Tip One: Retrain Your Amygdala (Part Two)

March 12th, 2015

(In Part One we explored the origin and consequences of amygdala hijacks.  In this post, I explore what you can do to retrain your brain.)

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 Here are some things you can do to retrain your brain:

Practice self-observation. By paying attention to your own moods and reactions, you can identify when you’ve been emotionally hijacked and can start to intervene with the thinking part of your brain. First, work on identifying what your triggers are, so that when a similar trigger happens in the future you will be able to understand what’s really happening. Self-observation also includes reflecting back after a hijack and identifying what triggered it. It’s also useful to keep track of how you respond when you’re emotionally flooded. Do you start yelling? Do you withdraw quickly from conflict? All of this information will be helpful as you work to stop yourself from experiencing uncontrolled emotional hijacks.

Delay your reaction and examine your experience. Our brains automatically respond to emotional hijacks, and we are programmed to revert to knee-jerk reactions. Instead of reacting the next time you’re emotionally hijacked, see if you can sit with the body’s response and the brain’s thoughts. Examine the feeling you’re having while knowing that you don’t have to do anything about it. One particularly helpful strategy is to engage in the practice of “mindfulness.” This is simply the practice of being aware of every moment and fully experiencing it. It means not judging or thinking, just observing what is happening. With this kind of detachment, you are likely to find that the normal slights and irritations of everyday life are really not that important, and you can learn to avoid an emotional reaction to them. Emotions, left alone, will dissipate on their own; if you continue to feed them through obsession or rumination, however, the emotions will gain strength.

        One of my clients, Leo, used to get emotionally hijacked at work when his boss didn’t praise his work on projects or acknowledge his contribution to the team efforts. Leo would often become upset and interpret her silence to mean that he hadn’t been performing well enough to earn any praise or recognition. Afterwards, he sought out his boss in order to get reassurance about his performance from her, but Leo eventually recognized that she was growing impatient with this constant need for what she called “hand holding.” Leo’s boss was tired of telling him that she was satisfied with his work and thought he was a good team member (except for his constant need for reassurance). So, Leo decided to work on his reaction to the feelings of not getting enough praise. He would still get hijacked at times when he felt that his boss was not praising him enough. Despite this, he learned not to react to these feelings but instead to just sit with them. Leo acknowledged his inner experience, in which he felt devalued and inadequate, but recognized that the feeling did not reflect reality. In fact, he reminded himself that his boss had reassured him about his value countless times. Leo adopted a new operating principle that said, “My boss will tell me if there is a problem. If she doesn’t say anything, it means everything is fine.” With this internal message, his negative emotional reactions became weaker.

        Separate feeling from reality. An emotional hijack occurs with very basic feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The emotions that occur during an emotional hijack are very broad. They aren’t subtle or nuanced in the way that happens when we can engage our logic or reason. This broad, negative feeling is not reality. You may be feeling like you’re being abandoned, rejected or attacked, but that is only a constructed reality based on inaccurate feelings, memories and information. If you say to yourself, “This is just a feeling. It is not reality,” it can help diffuse the power of the emotional hijack. Separating feelings from reality means recognizing that you don’t have to make any actions or draw any conclusions from the feeling you’re having. You don’t have to use it as the basis of forming connections about the present experience. This is exactly what Leo did in the example above.  By recognizing that his feeling didn’t reflect reality, he was able to detach himself from those feelings, calm down, and retrain his brain.

        Do or say something different. Break the pattern of the negative emotion by reacting in a new way. This will help your brain to develop new pathways and weaken the pathway that triggers an emotional hijack. If you usually withdraw when you’re emotionally hijacked, do something connective. Instead of walking away from someone you’re fighting with, reach out a hand to them. If you usually shout and scream when you’re mad, be quiet for once and see how that feels. Trying a new response will help your brain to learn creative and innovative responses to your traditional emotional triggers.

        So remember, you may not be able to prevent an amygdala hijack.  Instead of being lead around by the nose by your amygdala, you can unleash your positive energy.  How?  By using the strategies discussed here to manage your reactions and intentionally choose your responses.  Show that amygdala who’s in charge!


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Tip 1: Retrain Your Amygdala (Part One)

February 12th, 2015

hot button

What, you are asking, as an amygdala?  The amygdala is an almond-shaped cluster of interconnected structures in the emotional center of the brain, the limbic region. The amygdala stores emotional memory, much of it based on early childhood experiences. Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, explains that when the amygdala perceives a threat based on its stored emotional memory, it “reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain…. The amygdala’s extensive web of neural connections allows it, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain—including the rational mind.” In other words, the neo-cortex, or rational part of the brain, has been hijacked by the amygdala.

When the amygdala is activated, you will have a knee-jerk reaction. You are now emotionally flooded, with little access to reason.  Have you ever felt taken over by a sudden, intense and irrational negative feeling? Did you ever have the experience of “going off” after someone pushed a “hot button,” only to look back and realize you totally overreacted?  This is an amygdala hijack.  This process happens within nanoseconds, and produces responses characterized by distorted perceptions, invalidation, defensiveness, and biased judgment. In other words, you are now feeding your negative wolf.

