Posts Tagged ‘amygdala’

Artist: Roy Kanwit-     Taconic Sculpture Park

Artist: Roy Kanwit- Taconic Sculpture Park

In a recent post, Attachment Girl wrote a brilliant piece (Time to Run: The Power of the Amygdala) about how easily the amygdala is activated when under perceived threat, the rapid escalation of intense emotion and utter irrationality involved, and the role of the therapeutic relationship in relearning how to deal with situations that trigger a trauma reaction and how to calm the “hamster amygdala”. I highly recommend it.

In part 1 of Struggles with Transference, I described a situation where I walked into the session with my amygdala probably already partially activated and on the lookout for other signs of danger. When I saw that look on Mama Bear’s face, my amygdala went into over drive mode and all rational thought went out the window until Mama Bear was able to get me to start to analyze the situation. The brain functions that are required for analysis (among other higher brain functions) are incompatible with the amygdala running amok, so the shift in focus facilitated my calming down.

But what was it about Mama Bear’s look that triggered me so badly? Waking up from a nap later that afternoon, I could see my mother’s face overlaid on Mama Bear’s face, with the grim look in her eyes that she would get when she was really mad at me. I had magnified Mama Bear’s look to match my mother’s and then reacted to her exactly as if she was my mother. The thing was that if you had asked me before yesterday whether I react to my mother in fear, I would have said, “No!” But I have and I do. Every time I become anxious and shaky about confronting her, I do. Every time I avoid telling her what I need to tell her because I am too nervous, I am reacting to my mother in fear. It isn’t an “I’m afraid that you’re going to come after me and kill me” kind of fear, so I wasn’t conceptualizing it as fear, but even so, I do have a lot of fear that is related to her.

I am generally pretty good at recognizing when I have cast Mama Bear in the role of my mother. I may not be able to prevent the dynamic from playing out, but at least I can keep in mind that this is transference and I’m really reacting to my mom, not to Mama Bear. Not with this one! This is a dynamic that has played out between us 4 or 5 times now and I have never suspected that it was related to my mother at all. In fact, the fear is closer to the intensity that I associate with my grandfather, so I thought that it was related to him, somehow. This is not going to be easy to work through, but it is timely, because later on in the same session, we started to talk again about how I really need to figure out how I am going to deal with my parents. And there are very good reasons for me to figure it out sooner rather than later.

When I “saw” that image of my mom’s face overlaying Mama Bear’s yesterday, I also experienced something. I don’t know if it’s a literal memory or a representation of dynamics that my mind has pulled together to illustrate a point about my relationship with my mother, but it has a feeling of substance and meaning, so I’m going to pay attention to as something that is important to me. In it, we are in a department store and I have done something that has gotten my mother really upset with me. She says something along the lines of: “I just don’t know what to do with you”, turns around and stalks off, leaving me there. There are feelings of panic, shame, self loathing, desperation, and abandonment. I know that I have to completely make up for whatever it was that upset her in any way that is possible.

One of my fears about confronting my mother in even the slightest, most gentle way possible is that she will get upset and “I will betray myself.” I have never been able to figure out exactly what I mean by that statement; all I know is that it would undo a lot of the work that I have done over the last year or more. But in light of yesterday’s insight, I can see that in the face of my mother’s anger/distress, I feel an overwhelming need to capitulate and cast myself into whatever mold I believe that she wants/needs. I fear that I will throw all of me away in a child’s panicked response to fears of abandonment and rejection.

This sense that I will not be able to hold true to myself has been a huge stumbling block in regards to dealing with my parents. It doesn’t matter what I decide that I want to do with them, if inside I am convinced that “I will betray myself.” If I don’t believe that I can take care of myself, then I will keep on finding ways to avoid dealing with my parents.

I have no clue as to how to deal with this and I certainly hope that Mama Bear does, however I finally feel like I am starting to get a handle on why it feels so impossible to address anything with my parents. Maybe I can find a solution to this problem that I have felt tangled up in for so long.

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Artist: Mark Horst

Artist: Mark Horst

“We have stuff to talk about.” Mama Bear had a very serious look and she got straight down to business at the very beginning of the session.

“I know,” and I felt myself bracing for what might come and the very beginnings of feelings of panic.

I walked into my Wednesday session dreading it because I knew that I had written a very long e-mail to Mama Bear over the weekend that was incredibly honest about everything on my mind that I have been afraid to say to her. Things about figuring out what happened with my father, trying to figure out how to deal with my mother, questions about memory and dissociation and whether this whole thing could be true at all. Basically, I bared my soul in 2,000 words. Needless to say, it was an intense piece of writing. Mama Bear has been trying to work with me to reduce the amount of intensity that I am experiencing between sessions, so I knew that she wouldn’t have been thrilled to see the amount of turmoil that it represented. When I went into the session, I already felt like I had done something wrong and that I was in trouble.

I don’t remember what Mama Bear said next, all I remember is looking at her eyes and being stuck on how very serious they were and I felt more and more as though I was in trouble and increasingly young and frightened.

Mama Bear stopped, “What is going on, C?”

