Emotions can derail even our well thought out plans. Have you ever experienced that feeling of brain fog, or loss of your key thoughts right before a presentation or an important meeting? Your left wondering how this could’ve happened, even if you were well rehearsed and prepared? Well, there’s a particular portion of our brain that does that! It gets triggered when we perceive danger, fear or other stressors. Presentations and many other work related scenarios can trigger stress. This part of the brain is the driver of our fight or flight responses. This is called the Amygdala. 

It’s critical to understand the Amygdala as it controls your ability to logically respond versus emotionally overreact to circumstances. As a stunning leader, you want to be thoughtful and intentional in your responses; especially with your team. So let’s take a look to see how it all works and what you can do about it.

Amygdala

The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain. The amygdala is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them; so essentially emotional memories. The amygdala is considered to be part of the brain’s limbic system, which is key to how you process strong emotions like fear and pleasure.

What is an Amygdala Hijack?

The amygdala hijack happens when our irrational emotions, such as heightened fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger, take over our rational mind, triggering the fight or flight reaction.

Fight or flight

Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being killed, or injured by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight- or-flight response evolved. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows you to react quickly without thinking and diverts functions within the body to support the fight or flight. When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. 

Frontal lobes

The frontal lobes are the two large areas at the front of your brain. They’re part of the cerebral cortex, which is a newer, rational, and more advanced brain system and is where thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning happen. The frontal lobes allow you to process and think about your emotions. You can then manage these emotions and determine a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from your frontal lobes is consciously controlled by you.

When you sense danger is present, your amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, your frontal lobes are processing the information to determine if danger really is present and the most logical response to it. When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes override the amygdala, and you respond in the most rational, appropriate way. However, when the threat is strong, the amygdala acts quickly. It may overpower the frontal lobes, automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response.

The fight-or-flight response was appropriate for early humans because of threats of physical harm. Today, there are far fewer physical threats, but there are a lot of psychological threats caused by the pressures and stresses of modern life. When stress makes you feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated. It often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreaction to the situation. You may even regret your reaction later.

A psychologist named Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to stress, the “amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” It happens when a situation causes your amygdala to hijack control of your response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response. Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala.

Goleman also popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) and its use to help manage your emotions and guide your behavior and thinking. EI refers to recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions and recognizing, understanding, and influencing those of other people.

You can improve your EI with regular practice of controlling your emotions and staying calm when they overwhelm you, along with reframing the situation. To do this, you must first be aware of your emotions and the feelings of others.

What are the Symptoms of an Amygdala Hijack?

The symptoms of amygdala hijack are due to the effects of the two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both hormones are released from your adrenal glands to prepare your body to flee or fight.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that affects many of your body’s functions, including preparing it for the fight-or-flight response. The main job of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is to stimulate your body systems so they’re ready to respond to a threat.

Stress hormones, primarily adrenaline, do a number of things you may not notice, including:

  • increase your blood sugar for more energy
  • relax your airways, opening them up so you can take in more oxygen
  • dilate your pupils to enhance your vision
  • increase the blood flow to your muscles for maximum speed and strength

Symptoms you may notice include:

  • sweaty palms
  • rapid heartbeat
  • goosebumps on your skin

After the amygdala hijack, you may feel regret or embarrassment because your behavior may have been inappropriate or irrational.

How can you Stop an Amygdala Hijack?

Symptoms of amygdala hijack can be eased or stopped by consciously activating your frontal cortex, the rational, logical part of your brain. This may take some practice and persistence.

There are two main ways to prevent amygdala hijack. Using these techniques, you can stop the shutdown of your frontal lobes, override the automatic response of your amygdala, and consciously control your response.

  • Meditation, Mindfulness & Breathing. By relaxing your body and mind through meditation, practising mindfulness, or deep breathing, you can change your brain’s focus from responding to a threat or stress to inner peace and calmness.
  • Reasoning. This means you use your frontal lobes to think the situation through, review the possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond.

Practice these techniques when you’re not experiencing an amygdala hijack so you can draw on them unconsciously, the next time you’re in a stressful situation.

What to do when the Amygdala Hijacks You

The first step is to acknowledge that you feel threatened, or stressed and that your fight-or-flight response has been activated. Become aware of how your emotions and body react to significant stress. Reviewing an episode after it’s over can help to bring consciousness to the trigger, the amygdala hijack and your responses. 

When you notice the fight-or-flight response has been activated, your goal is to calm down and take control. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is an automatic response, not necessarily the best or most logical one.  Learn to become aware of your triggers and warning signs, and notice when they’re present.  Try to pause for a moment to notice what triggered it. Anything that causes emotional, physical, or mental stress can be a trigger. There are general categories of stressors that affect everyone to some degree, but specific triggers will be different for everyone. When you feel threatened or afraid, pause and look for behaviors, bodily changes, or warning signs that are happening at the same time. 

A good way to do this is with mindfulness. This refers to staying in the present and being aware of what you’re feeling and thinking, your bodily sensations, and stimuli from your environment. Don’t try to judge or label the situation as good or bad. Focus only on the current moment, not future tasks or past problems. Mindfulness takes practice, but it can be done at almost any time. When you’re waiting in the car or going for a walk, take time to focus on what you’re thinking and feeling and what’s happening around you. At first, your mind will quickly start to wander. With more practice, though, it’ll be easier to stay in the moment.

Another way to stay present is to focus on your breathing. Focus on the air moving in and out of your nose and how it changes between inhaling and exhaling. Notice which parts of your body move when you take a breath. In practicing deep breathing,  you slow your heart rate down, thereby creating calm. Breathe slowly and evenly. 

When you’re a little calmer, this is where you will start to consciously engage your frontal lobes by digging in further and breaking down the situation and finding a thoughtful, rational solution. Try to stop and think of ways to reframe the situation and ask yourself some questions; are their other perspectives you could consider, are there other things going on that could influence the situation or person? Do others feel the way you do, what value do you add where, what is the threat really? These will help to calm the mind further and rationalize the situation; essentially change your energy.

Summary

The modern world is full of stress. We often feel this psychological stress when we see things on the news or social media, such as dangerous events, natural disasters, or day to day at work, because of a toxic environment. Your amygdala can respond to this stress as if it’s a physical threat to you. It can take control of your brain and trigger your fight-or-flight response. You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by breathing, slowing down, and trying to focus your thoughts. This allows your frontal cortex to regain control. You can then choose the most reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation. Practicing these techniques regularly can help prepare you for stressful situations.