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Bracing for an Amygdala Hijack Using Humor to Destress This Holiday Season

I’m no physician, and I don’t pretend to play one on tv, but like millions of Americans, that doesn’t stop me from periodically, (albeit often foolishly) self-diagnosing myself with popular ailments that I read on the Internet. Yesterday was no exception. Yesterday afternoon, while preparing to write this blog I diagnosed myself with Amygdala Hijack Syndrome (or AHS as I like to call it, because all cool ailments and medical terms need an acronym).

The day started as most chaotic school mornings do – wake up snuggled children who no more want to get out of a warm bed then I want to clean the bathroom, locate socks (thankfully matching is no prerequisite these days), brush hair, make their school lunches, ask my pint-sized, mini adults to move faster and kindly remind them that this is the same routine that we have adopted since the beginning of school in September. Dare I say it was a pretty normal morning?

As we are getting our coats, hats, boots and mittens on, I am gently reminded that we STILL need to finish putting the ornaments on the tree, fix the lights so that we can illuminate the room in festive colors and put up some Christmas decorations. By the way, it is only 10 days until Christmas. I assured them that we would get to it, preferably before Christmas break.

After I drop them off at the elementary school doors, I think about their innocence and the magic that comes with the Christmas season … and their questions. Almost immediately, my thinking is countered with adult thoughts of crowded stores, abundant food and reconnecting with cherished family and friends. It was also painfully aware of house guests, cooking, cleaning and shopping. Throw in some charity, add the pressure of another New Year … and well, the stress was kicking in.

And, it was in this moment when the hijack began. My thoughts drifted from child-like innocence to cynicism and anxiety. The amygdala, the part of the brain that handles emotions, had decided that this moment, on Colfax Avenue in my little blue four-door Chevy Cruz that it should have an immediate and unproportioned response to Christmas decorating and embracing the season.

I began to shut-down. I thought about my plan of not getting out of bed Christmas morning until it’s time for a Totino’s pizza, or I have to pee – whichever comes first. I envision my cozy pajamas, my comfy, camouflaged pillow and the tv remote control that will remain within an arm’s reach. I mentally rehearse my proposed tv schedule – alternating between self-inflecting myself with a Hallmark’s Christmas Movie marathon and mind-numbing episodes of NCIS LA reruns. I am ready to feel sorry for myself all day long!

And, why shouldn’t I be. In that moment, I believed that I was entitled to being crabby, isolated, angry and defeated. I am a single, divorced mom who lost not only her oldest daughter, but also her dad just three years ago to cancer and, despite working full-time, feels the financial pressure of adult obligations coupled with shopping for Santa. Life wasn’t fair or jolly and it certainly didn’t look like a vision of sugar plums dancing in my head.

My amygdala was in full force. And, why not, I was feeding it everything it needed to thrive. I was feeding it pity, disappointment, misfortune and shame. The hijack was inevitable and I was determined to be its star student!

By nature, I am a ridiculously optimistic, competitive person. I think my momma embedded emotional logic and ruthless optimism in me when I was a wee little ankle biter. And it was this emotional foundation that was bound and determined to defend against the amygdala hijack and bring back the lost smiles and sense of hope.

As I explored the Internet in search of that magic formula, I stumbled across the definition of hijack. And, while there are multiple definitions, there was one that caught my attention … “to take something without permission.” That led me to wonder, have I given myself permission to think like this? Have I told myself that because of the circumstances of recent years that I am entitled to thinking like crap? Have I subconsciously, or maybe consciously, given my amygdala permission to overreact?

Have I trained my head to protect my heart from a significant emotional threat and hijacked my optimism to protect me from the pain of precious memories, and at the same time prevent me from making new ones?

And, that’s when I heard her. Pamela. My mentor. I heard her Missourian drawl in my head reminding me … “don’t let your stinkin’ thinkin’ steal your joy.” I could hear her saying “Get up, become your best, enjoy the ride and help others do the same.”

It was like an mp3 file on steroids. Pamela’s messages, along with words of wisdom from some of my favorite women – Brene Brown, Karen Salmanson and Lady Gaga – they were all echoing in my head.

I heard Brene’s wisdom, “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.” That’s right, I AM a beautiful single mom with two fabulous daughters on earth and one amazing one in heaven. I don’t need to embrace the stereotype that because I am grieving means I need to be robbed of joy. I can embrace the season and be joyful, in spite of my circumstances.

I heard Karen’s wisdom, “If you can drive yourself crazy, you can drive yourself happy.” That’s right, I can CHOOSE to be happy. I can CHOOSE to believe in the magic and the hope of the season.

It was a temporary bumpy ride redirecting my Amygdala, but as Pamela reminds me, I AM an overcomer. So, from one overcomer to another … Abandon the expectations. Abandon the stinkin’ thinkin’. Embrace Who You Are. Drive Yourself Happy. And the next time you are feeling yourself struggling with the glitz and glamour of the holidays and losing your ability to respond with humor and grace, channel your inner Lady Gaga and remind yourself “We were all born to be superstars!”

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