Following my radio talk on Quantum Physics of Belief – Emotions last Saturday on #BlogTalkRadio, a former coaching client of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous but, nevertheless permitted me to share his story) reminded me of his experience and posed a question on Amygdala Hijacks. I thought it appropriate to extend this discussion to shed some more light on this topic. BTW, the response for the radio talk was overwhelming. Thanks to all of my listeners and eMBC Blog readers for your continued support and helping to inspire me to write more.
Most of the books I read about the brain and emotional intelligence talk about an emotional or amygdala hijacking, which is what you see when the boss loses it and goes on a rant. It’s not pretty, and almost always makes the hijacker look pretty stupid. Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Dr Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
My good friend, Dr Joel Bomane from Sunny Southern France often talks about Amygdala in his weekly radio shows, ‘The Brain Odyssey’ series as part of the VoARadio Network on #BlogTalkRadio. According to Dr Bomane, the amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. It is very handy when hunting for food: it triggers a survival response faster than you can say “hungry tiger.” The problem is that we no longer run into tigers, but instead encounter angry coworkers and bosses on the prowl. But the amygdala makes no difference between a threat to our survival and a threat to our ego. Same response: fight or flight. And for many of us, we don’t think it’s manly to turn and flee, so we engage in verbal jujitsu akin to World Heavy Weight Wrestling. But when in the grips of a hijack, the amygdala makes mistakes. It only receives a fraction of the data available.
The term amygdala hijack describes any situation in which a person responds inappropriately based on emotional rather than intellectual factors. The amygdala is the emotional center of the human brain and can create split-second responses when a person is threatened. An inappropriate emotional response to a perceived threat is thus called an amygdala hijack.
The amygdala is part of the brain for many of the higher vertebrates. It regulates the fight or flight response that is key to the survival mechanism for many animals, including humans and other primates. At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex, the center of higher thinking, and initiate a violent response. In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function. In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses the person will later regret.
On some levels, the human brain does not distinguish between a genuine threat to life or health and a subjective threat, such as loss of job status. While the latter might not even result in a change of income, a person who values a job highly may respond to such a status change as if it were an actual threat. If he or she takes inappropriate action against a co-worker or supervisor, however, the result could be a demotion or even the loss of the job. This illustrates Goleman’s three-stage definition of the amygdala hijack: emotional reaction, inappropriate response, and later regret.
And in today’s workplaces, most of our dangers are symbolic, not physical threats. So we react in ways we often regret later.
Let me give you an example of an event that took place sometime ago with one of my coaching clients and this could vividly explain what we really mean by an Amygdala Hijack.
I was working with an executive who found himself flooded by his emotions and was pleased with himself for adopting a recovery strategy whereby he cut himself off from any emotional content. He was surprised when our coaching conversations explored the downsides of both behaviors and opened the door to a third way of behaving.
One day, my client was planning to work at home, in order to make a medical appointment in the morning and to avoid a two hour round-trip commute to be in the office for the afternoon. That noon, he received a call at home from one of his peers, another member of the executive committee, who said he had to come to work. The firm had to decide how to address employee concerns about leaving early due to weather risks from hurricane Gustav [August 2008 in Florida]. The situation was complicated because the management team in the parent office, located in another state, did not want their distribution operations disrupted and were insensitive to the weather potential and the employee concerns.
My client reacted strongly and rather rudely to his peer. He did not like to be told he had to come in and was acting out his indignation. He was not attuned to his peer or to the employees. To his credit, he caught himself when he remembered the principle that leaders are expected to lead by example and chided himself that he should not be asking others to do something he was not willing to do. He shared this with his peer and then went to the office, checking in on the various departments and being visible.
As we debriefed this event, it became clear that he had been triggered by being told “he had to.” He got flooded by his emotions, driven by his implicit memories of being told he had to do things. Once flooded, his only strategy to regain control was to go for a full tourniquet block on his emotions. While he prided himself on being able to “shed his emotions” and then make a principle-based decision, we discussed how much he lost by both his initial reaction and then by his secondary reaction. The initial reaction, blasting a peer with his emotional outburst, cost him relationship points with this peer. His secondary reaction, shedding all emotion, left him incapable of being empathic with his peer and left him devoid of any curiosity. My client described himself as being in a state of “brain lock.”
Another pathway would have been for my client to be aware of his emotions without acting out on them. This requires a certain detachment. He then could be curious about the context. It turns out that his peer was the only company officer on-site and that she was very uncomfortable with the decisions that needed to be made. He could have learned more about the issues, as she saw them. An empathic conversation, one that did not happen, could have built relationship and provided insights into alternative courses of action.
Following the pathway of keeping perspective and not acting out on emotions could have provided my client with access to other ways of creatively thinking about the situation. Leading by example is great, but other factors also come into play. Ironically, his emotional flooding left him starving for data.
This is a classic amygdala hijack. Dr Daniel Goleman, noted for his work on emotional intelligence, explains how the flood of hormones from the amygdala leads our brains to bypass the normal pathways for higher functioning and throws us into an escalating pattern, where we see things through our fight/flight/freeze lens. When this happens to us, this flood of stress-related hormones leaves us feeling like we have lost 20-30 IQ points. That is not something most of us can afford to do without!
Here are the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace, from Tony Schwartz’ book The Way We are Working Isn’t Working:
1. Condescension and lack of respect
2. Being treated unfairly
3. Being Unappreciated
4. Feeling that you are not being listened to or heard
5. Being held to unrealistic deadlines
Especially in today’s climate of economic uncertainty, on the tail end of an ugly recession, there’s a lot of free-floating fear in the air. It doesn’t take much to trigger fear of family security, which is enough to get anybody seriously upset.
If you find yourself struggling with on-the-job stresses that are triggering either the emotional flooding or the emotional tourniquet responses, Goleman advises mindfulness training, such as meditation, to reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack. Meditation and similar exercises, such as tai chi, encourages a person to focus on his or her surroundings and process mental data in a calm state of mind. With practice, this kind of thinking will become second nature and can allow a person to retain a sense of calm focus even during crises. Here are some specific steps that one can incorporate in your training to minimize such Amygdala hijacks:
1. Pay attention. Notice when you are in the middle of a hijack.
2. Use deep breathing to gain time and space. This lets more oxygen into your brain and lets your rational brain begin to work.
3. Use a mantra or self-talk, like “I’m okay; this isn’t a real threat. Give me a second to come out of it.”
4. Ask for a few minutes, a time break, as in: “Let me get back to you on this.”
Hijacks can last a few seconds or a few minutes, but the sooner you break its spell, the better you’ll feel. You’ll learn you can keep in control without losing face.
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.
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