November 13, 2018

Fighting the amygdala hijack

Have you ever been in an emotional “storm?”

I’m talking about an event in which your feelings caught you unaware and you responded in a way you wished you hadn’t.

If you’ve been there — and we all have — you’ve experienced an amygdala hijack.  This post may help you understand why and how it happened, and how to do better next time.

The amygdala hijack

Human beings come with many emotions, among them joy, sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety and fear.  Each of us has experienced all of these and hopefully we have all of them in our “range” of emotional capacity.  But sometimes the more negative of these emotions can lead us to act in ways that even we don’t recognize.

Do you know what your “default” responses are when you are angry, anxious or afraid?  Sometimes we get irritable, sometimes we withdraw, and sometimes we either “come out swinging” in a verbal or physical way or we storm away from the situation.  These responses are also known as “fight, flight or freeze.”  These are the normal responses of our sympathetic nervous system, and they are natural responses.  But they are also not always helpful in personal or professional relationships.

These emotions and the processes that control them are housed in the amygdala (UH-mig-DA-la).  This is a tiny part in the center of the brain — the limbic system — that acts as the switchboard for sorting out threats and other noxious stimuli. You can learn more on the neuroscience here.

If the amygdala gets triggered, it can take over, or hijack everything we do very quickly. Once the cascade starts, it’s hard to stop. So how do we interrupt, or prevent, the amygdala hijack?

Start with self-awareness

Understanding that there is this “fight, flight or freeze” response is the first step in learning to manage it.  The next step is recognizing what triggers that response.  It might be when someone is yelling at you, or accusing you of doing something negative.  If you think someone is lying to you, that can trigger the response, too.  If you perceive a threat to your work, your career, or your physical body, this certainly can be a trigger.

Next in the process, try to figure out what your go-to behavior is.  Do you walk (or storm) away (flight/flee)?  Do you yell and get physically confrontational (fight)?  Do you withdraw and stop talking (freeze)?  Knowing your default behavior helps you recognize the earliest stages of being triggered, and this may give you a chance to interrupt the behavior.

If you know your triggers, you can learn to insert a pause between the trigger and the emotional response.  That pause could be a deep breath, a count to three (or five or 10), or a brief reframe of the situation.  Something like, “Could we take a step back and figure out what the real issues are here before we go any further,” is a workable way to interrupt a situation that is spiraling.

Next, ask yourself if the other person is also triggered.  If they are, recognize that and interrupt the interaction until you can both settle down.  If the other person in the situation is not necessarily triggered, assume that you don’t know everything you need to know.  Enter the “learning mode” and ask for more information.  Assume that they have good intentions, and that an anger- or fear-based response may not be needed.  When you do this, you are quieting the amygdala, telling it that things may really be OK and asking it to “stand down.”

Finally (and this comes with practice), work on acknowledging your emotions, and expressing them without immediately acting on them.  Saying, “I’m feeling angry here, and I’m not sure I understand everything that is going on.  Can we start over, or can I get some clarity?” can give the other person a signal that you are triggered and offer an opportunity to reboot the conversation.

The term “amygdala hijack” arose from work by Daniel Goleman (discussing the concept here) in his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence (latest edition available here).  This 10-minute video, this article from Harvard Business Review and this article provide some additional perspective on the topic and are worth taking a few minutes to peruse if this topic interests you.

Seven steps for regaining control

To summarize:

  • We all have emotions, sometimes strong emotions.  Acting in our “default” manner may not serve us well in personal or professional relationships and settings.
  • When we have strong emotions, we can be “triggered,” sparking a cascade of responses controlled by our amygdala and limbic system, that include “fight, flight or freeze.”
  • We can learn to interrupt this process by
    1. Understanding the process
    2. Understanding our default responses
    3. Inserting a “pause” between the emotion and our default response
    4. Checking whether we have enough information
    5. Checking whether the other person is also in an amygdala hijack, or emotionally driven cascade of responses
    6. Assuming good intent from all parties
    7. Communicating clearly about what is happening and seeking a reset

Your amygdala experience

The amygdala hijack is a fact of life, but one trait that sets leaders apart is their ability to manage the difficult situations in which they — and others — can be triggered.  What’s your strategy?