beware of amygdala hijacks!

05/01/2013

by anne lueneburger

As this is one of our top blogs that has received over 60,000 hits and the idea of managing our emotions more effectively never gets old, we decided to re-post this entry  for all of you who have not yet had a chance to read it.

We’ve all been there…

  • You received an email that upset or frustrated you. Were you tempted to hit ‘reply all’, and type a very direct response and send it off with lightning speed….?
  • You’re sitting in a feedback meeting and your boss is telling you that your performance is below expectations. Do you stop him mid sentence, raise your voice and tell him that Brad S. – your ‘peer’ – is a lousy team player and that it’s all his fault?

When we have these experiences and are tempted to react in – what we know in retrospect would be an irrational way – we are experiencing what psychologists call an ‘amygdala hijack’: your emotions taking over your actions.

What happens?

amygdala hijack (If you’re not interested in the biological bit then move on to ‘Quick interventions’!)

When we experience an amygdala hijack, the emotional part of the brain – the amygdala – overrides the thinking part of the brain – the neocortex – in response to a perceived threat. Depending on the degree of hijack, your ability to reason and think logically is compromised. Your working memory will become less efficient and your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.  It can take 3 to 4 hours for it to clear your system…

While an overactive amygdala serves a useful purpose when faced with a genuine physical threat (when emotions and reactions are crucial), it can cause problems when faced with an emotional threat.

During the hijack, your number of perceived options will decrease dramatically.  Instead of maybe 4 ways of resolving a problem, you will only perceive 3, then 2 (giving you an either/or choice), and then only 1.  When there is only 1 option left: the hijack is complete. You will turn to default, habitual behaviors: you are on auto-pilot and liable to make dangerously biased decisions, and you lose your ability to communicate effectively.

Successful leaders and business people have to know how to bypass the amygdala hijack. Here are some tactics to help you avoid making any rash decisions.

O Quick interventions

Channel your frustration. Use the extra adrenaline to develop an assertive, but not aggressive, response to the problem. Find what is triggering the emotions in your head.  This will help to keep the neocortex active, and prevent the amygdala from taking over. This also enables you to make your opinion known without hurting others (an aggressive response could spark a spiral of negative exchanges: which isn’t good for anybody).

Physically withdraw. If you sense the hijack, consider removing yourself physically from the situation until you can think more clearly. It can be as simple as excusing yourself to use the restroom or taking a break in the meeting (if you’re chairing it).  If you’re on the phone, you can always say that “something’s come up” and could you call back in a few minutes?

Breathe deeply. Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm (not your chest, as shallow breathing produces carbon monoxide!) with intention and purpose. Pay attention to your breath: repeat ‘in and out’. This oxygenates your neocortex, keeping it engaged and your emotions in check.

Create a mantra. If you know you are about to enter a difficult meeting then come up with a ‘mantra’ that keeps you sane, such as ‘success is the best revenge’ or ‘focus on what matters’. Write this mantra on papers that you bring to the meeting and, if you feel your emotions taking over, look at your mantra and repeat it in your head.

Zing yourself. This is an interesting technique borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming (too big an area to cover in this entry!).  What you need to do: before the meeting put a rubber band on your wrist, then ‘zing’ yourself (snap the band against your wrist) and repeat a mantra such as ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’. Once you’re in the meeting and feel tension beginning to rise, zing yourself again. This will remind you of and enforce your mantra: this really does work!

Envision. For some of you, zinging yourself may sound a bit painfulJ.  If so, then try to just visualize a relaxing experience: a calm blue glacier lake, a green pasture with horses grazing…anything that either your memory or imagination offers you and helps you to relax.

Be appreciative. It may be challenging, but strive to look at the positive aspects of a situation: including the person you may feel aggrieved by. Try to see if there is anything true or helpful in what they say or who they are.

Use humor. This may not necessarily involve you injecting humor into the situation (it can, but bear in mind that this could be misunderstood by the other party). You could, for example, when you are upset and ready to use some extreme (maybe offensive!) words, stop and visualize what you are ‘literally’ saying to the other person – or advising them to do… This should help you not to take yourself so seriously!

Role-play. If you know that an encounter could present problems, then think about role playing the situation – either in your head or with a partner. This is a highly effective tactic for preparing yourself for every eventuality and giving your emotional self a ‘heads up’.

O Long term interventions

Create learnings. Take the time to revisit the hijack experience after it’s over to learn more about what happened and why. Identify the trigger and you’ll better manage your emotions and interrupt the hijack if it happens again.

Loving-kindness meditation. Scientist Barbara Fredrickson, expert on well-being and positive emotions recommends meditation in her latest book. Loving-kindness meditation is a powerful tool to help you manage the frustrations and challenges that life can bring.

Yoga. As with meditation, yoga is a powerful tool for managing emotional distress and creating a balance within that help you deal with difficult situations. Busy executives are increasingly practicing yoga as a means of reducing tension and managing stress.

Company programs. There are company programs in place that recognize the importance of sound mind and sound body: such as the Stanford Corporate health program.  This is a joint effort between the school and leading corporations such as AT&T, Bank of America and IBM.

Read up. Robert Sapolsky, eminent American stress researcher, has written a great book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Sapolsky recommends prevention – learning to recognize the signs of the stress response, and identifying and mastering the situations that trigger it…

So… if you think that you’re about to have an amygdala hijack: be aware of it, master some techniques to help you through and – most importantly – DON’T HIT SEND!

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3 Responses to “beware of amygdala hijacks!”

  1. David Hyatt Says:

    This is a fantastic summary. Thank you.

  2. Doug Jackson Says:

    You say that the aftermath of an amygdala hyjack can take 3-4 hours to clear the system. This is of particular interest to me. I work with juveniles in detention centers. It’s difficult to get security to understand why kids stay angry and don’t buy that they can more easily be set off even hours later. Are there studies you’ve read that address this? Thanks,

    • northofneutral Says:

      hi doug! thanks for your comment. difficult to answer this in a few sentences, but here a few thoughts you might find helpful. from brain research we know that typically any emotion we have subsides within 90 seconds of its occurrence. however, if an emotion such as anger continues, it is because we hold onto that emotion/”remind ourselves” to keep being angry/sad/etc.. check out this great ted talk http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight#t-112326.

      however, once we become aware of an emotion and identify its triggers (so we are no longer in the sub-conscious/on autopilot), we equally have the choice to break that circuit through breathing techniques, distraction or having someone we can confide in/vent to etc.. your work sounds very important as well as challenging as you are likely dealing with v. deep seated emotional trauma and so to break that circuit will probably take a lot of work on the self awareness/anger mgt front before you can see a change in behavior.

      i think your approach of helping the security guard understand more about what goes on sounds generally like a very good idea. how you can help them develop empathy for these kids probably is a tough one, even if you have data. as the security guards are likely dealing with emotions themselves, as they might be aggressed/feel unfairly treated/stigmatize etc. the article i wrote on hijacks dates a while back but if you google anger/emotions/hijacks a bit you will likely come across articles that describe how chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the body and how often individuals who deal with chronic anger lack the hormone acetylcholine which can temper the effects of the adrenaline. this can lead to anxiety, depression, aggression as well as serious physical health consequences (heart/kidney/liver) over time.

      in addition to doing research around data on anger and its effects, what are other ways that you can help the security guards develop a greater understanding and empathy? what are models of detention centers where there is more of an understanding and what has helped facilitate this?

      hope this was helpful and my very best wishes to you, anne


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