Help! My Brain’s Been Hijacked!

 In America

It’s a recurrent scenario. It’s late Sunday afternoon. My kids will be picked up by their Dad in an hour to go his house for the upcoming week. I ask my 16 year-old daughter to start packing so that when he arrives we don’t have to sit and wait for 20 minutes while she gathers her belongings. Not that I have trouble making conversation with my ex, but sometimes I just don’t feel like it.  By the time “handoff” rolls around on Sundays, I am more than ready to reclaim my home and my serenity after a week with two feisty teenagers.


Instead of complying, she insists that she “can pack in five minutes”. Her resistance makes my heart rate soar and blood rush into my face. “That’s not true!” I reply.  “Yes it is!! I ALWAYS get my packing done” she answers, vocal pitch rising and eyes flashing. Oh, no…here we go… a power struggle in the making. I think back to all the times sitting across from my ex in the living room waiting for her to gather her belongings.  My words burst forth louder now: “You can’t wait until the last minute to start packing, please start now!!” I can feel myself teetering on losing “it. My reasoning brain has been hijacked by my emotional brain, which wrongly interprets this as a life or death situation.

Soon we are exchanging rapid fire sentences and the affection we shared minutes ago has vanished. My 15 year-old son looks up at me and quietly pleads “Don’t do this here,” recognizing the start of a bickering skirmish that erupts from nowhere and goes nowhere. I escape to my office before I say something that throws gasoline on the fire. I’ve learned through bitter experience to retreat when I’m flooded with emotion, because only trouble will occur if I don’t. I sit down, take some deep breaths and allow my “wise” mind to wrest control from the crazy fight-or-flight part of my brain.

This scenario can occur with my ex sometimes, too: He doesn’t respond to an important email I send that needs follow-up;  he accuses me of being the source of my daughter’s anxiety issues; or my kids complain bitterly that Dad’s house is a pigsty and they don’t want to go there. All of these circumstances can evoke an over-sized reaction causing my brain to flood with negative, dramatic thoughts such as “I’m ALWAYS the one who has to take care of EVERYTHING,” “How dare he blame all of her problems on me??,” “Oh my poor children are suffering at the hands of their slobby father!!”

Then, in reaction to the horrible feelings these thoughts generate I become confrontational, critical or defensive with my ex. He in turn, reactions emotionally. Any chance for constructive problem solving has been destroyed. And then it might take days or weeks to restore good will between us, adding anxiety and stress to my life–which in turn is not good for my kids.

So now when my primitive brain gets triggered I call upon reason to guide me. My first step is to consider different thoughts: “If he doesn’t get back to me in time, I’ll decide what to do next” “Okay, he’s blaming me about our daughter. So what? He can think what he wants” “My kids can tolerate living in a mess. It builds resilience”. Now I have a chance to act in a sane, productive way…which feels so much better and creates so much better results.

We don’t have to live as hostages to every inflamed thought our brain generates. We can take time to consider more reasonable thoughts and actions. Now can live a life of emotional freedom and create a manageable relationship with our kids’ father. They’re counting on it.
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