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Amygdala Hijack

posted 19 Feb 2014, 05:58 by Sally Butler

Amygdala Hijack (more information on the Managing Stress course)

Due to life being as it is we are going to experience conflict situations. How we handle these conflict situations can work for or against us. Sometimes we react without thinking when we face conflict - this is called an amygdala hijack. The caveman part of us is faced with a "flight/fight/freeze" reaction. This happens so quickly that we are often unaware of what actually happened, hence you hear the stories of the have-a-go granny, or the super human strength that people find they have during these times of stress. 

How does it all work? 

1. The journey begins with sensation received by our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth which are routed to the thalamus.

2. The thalamus acts as an

Amygdala Hijack
"air traffic controller" to keep the signals moving. In a typical situation, the thalamus directs the impulse to the cortex for processing

3.The cortex "thinks" about the impulse and makes sense. "Aha," it says, "this is …………… It means I should ………….." That signal is then sent to the amygdala where a flood of peptides and hormones are released to create emotion and action.

4.  In what Dan Goleman labelled "The Hijacking of the Amygdala," the thalamus has a different reaction. Like any skilled air traffic controller, the thalamus can quickly react to potential threat. In that case, it bypasses the cortex -- the thinking brain - and the signal goes straight to the amygdala. The amygdala can only react based on previously stored patterns.

Potential Conflict Scenario: 

You’ve had a hard day, you have made 20 sales calls and not one caller was positively responsive.  As you’re walking out of the office a colleague approaches you and starts to attack the way you do things, suggesting that you are not up for the job. Their comments are delivered sarcastically.

What happens?

You feel like your blood pressure has hit the roof and you can’t focus on anything. What the colleague has said has pushed your buttons and you immediately reply with an equal amount of sarcasm and abuse, which makes the situation worse. Before you know it, you’re resulting in a verbal fight and your other colleague has to intervene.

Afterwards you say to yourself “How did that happen?”

What you experienced was an “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala is the “fight or flight” and emotional memory part of the brain. Its job is to protect you by comparing incoming data with emotional memories. An amygdala hijack happens when we respond excessively with the actual threat because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. For instance, the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being attacked by a lion (physical threat) and the threat of an ego attack (emotional threat) by bringing on the fight or flight reaction.

When you experience an amygdala hijack, the amygdala overtakes the cerebrum (the thinking part of the brain) and you lose the ability to rely on reasoning. Your energy is drawn exclusively into the hijack. The immediate result of a hijack is a decrease in working memory. Adrenaline is released and will be present and effective for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that will take 3 - 4 hours to clear.

At this point you may be wondering, well if this all happens, what hope have I got of reacting sensibly to the perceived threat? I just go with emotions and flow at the time! 

The simple 4 steps to reduce the chance of an amygdala hijack are SOAP:

Stop. Stop whatever you’re doing. Ask yourself what just happened. Replay the comments in your head. This step keeps the neocortex engaged and can prevent the amygdala’s takeover.

Oxygenate. Breathe deeply, with intention and purpose. This step also keeps the neocortex engaged.

Appreciate. It’s difficult to have two emotional experiences at the same time, and appreciation counters the hijack. While it’s especially effective to appreciate the source of the hijack (i.e. appreciating the colleague is concerned about their job), any appreciation of anything will be helpful. If you can’t appreciate the person who is the source of the conflict, appreciate parts of your own life, such as your family and friends.

Ponder. After the hijack, spend some time exploring what happened and why. Recognising the trigger will allow you to avoid being triggered in the future.

So the old adage of count to 10 really does work. The only thing to bear in mind in addition to Stopping our thoughts is to replace them with positive thoughts. If we just count to 10 or stop what we are saying, the thoughts can return and start the process off again. 

If you are interested in knowing more why not join the Managing Stress Training course - just register your interest and I will let you know when the next course is running.