seemingly innocent stimulus like a song, a smell, a sight, a touch can cause a recall of painful emotions and result in an outsized reaction. Often, you are just going along with life, and suddenly you experience an uncontrollable emotions ambush.
You know you’ve been hijacked when you experience:
- A strong emotional reaction
- With sudden onset
- And a post-episodic realization that the reaction was outsized.
Some amygdala hijacks that I have experienced include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Uncontrollable sobbing at unexpected times like at the grocery store, remembering that favorite food she liked, or wonderful meal she prepared
- Tears at work, finding that email she sent to wish you a great day and good luck before that big presentation
- Collapsing to into the fetal position on your bed after hearing your wedding song
- Losing your ability to breathe and feeling an empty hole in your chest where your heart used to be after finding that special picture and the memory it holds.
These reactions can often be tied back to an amygdala hijack, and almost everyone I know who has lost their partner has experienced one or all of these reactions, sometimes all of them in a single day.
And then there are the angry outbursts over a perceived wrong that you would easily overlook prior to the loss. I can remember my friend Craig pulling me aside one day: “Hey I know that guy drove by your house a little bit too fast, but did you need to chase after him, cursing every word in the book as he sped away?“
When our emotions are in charge, the other elements of our being are all hijacked as well – compromising not just our mind but our body and spirit as well. Just looking at the impact on the body when you experience a hijack, where your heart rate and breathing are affected, and stress hormones like Cortisol are released.
And once your emotional system learns something like the trigger and hijack cycle described, it seems you never let it go. Repeated hijacks can lead to chronic longer term impacts including high blood pressure, weight gain, falling in to colds with more frequency, and much worse.
When our amygdala has been hijacked over and over, the impacts can manifest in what I like to categorize as DREAD, meaning:
- Depression – becoming severely despondent and dejected with life
- Resentment – angry feelings about being dealt a bad hand, particularly manifesting in a passive aggressive form
- Explosion – outbursts and meltdowns at an extreme level
- Anxiety – extreme feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease about the future
- Disease – From aches and pains in the mind and spirit to a manifesting of this dis-ease into the body itself.
The Four Ts: Transition, Think, Thank and Transcend
When you are overwhelmed with either short term emotional outbursts and certainly DREAD, what can you do to overcome these challenges, and not just in the immediate, but for the longer term as well?
We can’t control the situations we experience and the hijack, but we can control our response. The key is to achieve Peace from the hijack. Easier said than done, but I recommend executing the four Ts, from quelling the immediate response to achieving longer lasting resolution: Transition, Think, Thank and Transcend.
These are as follows:
1) Transition – It is hard to do anything when you are captured within the perceived emotional chaos of the hijack. In this moment before anything else we have to de-escalate the situation, in order for the logical part of your brain, the neocortex, to escape the grip of your primitive reptilian brain. You need an escape mechanism, an eject button. A way to transition from subconscious reaction to conscious thought.
A couple of ways to accomplish this transition include:
- Breathing – I use a simple breathing technique, taking two deep breaths in through my nose, holding it for a moment or two, and then one long breath out through the mouth (thank you Dr. Andrew Huberman). Many therapists and yogis recommend more advanced “box” breathing where you: Step 1: Breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs; Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds; Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds; Step 4: Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel re-centered.
- Movement – Certain movements can be used to help capture logical thought away from the emotional hijack. Raising my hands in prayer and then over my head in victory is a method I use, conjuring a Godly triumph over the primitive. A friend drops and gives 20 pushups. And certainly I’ve gone for a run, gym or spin class to clear out the emotions and retake control. Moving forward in any way has proven to stop the hijack, to the point where moving your eyes horizontally side to side, simulating your body moving forward, is used to help PTSD patients Your body can literally be used to control the mind through positive, strong and forward movements.
- Smiling and Laughing – Being able to let out a laugh or take on a big smile isn’t easy when you are reacting with tears, crying or anger, but if you can force either, you would be amazingly surprised at how quickly the overwhelming emotions and physical symptoms of the hijack dissipate.
These breathing techniques, movement and happiness attitudes can help quell the overwhelming thoughts and physical reactions, providing the space you need and drive the transition to think logically about the situation versus reacting emotionally.
2) Think – Now that you’ve transitioned control from the amygdala and the reptilian brain, calming the emotional and physical impacts, you now have an opportunity to think about the situation. So what do you think about, now that the neocortex is back in control?
According to Viktor E. Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
So what is the “clear and precise picture” of your suffering that we need to form in order for the suffering to cease?
