What is your greatest fear?
Spiders/ snakes? Monsters under the bed or in the closet? Small spaces? Heights? Losing control?
Joseph Le Doux tells us we have two minds: one that thinks and one that feels.
The amygdala portion of the brain has a special role as the guard for survival, and yes it can hijack the rest of your brain!
You’re in an ok space and suddenly you hear or see something that so surprises you, you have an immediate threatened reaction. Here’s what happens: When this scary stimulus hits your eyes (a scary sight) or ears (a loud or scary sound), immediately a message is sent to your brain—in particular to the thalamus and right into your emotional brain (amygdala). This happens before any signal reaches your thinking brain (the frontal cortex). This is a primitive survival mechanism—you react to things before your reasoning brain has time to consider it. What does your body do in this primitive reaction? It could freeze, flee, or fight. We humans have realized over our evolution that sometimes freezing in place means the danger won’t see or notice us and may go away. There are other times when fleeing (running away—assuming we’re faster than the danger)—can save us. And then there are the times when our automatic reaction is to fight to defeat the danger. There is no thinking about the reaction—it happens automatically
Freeze, Flee, Fight
Your IQ can drop by 15 points during an amygdala hijack. Even more disturbing, amygdala hijacks can be contagious! You can “catch” a hijack from someone else even though you didn’t experience the same stimuli. The Hijack is on a “hair trigger”—almost instantaneous— and the amygdala can be sloppy and can be distorted by the immediacy of the situation. The amygdala can make you do something against your better judgment because the blood in your brain was moved mostly to the amygdala and away from your thinking part of the mind—where you can make decisions. This shuts down your ability to process information and make decisions.
The key to opening the control of the amygdala response lies in something called Emotional Intelligence.
Dr. Daniel Goleman describes emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”
There are four elements to managing the Hijack.
- Self-Awareness: Knowing your emotions and their effects.
- Self-Management: Knowing how to manage your emotions, how to keep disruptive impulses in check. Being flexible and comfortable with new ideas.
- Social Awareness: An ability to listen, to be persuasive, to collaborate, to nurture relationships.
- Relationship Management: An ability to influence others, handle conflict, develop, lead and work with others.
Dr. Relly Nadler; CEO of True North Leadership, Inc., offers some actions to manage the amygdala hijack when it happens.
Steps to Controlling the Hijack
In the moment: Name the feeling; Count to 10
Ask these questions and give yourself at least 5 secs to answer each.
- What am I thinking? integrates feelings, thoughts and movements.
- What am I feeling? integrates feeling thoughts and movements and adds emotional stability (name it to tame it – labeling affect.)
- What do I want now? processes information in the executive function
- How am I getting in my way? learn from mistakes.
- What do I need to do differently now? plan, set goals, insight; see options go from idea to idea.
Next time you ask yourself
“What was she / he / they/ I thinking?”
Just know— It was a hijack!
“Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response,” Cuncic, Arlin; Retrieved on 3/8/2021 from:; https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack-4165944
“What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack,” Nadler, Relly; True North Leadership, Inc.; Retrieved on 3/8/2021 from: www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/51483/handling-the-hijack.pdf
“What is Emotional Intelligence?” Kenra, Cherry; June 3, 2020, Retrieved on 3/8/2021 from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-intelligence-2795423