The Amygdala Hijack: Is your past hijacking your good decisions?
Imagine a typical meeting room in a nondescript city-based business hotel. Eight executives are sitting around a table, gazing at slides, and one of the participants is giving her thoughts on a series of declining sales graphs. The mood is tense but analytical. There are moments of heavy silence as slides reveal multiple opportunities for improvement across all Business Development teams. Searching questions are asked, and the participants feel as though their leadership ability is under the microscope. The mood is not hostile, but, as one participant said, "it's not good and we need to put it right."
The CEO, Jack, is listening intently and experiences a moment of clarity; he sees something that he believes everyone else is missing. He goes to speak, but his CFO, Brian, puts his hand up in a 'stop' action and tells him to "hold that thought" because Brian believes he is about to deliver a significant insight that needs to be heard.
Brian proceeds, but is met with a moment of ballistic output; Jack's hand crashes down on the table, "rubbish!" he shouts, getting up form the table and storming out, slamming the meeting room door. The meeting essentially shut down; Jack lost his good idea to his emotions and the morale of the team suffered. This ballistic outburst was not the 'norm' for Jack, but he has a reputation for occasionally flying off the handle.
A week later, and Jack's behaviour on that day was still bothering him. He feels physically stressed, disappointed in himself, and wants to do a better job of both understanding and controlling his emotions.
First, he apologised to his team and promised to do better. Second, he committed to become more self-aware and limit the potential for this happening again. To help with developing self-awareness, he employed a coach, Liz.
The Amygdala Hijack
In listening to his story, Liz decided to help Jack learn more about the stressors that might have triggered his outburst. First, she explained why by introducing a concept called the Amygdala Hijack.
The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, his first book on the subject. The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, which regulates the fight or flight response. When threatened, it can respond irrationally. A rush of stress hormones floods the body before the prefrontal lobes (regulating executive function) can mediate this reaction. (Nadler, Psychology Today, 2009)
Liz asked Jack to consider that perhaps he sensed something in the meeting that triggered an emotional response that overwhelmed his Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), impacting his ability to make a rational decision.
Liz explained that the Thalmus processes his sensory experiences, a distribution centre that sends a package of information to his PFC as a decision-process input, and another package of information to the Amygdala, the emotional control centre.
The Amygdala scans Jack's memory (the Hippocampus) for potential danger - think: is there a Saber-toothed tiger hiding in the tall grass? Where the Amygdala recognises a potential threat, it triggers a 3F response (Fight | Flight | Freeze) using a chemical stimulus activated via the HPA Axis (Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis).
One of the key stress response systems...is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; a cascade of central and peripheral events resulting in the release of corticosteroids from the adrenal glands. Activation of the HPA-axis affects brain functioning to ensure a proper behavioral response to the stressor... (Bodegom et al., 2017)
When a potential threat is identified, the emotional centre of the brain works with the hippocampus to overwhelm the decision-making process, essentially crashing the brain's ability to think rationally - after all, who needs to reason when trying to escape a Saber-toothed tiger. Instead, the mind focuses attention on the potential or real threat overwhelming reason through the recall of past experiences of the imminent danger and its consequences.
Liz's question for Jack: what did he sense in the tall grass of the meeting room that day and was it real?
The Amygdala Hijack: what's hiding in the tall grass?
Liz guided Jack through a series of searching questions that brought him to realise that by the time he wanted to control his emotions, it was probably too late. Instead, he started to consider whether he was better off investing energy in recognising the stressors that trigger his emotions and developing coping tactics. Liz helped by exploring:
his definition of what happened - his autobiographical story of the event
his sensory experience and the triggers for the emotional response
the times he had experienced this level of emotional response before
the consequences of past events and their impact on the present and future
Through her questions, Jack discovered an unconscious pattern whereby he reacted badly to being dismissed, which was amplified under conditions of high stress. Over a period of four sessions with Liz, he found himself discussing feelings of irritation, failure and anger that he described as having a physical impact. Liz showed Jack a Map of Subjective Feelings (Nummenmaa et al., 2018) to help him understand the link between the intensity of his negative emotions and his physical/mental state. The link struck-a-chord with Jack and he dug deeper.
Take 10: take a good walk and give yourself a good talking to
Jack went into his fourth session with Liz with clarity of thought. He had been participating in a series micro-experiments over the last three weeks that required him to sense his negative emotions and 'Take 10' if he 'felt' the potential for an amygdala hijack. Take 10 required Jack to leave the space he was in and go for a walk. On these walks, he was encouraged to externalise his thoughts on his emotions and feelings by talking to himself in the third person (e.g. Kross et al., 2014):
Ethan Kross released a paper saying that self-talk can make us feel better about ourselves and instil a confidence that can help us get through tough challenges. However, we have to say the right words for this to work...Kross, along with several colleagues, conducted a series of experiments that had people describe emotional experiences using their own names or words like “you,” “he” and “she.”
He found that talking in the third or second person, helped people control their feelings and thoughts better than those who spoke in the first person...The results were so profound, wrote Kross, that he now gets his young daughter to speak to herself in the third person when she is distressed.
Talking to ourselves has many other benefits. “Our findings are just a small part of a much larger, ongoing stream of research on self-talk, which is proving to have far-reaching implications. “Not only does non-first-person self-talk help people perform better under stress and help them get control of their emotions, it also helps them reason more wisely.” (BBC News)
On one of those walks, Jack realised he needed to confront the elephant in his mind and speak to Liz about his dad. Jack's father was a scientist, and he was emotionally abusive. Through his Take 10 talks with himself, Jack believed he had discovered a common thread between the dismissive attitude of his father toward him, and associated reinforcement of inadequacy and stupidity, stressful work situations, and his lack of emotional control.
He identified stressors, from physical gestures made by people in meetings (e.g. a 'halt' gesture) to tone (e.g. what Jack believed to be disguised contempt), and the physical sensations he experienced (e.g. clenching and unclenching his fists under the table when a person was speaking). Jack committed to continue the Take 10 micro-experiment whenever he felt a stressor was potentially getting the better of him.
Twelve months on and Jack sees himself as more self-aware. He hasn't repeated his emotional outburst; he continues to Take 10 and now sees his micro-experiments as successful habits.
Jack also believes that he is more emotionally and socially intelligent, demonstrating better empathy for others and their stressors. For example, he stops meetings when he senses unhealthy tension, allowing all participants to Take 10. Jack encourages his teams and their reports to take walks, recognise physical sensations and their possible links to rising emotion, and coach themselves in the third person. Feedback has been positive, with wider teams reporting that they feeling engaged and empowered by this new coaching-led leadership approach.
Jack took the time to write a letter, thanking Liz for giving him the answer to his challenge. Liz wrote back and pointed out that it was Jack who had seen the opportunity to develop and come up with a plan; she had just asked a few interesting questions.