You’ve been hijacked… by your own brain

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Understanding the impact of an amygdala hijack and what you can do about it

If you’ve ever yelled at someone in a fit of rage, ruminated repeatedly over a possible future catastrophic scenario created by your anxious mind or made an in the moment knee-jerk decision which you’ve regretted ever since, chances are you’re familiar with an amygdala hijack.

Psychologist Daniel Coleman coined the phrase ‘amygdala hijack’ to describe an intense emotional reaction that’s drastically out of proportion to the circumstance that triggered it. Maybe you can relate?

The amygdala is a small almond shaped part of our brain that’s responsible for our emotional and behavioural responses (technically the amygdala consists of two parts, one in each brain hemisphere, but for the purposes of keeping it simple, we’ll refer to it as a single entity). It’s part of the limbic system and it’s not changed much since we were living in caves, constantly on the watch for rampaging lions, tigers and bears who might snack on us like an hors d’oeuvre.

 A good mannered amygdala will diligently process and file away your emotional memories and quietly do its job without interfering negatively, it’ll also activate appropriately, for example if you’re walking alone at night and there’s an unfriendly someone following you. An unchecked amygdala will have you constantly on the lookout for threats, real or imagined, and keep you firmly stuck in your personal go-to stress response: flight, fight, freeze or fawn which is not helpful at all. 

When you’re caught up in your go-to stress response, all logical thought ceases, literally. As soon as your amygdala fires itself up thanks to a snotty email, bad news or a heated argument it knocks your prefrontal cortex (the bit of your brain that would ordinarily pull up the stress response handbrake and apply logic) off line. Your emotional response gets so activated that you cannot physically think straight. 

That’s why, when you’re overwhelmed with emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear or worry you might make a terrible in the moment decision you’d never entertain if you were calm and in possession of your rational thinking abilities. Or, if you’re more prone to a freeze or fawn stress response, you’ll be unable to make any decisions at all, also terribly unhelpful.

Here’s how to stop an amygdala hijack:

  • Understand your stress response type
  • Recognise when your stress response is activated
  • Get to know your stress triggers
  • Slow your breathing (check out my 5 minute stress reset video for help with this)
  • Remove yourself from an activating situation
  • Allow yourself the time to calm down (when you’re in the middle of an amygdala hijack, it’s not the time to reply to the aforementioned snotty email)
  • If you’re regularly experiencing your stress response and are unable to get in in check, it might be time to get some help from a psychologist or coach 

Half the battle when it comes to managing an amygdala hijack and your resulting stress response is recognising it’s been activated. Then you can take the necessary steps to calm it back down before it defies logic and has you telling your co-worker what you really think of their new haircut.

Badly behaved amygdalas are one of the many blocks I help my coaching clients deal with; fear, worry and anxiety are debilitating for your everyday interactions and your productivity. My motto is ‘when we feel better, we do better’. As a coach I’m able to teach my clients stress management techniques and tools to help them better manage their stress responses, get life back on track and ultimately feel happier and better able to cope when things go awry.

If you’d like some help with your own stress levels and anxious thought patterns, please get in touch with me here, or feel free to book an exploratory call with me here and we can talk through what’s going on and how some coaching might be of benefit.

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