I struggled with what to tell her, because I felt ashamed for having the reaction that I was having. I was convinced that my reaction was wrong, so I couldn’t tell her about it. And the fear and sense of being in trouble continued to build.

“I really need for you to talk to me about what you are reacting to, because I don’t know.”

I found myself curling up in a ball.

“Do you feel young?” I nodded. “Do you know what age?” I shook my head. “Can you find your adult to help you tell me what is going on?”

I continued to struggle to say anything at all and I found myself shaking my head, because so much of me was determined to not reveal what a “stupid” reaction I was having. I felt frustrated because I could feel the minutes of my session ticking by, being wasted by this internal impasse that just felt so stupid, so I said, “Never mind. Just keep on going, please.”

“No. I can’t do that because I don’t have all of you here with me right now and I don’t know what is going on. I need for the adult you to join us so this child part can speak through you and tell me what is going on.” She fetched a pad of paper and pen and put them on the coffee table in front of me. “Here, write, engage that prefrontal cortex of yours. Your amygdala is way over stimulated.”

I took a few deep breaths and started to talk, although it felt as though I had to force the words through some thick substance that didn’t want to let them go. “I feel in trouble. I did something bad.”

“Who said you were in trouble? Who said that what you did was bad?”

I knew that she was trying to get me to analyse what actually had happened, rather than just respond to the trigger. It worked, too, because as I talked, I continued to calm. “I know that you didn’t actually say that I was in trouble or that I did something bad. That was why I felt so stupid about the reaction, and then I felt so ashamed.”

“Because you were doing things ‘wrong’?” Mama Bear knows that is my persistent struggle.


She sighed. “This has happened before. Every time I start to talk to you the way that I did today, you have this reaction. It is a combination of a reaction to what is happening now and you also are strongly reacting to something remembered. I am not angry with you. I do not think that you did something bad. I am glad that you were honest. But I am concerned and we need to figure out solutions to some problems because you are getting hurt the way that things are happening now. I don’t like seeing you get hurt.”

And we moved on with the session from there. I thought that the matter was taken care of for now, but then later in the day it hit me, I knew exactly what I was reacting to.

To be continued in Part 2

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“I feel ridiculous! A normal person wouldn’t have such an extreme reaction to the request to call her father for his birthday!”

“You do not have a normal father. You do not have a normal family. Why would you expect to have a normal reaction?”

Mama Bear made a good point there.

This was a part of the phone conversation that I wrote about in Working Through Fears, but I know that I do this all of the time. Too often, I make critical judgments of myself because I am not able to do things in a ‘normal’ manner (whatever that really means.) However, I am dealing with experiences that are out of the ‘normal’ range and that is why I am having ‘abnormal’ responses. It isn’t because I am weak or there is something inherently wrong with me; it is because my brain learned how to respond in certain ways when I was young so I could get through experiences that I should never have been exposed to. I survived, so my brain thinks that I should keep on using the same responses. Fortunately, I am now living in a very different situation, which means that the responses aren’t needed any longer; unfortunately my brain doesn’t fully understand that yet.

We continued on to talk about whether I would respond to my mother’s request…

“I know that you are very frightened and I know that your amygdala is convinced that you are under threat, but are you really in danger right now, if you send what we talked about?”

Pause… “No, not really. But it certainly feels like it.”

“Yes, it does. But you aren’t in danger. In some ways, I am asking you to ignore everything that your instincts are telling you and just go with what your reason is telling you. Right now, your instincts just aren’t going to be right about this, because your amygdala is so caught up in responding to the threat that you were under as a child, but you aren’t under that threat now. You need to decide to do whatever is most right for you, but I want for you to also know that whatever you do, it won’t put you in danger.”

I sat there and thought about this hard and it made a lot of sense. It gave me a way to think about what was going on that was compassionate and understanding, rather than judging. My brain was stuck in having an ‘abnormal’ response and it really did feel like every instinct was screaming, “Danger! Danger!” at me, but I could also see that while my mother’s reaction might be difficult and unpleasant for me to deal with, there was no life and death danger there. Every bit of me was convinced that there was, but there really wasn’t.

Judging myself for having such an extreme reaction to the idea of having an honest dialogue with my mom wasn’t useful or fair. I was dealing with an abnormal situation, and as Mama Bear so often points out, self compassion and understanding generally are more useful than self criticism. Self criticism helps to reinforce my feeling under threat, while compassion and understand can help to dissolve that sense of threat. And so I eased myself into taking a step back, accepting that my intuition told me that communication with my mother was dangerous, but also holding in my mind that the sense of danger was false. Slowly the fear eased and I became able to think about what I wanted to do, rather than just reacting out of fear.

The first step to this process was to accept that I can’t expect to have a normal reaction to a situation that has little to nothing that is normal about it. I don’t think that I am the only one here who tends to become angry with herself because her reactions tend toward the extreme, even when she can see that that extreme isn’t really warranted. So I thought that I would share with you that bit of Mama Bear wisdom… Is what you are dealing with ‘normal’? If not, why would you expect to have a ‘normal’ reaction? Rather than judging your reaction, can you look at it with self compassion?

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