Views From The Top #2: Beware of amygdala hijacks!

Published: 11:59 AM on August 08, 2016

This week our Executive Director looks at an article by Anne Lueneburger (published December 11, 2009) on some ways to deal with amygdala hijacks.


“We are all prone to moments of irrationality, the below article provides the biological reasons why we sometimes react emotionally to situations( work, home and other places)- many times to our detriment in the future” – Dr. Robin Maraj



We’ve all been there…

  • You received an email that upset or frustrated you. Were you tempted to hit ‘reply all’, and type a very direct response and send it off with lightning speed….?
  • You’re sitting in a feedback meeting and your boss is telling you that your performance is below expectations. Do you stop him mid sentence, raise your voice and tell him that Brad S. – your ‘peer’ – is a lousy team player and that it’s all his fault?


When we have these experiences and are tempted to react in – what we know in retrospect would be an irrational way – we are experiencing what psychologists call an ‘amygdala hijack’: your emotions taking over your actions. Successful leaders and business people have to know how to bypass the amygdala hijack.


Here are some tactics to help you avoid making any rash decisions:

1. Channel your frustration.


Use the extra adrenaline to develop an assertive, but not aggressive, response to the problem. Find what is triggering the emotions in your head.  This will help to keep the neocortex active, and prevent the amygdala from taking over. This also enables you to make your opinion known without hurting others (an aggressive response could spark a spiral of negative exchanges: which isn’t good for anybody).
2. Physically withdraw.


If you sense the hijack, consider removing yourself physically from the situation until you can think more clearly. It can be as simple as excusing yourself to use the restroom or taking a break in the meeting (if you’re chairing it).  If you’re on the phone, you can always say that “something’s come up” and could you call back in a few minutes?
3. Breathe deeply.


Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm (not your chest, as shallow breathing produces carbon monoxide!) with intention and purpose. Pay attention to your breath: repeat ‘in and out’. This oxygenates your neocortex, keeping it engaged and your emotions in check.
4. Create a mantra..


If you know you are about to enter a difficult meeting then come up with a ‘mantra’ that keeps you sane, such as ‘success is the best revenge’ or ‘focus on what matters’. Write this mantra on papers that you bring to the meeting and, if you feel your emotions taking over, look at your mantra and repeat it in your head.
5. Zing yourself.


This is an interesting technique borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming (too big an area to cover in this entry!).  What you need to do: before the meeting put a rubber band on your wrist, then ‘zing’ yourself (snap the band against your wrist) and repeat a mantra such as ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’. Once you’re in the meeting and feel tension beginning to rise, zing yourself again. This will remind you of and enforce your mantra: this really does work!
6. Envision.


For some of you, zinging yourself may sound a bit painful. If so, then try to just visualize a relaxing experience: a calm blue glacier lake, a green pasture with horses grazing…anything that either your memory or imagination offers you and helps you to relax.
7. Be appreciative…


It may be challenging, but strive to look at the positive aspects of a situation: including the person you may feel aggrieved by. Try to see if there is anything true or helpful in what they say or who they are.
8. Use humor.


This may not necessarily involve you injecting humor into the situation (it can, but bear in mind that this could be misunderstood by the other party). You could, for example, when you are upset and ready to use some extreme (maybe offensive!) words, stop and visualize what you are ‘literally’ saying to the other person – or advising them to do… This should help you not to take yourself so seriously!
9. Role-play.


If you know that an encounter could present problems, then think about role playing the situation – either in your head or with a partner. This is a highly effective tactic for preparing yourself for every eventuality and giving your emotional self a ‘heads up’.
So… if you think that you’re about to have an amygdala hijack: be aware of it, master some techniques to help you through and – most importantly – DON’T HIT SEND!

Category: Blog