You’re sitting in the audience, watching the line of people before you take to the stage to receive their certificates. Your face flushes red-hot and your palms are sweaty. Your heart-rate increases, your throat constricts, and you can literally feel the back of your neck tighten. Your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as you take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if you have to.
Really? The only thing you have to do is walk up the stage, shake someone’s hand and receive a well-deserved accolade; so why on earth are you having an anxiety attack?
You are having an amygdala hijack.
Basically, you’re in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses – exactly the same ones that kept the Flintstones alive and out of saber tooth tiger claws or a woolly mammoth charge.
In short, the thinking, rational part of your brain did what it’s supposed to do when you run into a potentially harmful or threatening situation. To make sure you survive a potentially harmful situation, the amygdala – a tiny part in the temporal lobe of your brain – picked up a threat and sounded the alarm.
Then it simply shut down. Letting your body take over with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight or flee (also known as an amygdala hijack, or hijacking of your logical, rational mind).
Fight or flight
Of course, today’s saber tooth tigers consist of missing a deadline, ducking the credit card company or having an argument with our boss or spouse. Your amygdala determines possible threat, decodes emotions and stores your fear memories, as well as preparing your body for an emergency response (either fight or flight).
- Fight: Confront the threat and deal with it, or
- Flight: Get as far away from the threat as quickly as possible.
Both the fight and flight amygdala hijacks are known by three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode regret once you’re thinking clearly again.
In fight mode, you could find yourself in the grip of blind, irrational rage or emotional outburst, triggered by the amygdala hijack to protect yourself by going on the attack. Alternatively, when our flight instinct takes over, fear becomes the lens through which we see the world. Our thinking is distorted and we see everything through the filter of possible danger. We narrow our focus to those things that can harm us.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend a while ago about ‘facing your fears’. Her argument was that she’s perfectly comfortable not ever facing her fear of jumping out of an airplane by…well, jumping out of an airplane.
I on the other hand believe the research that shows through ‘fear exposure’ you are exposing yourself to the triggers or catalysts of your anxiety and thereby ‘teaching’ the amygdala that in reality nothing bad occurs because of this exposure. Essentially, by doing that parachute jump once, twice, ten times; it is possible for the amygdala to be trained to stop producing the fight of flight reaction in response to that particular trigger altogether.
Calm down your Amygdala
As you’ll see from my attempt at drawing a brain in the video I’ve made to explain amygdala hijacking, I’m not the world’s best artist. I have, however, in studying the power of influence, learnt a bit about the human mind. And how to take preventative measures by anticipating stressful situations and remaining aware of your emotions during potentially triggering events.
For instance, great leaders who know themselves well, know what they’re feeling AND thinking in the midst of stressful situations. They then have multiple constructive solutions to handle the amygdala hijack and maintain their top performance.
Use the 6-second rule. Waiting for just six seconds causes the brain chemicals that cause amygdala hijacking to diffuse away.
Breathe deeply or focusing on a pleasant image helps to prevent your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction.
Make a joke. Research shows that humor helps a person break out of a negative point of view and see things differently.
Train, practice, and prepare. Over time, you can change the way your brain responds to emotional triggers, preventing the amygdala hijacking response.
Awareness and acknowledgment that you’re having an amygdala hijacking is enough to give you the ability to deal with it appropriately. To rewire your brain and take charge of your fear response, think carefully about the triggering situation after you tame your emotional reaction. Identify the trigger and determine a more appropriate response to use next time. Your amygdala learns from past experiences, allowing you to change the way in which you react to a similar situation in the future.