“What’s an ‘amygdala hijack’ – and how would I know if I’ve had one?”
Let’s take the terminology first: the term emerged in Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book, ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ’. Goleman offered an accessible term for the neurological stimulus-response that occurs when the amygdala perceives a threat and we react instantly, emotionally and (often) irrationally. When I’m working with groups on topics such as handling difficult situations and managing upwards, it’s not unusual for examples of amygdala hijack to emerge.
How would you know if you’ve experienced one? If you’ve ever found yourself saying something like, “I don’t know what came over me!”, or “I wasn’t myself” (and more accurately) “I wasn’t thinking!” after your disproportionate reaction to a situation, chances are that your ‘emotional brain’ got there before your ‘rational brain’ and ‘hijacked’ your response. Or you may have been on the receiving end: a colleague, family member or a friend may have reacted strongly to an innocuous, everyday situation.
It’s not all bad: the tiny, prehistoric, amazing amygdala has done a great job of getting us humans and many other animals through aeons of evolution to here. (We’ve got two amygdalae actually: deep in our brains, behind our eyes).
This is where our primal ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response comes from; always on the look-out for threats, weighing up if we can eat or be eaten, mate with or be murdered by another animal. Anger and aggression, fear and anxiety, can be triggered by the amygdala. It’s not all bad II: the amygdala is also accredited with compassion – particularly caring for the young – and even acts of heroism.
And hundreds of thousands of years after dodging sabre-toothed tigers, we invented the office… air travel and overhead lockers… ‘Happy hour’ and other contemporary situations that open the door for ancient evolution to time travel into the present.
Thankfully, there are practical steps we can take to raise our emotional intelligence and improve our ability to handle an amygdala hijack.
After an amygdala hijack episode, give yourself a time-out to calmly reflect on what happened. Breathing slowly and deeply as you write (get it out of your head and onto paper), you’ll be able to access the more rational parts of your brain and look at the situation more clearly. The aim is to get a sense of the facts of what happened, without judgement.
Know your triggers
It could be when you’re asked to speak up in a meeting, when a colleague challenges your point or when you’re taking questions about your presentation. What sets off your fight/flight/freeze responses?
Spot the signs
Notice how you feel – emotionally and physiologically – when you’re stressed or upset. Name those emotions: afraid, angry, doubtful, anxious, edgy? Thinking about and identifying emotions will help to recover the IQ we lost when we ‘lost it’. What about the responses in your body: shallow breathing, tense muscles, sweaty palms? They’re not the end of the world; they’re simply indicators that you need to focus on the here and now of the situation and stay present.
We all know now that how we breathe makes a difference to how we think and behave. Practise steady breathing, with a slower exhalation than inhalation. It really does enable the body’s chemistry to support clarity of thought and expression. For more on this, see ‘How mindfulness helps mental wellbeing’, especially with responses to stress and anxiety.
Stay curious and compassionate
This applies to yourself in situations that may be triggers and towards the others involved. Question your own intrusive thoughts and notice how their apparent positive intent for you may not be right for right now. Use carefully worded questions to elicit what’s at stake for others and give them fair hearing.
Generate new responses
As you practise these steps, you’ll be able to find new ways of handling old situations. It may be as simple as pausing for a breath, or more active, such as asking a colleague to share their concerns.
You may find this post useful: ‘How do you handle setbacks?’
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