Subduing the hijacker in your brain | 4 steps to regain control
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone said or did something and you reacted instantly? I know that I have. It’s not always pretty.
This is a natural human response when we somehow feel threatened. We call it the “flight or fight” response. It is also referred to as the “amygdala hijack," a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book called Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Think back to a situation where you reacted instantly—and where you may have regretted or felt embarrassed about how you reacted. The term “hijack” may resonate with you.
That wasn’t you, was it? So, what was really going on there?
The amygdala hijack
The amygdala resides near the base of the brain and is core to how we process strong emotions. When we experience a threat, the amygdala is activated and releases stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—to prepare the body to react quickly.
The response may be triggered by strong emotions such as fear, anxiety or anger.
While the amygdala is the seat of emotions within our brain, the frontal lobes are home to rational thinking, reasoning and logical decision-making. This is the part of our brain that allows us to think about, process and manage our emotions. When we can do this, we are able to manage and recover more quickly from amygdala hijacks that result in irrational or illogical over-reactions.
Noticing, processing and managing our emotions—taking back control after an amygdala hijack—are key skills in emotional intelligence. And the good news is that emotional intelligence can be developed and enhanced.
The skill of self-awareness, which may include pausing to notice what your body is doing and naming what emotion(s) you are feeling, can be practiced. In fact, taking time to do this creates space between the trigger and your response to it, giving you time to regain composure and respond rationally.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor said,
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This may sound easier said than done. After all, our reactions during an amygdala hijack are almost instantaneous. But, being self-aware and taking time to notice our reactions can help us regain our composure more quickly.
Psychologist Albert Ellis developed the framework shown below for modifying and changing our feelings by applying logic and deductive reasoning. He taught us that if we can tune into our beliefs and self-talk, we can shift our thinking and adjust how we respond to a situation.
Imagine this scenario
Your boss has scheduled a weekly meeting with you since you started working with him several months ago. Ten minutes before today’s meeting he sends you an email and cancels the meeting without explanation—for the third week in a row. (A - the activating event or trigger.)
Your body reacts. Your heart starts to pound. Your stomach starts to churn. You slam down the lid of your laptop and call your colleague to complain about your boss. (C – the consequence or response.)
This is an example of an amygdala hijack—an emotional reaction to a trigger. It seems you’ve gone directly from trigger to response with no “space” between. Or at least you didn’t notice the beliefs and feelings that led to your response.
If you could rewind and play this scenario again, what might you learn about your response and how could this help you next time?
4 steps to regain control
Use the scenario above, or another situation that you’ve experienced, to try out these simple steps. You may be surprised at the result.
Notice what is happening in your body. Pay attention to your body. For example, what is happening with your heart rate? What about your palms or your gut? Take a couple of deep breaths. This is shown to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down and better manages our stress responses. How does your body respond to a triggering event and what does it tell you?
Pause and listen to the story in your head. We often jump straight from A (the trigger) to C (our response) without even noticing our thoughts. This step creates space between the trigger and our response to it. When you find yourself jumping from A to C, pause and back yourself up to consider B: your beliefs. In the scenario above, what thoughts might you have? You think the boss doesn’t value your time. Or worse, you’ve told yourself that your contributions aren’t good enough. And what else? What new awareness might you gain by thinking about the self-talk and beliefs you hold, leading to C (your response)?
Debate, dispute and discard your self-sabotaging beliefs. Sometimes our beliefs don’t serve us well. They may be based on assumptions about another person's intentions, or unfounded beliefs about yourself. By taking a step back, you may be able to look at the situation more rationally. Is there a logical explanation? Maybe the boss was expected to attend an urgent meeting. And what else? What might you learn about yourself or the incident that you can apply to another situation?
Adopt new beliefs Debating, disputing and discarding your self-sabotaging beliefs can shift your understanding, beliefs and behaviours. What was the effect of debating and disputing your assumptions and beliefs? How would adopting a new, truer belief about yourself alter your feelings and behaviours the next time you find yourself being triggered?
These simple steps help diffuse a strong and immediate emotional response to a trigger—an amygdala hijack. But they are also helpful in less emotionally charged situations.
Developing the practice of noticing, processing and managing our emotions is a step towards greater self-awareness and enhanced emotional intelligence.
Would you like to know more about emotional intelligence? Connect with me and let’s talk.