On a gloomy Monday, John is at his desk just getting started with work. His team member Carlos annoys him mentioning about the task which John had completed last week which failed during the client demo. In a fit of rage, John blurts out in anger while all team members watch in awe wondering what just happened.
All of us would have been through a situation where we have given an instantaneous reaction without applying any thought and instantly regretted it.
Let me provide an example not pertaining to work: Imagine you’re in the traffic. You’ve not had a good day and you are not in the right state of mind. Just when it is your turn to go, somebody cuts you off. You are fuming and screaming. You can feel your body temperature actually rise and you are all heated up. You are honking and banging the steering wheel. Even after the driver has left, you are still emotional. You are alert, watching left and right to check who could cut you off again.
This sudden impulsive response is what is termed as the Amygdala Hijack, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in 1996. The term describes an emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming and uncharacteristic for the stimuli because it has triggered a significant emotional threat.
In simple words the amygdala hijack equates to “freaking out” or seriously overreacting to an event in your life.
Why does this happen?
Before we get to the why, here is the science behind the human brain which is said to have 3 parts based on evolution.
Though we have evolved over millions of years, some parts from our age old ancestors persist and are necessary for survival. Let us elaborate each of the 3 parts.
The Reptilian Brain: This lies at the lowermost part of your skull and is called as the brain stem. This has been a part of the brain even before humans evolved. It is primitive and it controls balance, temperature regulation and breathing. It focuses on survival and responds by instinct or stimuli. This is the primary brain even today for reptiles, which is why you see a snake reacting on stimulus. This is the area where our culprit Amygdala is located.
The Limbic/Mammalian Brain: This is located one layer above the reptilian brain. The mammalian brain is responsible for short-term memory and the body’s response to danger. It also controls all of our emotions. This is also the emotional center which controls whether your response is a flight, fright or freeze. Being slightly primitive it’s primary focus is also survival, though emotions such as anger, frustration, happiness, and love also arise from the same area.
Neocortex: This part of the brain is most evolved in human beings. All the intelligent things which human beings can do which other animals cannot, arise from the neocortex. Without this you would never be able to solve a mathematical problem, get a building planned and constructed or even think of path breaking ideas which changed mankind. It is responsible for many other aspects which separate us from other animals such as social interaction, language and invention of machines.
In a normal scenario, any stimulus is to be handled by sensory thalamus first, followed by the advanced neocortex leading to the right response. In case of any emotional or dangerous situation, the neocortex is bypassed and the amygdala takes over. Amygdala being a part of the Reptilian Brain reacts instantly without using any rational thought because the neocortex was bypassed and the actual reasoning part of the brain never came into the picture. As soon as neocortex starts reacting to the same stimuli, you start realizing that you over reacted.
How can I prevent the Amygdala Hijack?
If you wish to prevent Amygdala Hijack from occurring completely, you have to realize that it cannot be done overnight. However, one can prevent it’s consequences by using the 6-second rule. Waiting for just six seconds causes the brain chemicals that cause amygdala hijacking to diffuse away.
Just take a deep breath and try to look at something pleasant or imagine a pleasant memory. This is easier said than done while starting off but every time you succeed in the attempt, it prevents your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction. This gets better with time.
Over time, this prevents the amygdala hijacking response itself. You have to train your brain to unlearn this habit of reacting by instinct over a course of time. Every time you go through an amygdala hijack, reflect on the situation after you have calmed down. Identify the trigger and determine a more appropriate response to use next time.
Our brain learns from patterns/repetitions and by repeating this reflection time and again, your brain eventually stops giving an impulsive response to an undesirable situation.
If you want to be that cool headed person, it is going to take an effort to tame your Amygdala. If only John had taken a deep breath and spent those 6 seconds taming his Amygdala, the story would have been different.