Your brain remembers everything in the past, encodes the present, and represents future outcomes using the shorthand of storytelling. So to understand the clear picture of suffering, when you are in the throes of the hijack, what is the story that you tell yourself about the situation?
For me, when it was Christmas time and I was reacting to the song Landslide, I was thinking about two storylines, which may resonate with your own:
- The first story: When times were good, I didn’t appreciate how good we had it. Two beautiful daughters ripping into their Christmas gifts that Mom stayed up late to wrap perfectly. Their happy chuckles and screams of joy about that perfect gift that Mom selected. Christmas breakfast of french toast Challah bread which she cooked every year. You know, those little things that are so easy to take for granted.
- The second story: How am I ever going to have anything like that back again. After five Christmases, it hasn’t been even close. I haven’t been alone for every one, but the girls justifiably don’t want another woman or other children around. Can it ever be “normal” again?
I was regretful of the past, and fearful of a lonely future that would never compare. Not uncommon.
Recognizing these storylines, and writing them down so they were tangible and I could examine them, I now had a clearer and more concise picture of my challenges. I didn’t know how to address the issues yet, but awareness was achieved.
3) Thank – Once you understand the storylines of loss, guilt, regrets, loneliness, or whatever your personal story is, what should occur next?
The scripture, Philippians 4:6 NIV, tells us that “in order to not be anxious about anything, in every situation, we need to first pray and petition, and to do so with thanksgiving, presenting our requests to God”.
With picture clarity provided by thinking of and writing down the stories you have told yourself, it is now time to pray and petition, first about what is hanging on from the past, and then what you are anxious about for the future. And importantly, the scripture also indicates a most important element. It is not just that we need to pray and petition our requests to God, we need to do so with thanksgiving.
So I first prayed for forgiveness for my oversight and my sins of the past: “Dear Lord, please forgive me for not appreciating all of what I had and you provided me, with my beautiful bride Judy and my daughters in Christmases past. The peace, the love, the joy, the family. As if it was deserved and gifted to me forever, as all were taken for granted.”
And then, I petition for the future, with thanksgiving: “Lord, thank you for this Christmas with my daughters, that we are all healthy and home. Please provide me direction, to help my daughters be more joyful this and future Christmases despite not having Mom here, and please help to settle my own sadness and loneliness, providing me with the partnership, love and caring I need, in a way that can support and become a new family with new experiences.”
Rather than wallow in the loss and the story we tell ourselves, leveraging prayer and petition, and especially thanksgiving to God for the things you do have, can help us to reprogram the story and our response to it.
4) Transcend – With the prayer and petition complete, all is good right? Improved, absolutely, but the scripture indicates that we must do something further.
Examining Philippians again for the potential answer, we look at verse 4:7. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
In reviewing the word, we find that to achieve true peace, to have our hearts and minds guarded, we need to turn to Christ Jesus and his love. Without this, our hearts and minds will be left exposed and vulnerable, and as a result continue to suffer. We have to build our guard on a solid foundation with strong walls, not on this fragile world in which we live, but on the fabric of the universe: God’s love.
And the key word on how to do this in the word is “transcend”, Transcend means – “to be or to go beyond the defined range or limits”, “to triumph over negative or restrictive aspects”, and the utmost, “to be prior to, beyond and above the universe or material existence”.
If we are still tied to all things under the Sun, we will continue to experience grief. Everything here on earth will fall away, die and crumble. It is fragile, and the more we try to find solid footing, the more we fall backwards. Just when we think we have it al, another loss comes our way that hits us hard and that we don’t understand.
For me, I lost my mentor Dan, then my Dad, and then my beautiful bride, all within a short amount of time. The three people who guided me gone, leaving me more than adrift. Just when I thought I came to terms with one, another incredible loss leaving me worse off than before.
In order to alleviate the loss and grief, I needed to transcend from the love of my mentor, father and bride – from family, friends and partners – to put the love of God first and foremost. Transcendence for me comes from the SOUL and working on these four elements that form the acronym: Surrender, Obedience, Understanding and Love. These are:
- Surrender – I am not in control, and I give up this control to the Lord, knowing that I am in the good hands of a higher power
- Obedience – I ask the Lord to do His will with me, and guide me to exactly what He wants me to do, be and become
- Understanding – I seek understanding and acceptance of what He wants me to do, embracing His will
- Love – I embrace His love above all else, not relying just on the love of my daughters, family, or friends, which will eventually meet the same fate as everything material on this earth, but rely on His love which is the fabric of our existence and to bask in this everlasting peace.