Meet your amygdala: Your #1 emotional hijacker

Meet your amygdala: Your #1 emotional hijacker

Ever felt a strong urge to fight or flee?  You know what I’m talking about. Someone does or says something that triggers you. Your heart rate speeds up and your breath gets shallow.  I feel it through a tightening across my chest. You may feel it somewhere else, but you feel it.  It is how your body instinctively reacts when your emotional hijacker short circuits your ability to accurately perceive a situation, and sends you into fight or flight mode.

I recently facilitated a week-long meeting for a client. During the week, there was one bright and valuable participant who was repeatedly tripped-up by her emotional hijacker. Discussions would be going along just fine, then all of the sudden, WHAM! I would see this typically smart and articulate woman squirm in her chair; shake her head; spout off an angry, cutting remark; and then jump up and leave the room for several minutes or longer.  It happened multiple times during the course of the meetings.

Sadly, this professional’s inability to hold her tongue or stay in her seat undermines her knowledge and ability. Ultimately, it will limit her potential if she doesn’t learn to recognize the signs of being triggered and employ effective coping strategies.

What was going on with her? It is simple, and it happens to all of us.  During the discussion, her amygdala – a vital part of our brain that alerts us to danger – was triggered.  The amygdala acts as a constant eaves dropper in our brains. It scans everything we encounter and compares it to our historical databank (memories), searching for threats.  When it hits on anything unpleasantly familiar, it causes an instant reaction in our bodies. Our heart rates speed up and our breath shallows, as we automatically prepare to fight or run.

Unfortunately, this little emotional hijacker doesn’t have the ability to discern true danger versus perceived threats to our knowledge, skill, or disagreement.  Furthermore, it unwittingly disconnects our ability to think clearly and respond wisely to issues that are, in fact, not life threatening at all – like differing opinions or different personalities we encounter at work.

If this is an automatic response, why do some stay cool and clear even during heated discussions? Can we over-ride our emotional hijacker and regain rational, reasoning ability? Yes, we can!

Here’s how to over-ride your emotional hijacker:

  1. Figure our what it feels like when your amygdala is triggered. Spend a couple minutes in deep memory of a situation wherein you felt threatened or furious. Now, where do you feel it in your body?  THAT is your first sign. Learn to recognize it quickly.
  2. Take a deep breath and reassess your situation. Are you really in danger? If not, it is probably best to refocus, calm down and regain your clarity.
  3. Ask yourself what you really want right now. If you want to contribute to the success of the discussion (plus further your reputation as a knowledgeable, wise, problem solver), do that.

Don’t get me wrong, the amygdala serves an important purpose! After all, we need that adrenaline surge in life threatening situations.  However, as with the client I referred to earlier, when the emotional hijacker strikes the most likely threat to us is how we will be perceived and remembered if we react badly.  Now you know.