We all react impulsively from time to time. “He flipped out”, “She went off her head”, “I saw red”, “She lost her mind” are all shorthand for having an amygdala hijack. We can be triggered for a variety of reasons based on our own individual wiring and the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes the smallest issue (an interruption) can result in the biggest eruption. You’ll know you’ve had an amygdala hijack if you find yourself saying “OMG. What just happened” or “How did that get out of hand so quickly” or “I can’t believe I just said or did that”. Why is it that we strike first and ask questions later? We know that intense emotional circumstances cause us to react and that’s the lizard brain or the reptilian/limbic part of our brain going to work. Rather than thinking through the problem and responding based on reason, we act on our emotions which often causes a quick and irrational response or an amygdala hijack.
The experience of an amygdala hijack is described as:
We are wired to move away from threatening situations. We will defend ourselves (through fight, flight or freeze) when we perceive danger. Our amygdala is always on the lookout for situations that could be dangerous and preparing to guard us against danger. When we feel anxiety or stress it increases the “danger alert level” at a biological level. We become even more sensitive to threats.
So, what’s happening at a neurobiological level? The amygdala is the emotional centre of your brain. When you perceive something through any of your five senses, the thalamus in our brain directs the impulse to the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) for processing. The cortex makes sense of the impulse and then sends a signal to the amygdala where a flood of peptides and hormones are released to create emotion and action. This is the usual circuit (the high road) when we are not being hijacked. The diagram above demonstrates the usual track with the black arrows.
An amygdala hijack occurs when the thalamus has a different reaction. When the thalamus (which acts as somewhat of an air traffic controller) senses a threat, it sends a signal directly to the amygdala. The threat may not be a life threatening event but this makes no difference to our brains. Name calling, questioning your authority, cutting you off in traffic, unfair treatment all register as a threat to the thalamus. In these situations the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) is bypassed and the amygdala receives the signal. This path (the low road) is demonstrated by the red arrow in the diagram below. The amygdala then reacts based on previously stored patterns.
The good news is that we are not prisoners of our limbic system. We can learn to circumvent this runaway response by the emotional brain in a few different ways. Here are 5 simple techniques you can use when you notice your lizard brain is taking over. Try them out and see which works best for you.
1. The STOP technique
The STOP tool (developed by Tim Gallwey) allows us to remain conscious. STOPs can be of any duration and for any circumstance (e.g. before you speak, at the beginning of the work day, to correct miscommunication, to rest etc.) This technique involves an intentional pause to make a conscious choice about if and when to interrupt what you are doing. Using this tool will save you from being overwhelmed and becoming reactive.
S: Step Back (from action and emotion)
T: Think (about what’s most important here)
O: Organise (your thoughts to create coherence)
P: Proceed (with purpose so the next steps are clear)
2. The PAUSE principle
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” Victor Frankl
As this famous quote suggests thinking before you act is a way of not letting the amygdala take over. When the fight or flight response is triggered the brain is flooded with chemicals. It takes approximately six seconds for these chemicals to dissipate. Use these six seconds to take six deep breaths, think about six fun things you want to do over the weekend or anything that will help you to re-engage your thinking brain until this initial reaction to lose control subsides.
3. Name it to Tame It
Labeling the emotion is a critical part of regulation your emotions. When you don’t know what your are feeling it is difficult to take any steps to mange the emotion. When you label the emotion, the prefrontal cortex is activated which tells the amygdala to calm down. Naming emotions is like like applying a brake to the lizard brain.
4. Take a Breath
This technique is self-explanatory. It involves taking 4 deep breathes to oxygenate the brain and shift our of reaction and into intention. Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation have been found to result in less activity in the amygdala and allow clearer and calmer thinking.
The amygdala operates on past information if the cortex has not been involved. If you can identify what triggers you and what you do when you are triggered (pattern) you can learn to respond to those triggers in a different way in the future. Journaling and pattern sheets are useful tools for this process.