Are you being hijacked?

When do you lose control?  Whether you clammed up giving a presentation or lost control during an argument, we have all experienced those moments where we look back and wish we’d handled it differently.  It has happened to me (many times) so I wanted to find out what was going on and what I could do about it.

It turns out that it is something called an amygdala hijack.

What’s going on in my head?

So here is the science.  At a physical level your brain takes in sensory information through an area called the thalamus and then sends the signals to two regions, the cortex and the amygdala.  The cortex is the ‘smart’ area of the brain, it processes the information with logic and reason, assessing against knowledge and memories you have previously had of that experience.  The amygdala is very different, it holds emotional memories and reacts instantaneously by checking the sensory information based against those – logic and reason go out the window.

Basically your amygdala fires up in response to what it considers to be a threat.  You can feel the physiological response as the oxygen flows out of your brain and into your body and your blood gets supercharged with chemicals to prepare for ‘fight or flight’ action.  For a physical threat that is fine, when you are about to be attacked by something you want your body to be ready to deal with that.  The problem it creates for us is what we consider to be threats now extends into emotional situations.

We as a species are social creatures with a need to be loved and respected.  So if we think we are not great at giving presentations and get nervous in front of the crowd, the amygdala assesses it as a threat – that we may be about to lose respect and we don’t like that.  When we lose control in an argument again your amygdala has kicked in.  You are trying to protect your sense of self, that who you are is cool and you are smart – how dare this person cast aspersions on that!  Why if you’re not awesome then people won’t love and respect you, so this person, this situation, is now a threat.  So your amygdala gets hijacked by these situations and you lose rational control.

How do I prevent a hijacking?

The amygdala works on a subconscious level – it is not trying to frighten you, it is trying to protect you based on the memory that it holds.  Because it doesn’t get info from the cortex you can’t ‘think’ your way to a different response, the only way you can mitigate the hijacking is to create a new memory in the amygdala.

Fear exposure is the best way to recreate that memory that is controlling you because the amygdala can only relearn when it is activated.  You fear public speaking?  Build yourself up by speaking in front of a few people and then more and more and more.  Lose your cool when challenged?  Often we know when we are about to have a challenging conversation, so let the challenges happen a few times without getting emotionally sucked in.  Prepare yourself to keep control for just a few seconds longer than normal and you will start to change the emotional memory.  You have to retrain your amygdala to not see the sensory information as a threat, so put yourself out there or nothing will change.

On a physical level try to think about your breathing, to slow it down to take deeper breaths.  The nervous system response to the amygdala hi-jack is to divert all of the oxygen to fight or flight in your body and takes it away from the brain.  Deep breathing will help to re-establish your equilibrium.

The painless miracle cure is…

Non-existent (sorry about that misleading header…).  Yet now that you are aware of what is happening you have already taken the first step.  You should be able to recognise when a hijacking is about to take place and try to prevent it sweeping you away.  The first few moments of the hijacking are critical because once you lose your cool you are caught in the swirling emotional sea and it is extremely difficult to get it back, the waves have taken you away.  So look for that uncomfortable situation, put yourself in it and keep your awareness about you to change the amygdala memory.  Do that and the next time will be better, as will the time after that and the one after that.

So now instead of being hijacked you have a choice.  What do you choose to do?