Raging on the road

Sometimes people just lose it.

All of us have had times when we’ve freaked out or reacted at a level not matching the situation.

I clearly remember the time when my husband and I were T-boned after a lovely evening visiting in Vernon. Unfortunately, so does my husband, Tom.

I didn’t see her coming. I didn’t realize she’d run the stop sign, until I felt the impact and was thrown sideways in the van.

I instantly saw red. Oh, the potty mouth on me was shameful. It was lucky my door was jammed shut by the impact, because I could have done something stupid.

Tom wanted to keep me stuck inside the van and get me away from the accident scene quickly to prevent something more from happening.

For much of the ride home, our vehicle was silent.

My husband kept looking at me and shaking his head. I’d become someone he didn’t know for those few seconds, and he seemed horrified. I felt embarrassed and didn’t truly understand what had happened.

Not my finest moment, for sure.

As reason returned, remorse and confusion filled me.

I hadn’t given one thought about the poor woman who’d hit us. I wasn’t the least bit concerned for her well-being until well after the impact. That wasn’t like me.

I became somebody else for those few moments, and I could have done some serious damage.

We hear about people exploding over a seemingly insignificant incident.

Reports of road rage incidents are commonplace. “What kind of idiot would act like that? What were they thinking?”

As it turns out, nothing. They weren’t thinking because they’d been hijacked.

These incidents are called an amygdala hijacking, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in 1996.

An amygdala hijacking is an immediate, over-whelming emotional response that’s out of proportion to what’s happened.

The amygdala, the fight-or-flight centre of the brain, is part of the reptilian brain. The amygdala does not process rational thought; it simply reacts. It bypasses the higher function and reason of the brain’s neocortex.

When we’re hijacked by the amygdala, reality becomes distorted. We’re not seeing what’s really in front of us or hearing properly. Our sense of time is altered when the amygdala is running the show.

The brain’s neocortex separates us from animals. It’s most evolved in the human species, allowing us to preform the intelligent things animals can’t. This reasoning/thinking part of the brain gets bypassed when we need to react quickly. Don’t think, just react!

This is a good thing if we need to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit by a car, or a bear is chasing us. It’s not such a good thing when it causes us to lose control and react to non-life-threatening situations.

Highly stressed people are at increased risk for hijacking. Living in a reactive mode can easily become a habit. It destroys relationships and families, and results with people being considered hot-heads.

People may feel victim to this response and believe they’re just wired this way. In truth, they may be wired this way because they’ve lived life in survival mode. What you practice grows stronger.

The good news is the changeable nature of the brain.

We can change a reactive nature to gain better control over the reptilian brain, and learn to allow the thinking parts of the brain to kick in. This puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives instead of living life in reaction, always scanning the environment for immanent danger.

With awareness, we can learn the value of pausing when we feel the rush of adrenaline start pouring through our bodies. Pause and take several deep, slow, conscious breaths, to give the thinking centre of the brain a chance to kick in.

With practice, we can gain self-awareness into what’s happening within ourselves before we explode. We may still take the same action, but at least we’ve thought about it, and can respond instead of simply react. We can become more skilled.

I’m grateful for my own less-than-stellar hijacking incident. It’s helped me understand and experience what happens inside a stress-filled brain and body.

Mindfulness practice has caused my brain to change from being wired by stress into one of greater calm and awareness.

My heart fills with compassion now, instead of judgment, when I hear reports of road rage and similar incidents. The stress level many people are experiencing today is showing up in these reports.

Learning to pause and just breathe may be one of the most powerful practices you can do to protect yourself from hijacking.


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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected]mail.com.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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