My most memorable hijack was the time I got into a fight with a co-worker. We were in a power struggle over division of duties. One day, he left a pile of folders on my desk. I entered my office in a calm mood, but after seeing those folders, I was throwing them across his desk within seconds and screaming something I no longer remember. I escaped into the stairwell to dissolve into tears. I knew I had been hijacked because when I looked back on the event, I realized the amount and intensity of my emotional reaction was inappropriate to the situation. Not only that, it hindered a resolution and destroyed my reputation in the department.

The amygdala response is hard-wired into the brain and, over the vast amount of time that humans have been on earth, it’s served us well. Evolutionarily, this impulse has protected us in times of danger, when our earliest ancestors were menaced by ravenous predators and fighting for survival. Sometimes today, there is a specific danger we need to react to, such as an impending car accident or a potential mugging, but more often than not, the amygdala now responds to emotional stresses, such as the one I just described with my co-worker.

If you’ve ever heard of the flight or fight response, this is the amygdala in action.  When something threatens you, the brain bypasses the conscious mind and sends the signal straight to this ancient part of the brain, where it sets off an early warning system.  Remember, this process happens automatically and is extremely fast. When the brain gets the message about the danger, it floods the body with adrenaline and stress hormones that make you want to react instantly. Your heart rate and breathing speed up, your digestion stops and the brain sends blood to your muscles in case you need to make a quick get-away. Your body is primed for action—to respond to the danger either by fighting or fleeing from it.

An amygdala hijack feels so overwhelming and uncontrollable because your logical, thinking brain is out of the loop. Because the amygdala is designed to respond within nanoseconds, it bases an emotional reaction on generalizations and broad-based assumptions. This means you get emotionally flooded even when there is no real danger. You may have had this same experience from something relatively simple like giving a public speech. There isn’t any real danger but the emotional hijack feels just as powerful as when our ancestors were staring down the wolves.

        Emotional hijacks can affect how you act and feel in both personal and professional environments, and they can seriously affect your ability to succeed. For example, a study of store managers at a large American retail chain found that those managers who were the least able to handle their emotions were tense, beleaguered and overwhelmed by pressures. Further, these managers ran stores with the worst performance in the chain, as measured by net profits, sales per square foot, sales per employee and sales for every dollar of inventory investment. Managers who stayed the most composed under the same pressures of running their stores were the managers who handled their emotional hijacks the best, and they had the best sales records in the chain.

“Ok, so I have this amygdala that will fire within nanoseconds and make me act like a potential jerk. Now what do I do?” The goal is retrain your brain’s response to danger. You will probably not be able to eliminate emotional hijacks entirely, but you can retrain your amygdala to respond differently when it perceives something that it interprets as dangerous. The way the brain works, it is always creating default pathways. This pathway is a habit that the brain gets into and a pattern of behavior that it falls back upon. When the amygdala is triggered and you experience an emotional hijack, the brain automatically moves to its defensive default pathway. The pathways can be set up by your childhood experiences, your family, your life experiences or messages that you receive from society, the media, religious institutions or other cultural entities. All of these things contribute to the formation of brain patterns. As you retrain your brain to develop new pathways, your hijacks will become less frequent, less intense and last for less time.


 (Check back for the next post to learn what you can do to retrain your brain.)


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Four Tips to Unleash Your Positive Energy

January 14th, 2015

This is the famous story an old Cherokee chief supposedly told his grandson. The chief said:

“A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible battle – between two wolves. One wolf represents negativity: fear, anger, self-pity, resentment, cruelty. The other wolf stands for positivity: kindness, hope, sharing, serenity, generosity, compassion. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too,” he added. The grandson reflected on these words for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”


Science tells the same story, just in different words.  We have a battle between what researchers call the negativity bias and our innate entelechy.  Let’s examine the negativity bias first.

The negativity bias pulls you to pay more attention to bad experiences than good ones. This tendency to give more weight to negative phenomena evolved to keep you out of danger, to protect you from harm, to enable you to survive.  In essence, your brain developed a system to make it hard for you not to notice danger and respond to it. It’s as if you are on hyper-alert for threats and problems.  This worked well when we were living on the savannah and fighting saber tooth tigers and hunting wooly mammoths.  But in the 21st century we have a real problem.  Because of the negativity bias, you are now on hyper-alert for perceived threats of an emotional nature.  Did your daughter really just say “whatever” for the 100th time today?  Was your boss angry with you when she closed the door to her office this afternoon?  How about the driver who cut you off – what’s with that?  We remember, ruminate, and rehash these incidents because we perceive them as threats to our wellbeing, security and control.  And what’s the next step.  We start entertaining the wolf of negativity, becoming filled with fear, anger and resentment.

Now for entelechy, a Greek word for the force that directs life and growth, the unlocks potential. Think of entelechy as positive energy that nurtures your innate essence.  For example, a planted acorn becomes an oak tree due to its entelechy.  It doesn’t have to try to be an oak tree, that capacity is innate from birth.  The acorn just needs the positive energy of sunlight, soil and water to unlock its full unfolding.  Similarly, each of you is born with a life force that spurs you to grow and become who you are meant to be.  You simply need to nurture that life force, treat yourself with love and kindness, recognize and own your strengths.  But along comes your negativity bias, shutting out the sunshine, choking off your growth with weeds of unresolved hurts and resentments, cutting off your growth path with rocks.  You are literally smothering out the inborn positive energy of your life with all this negativity.  We are born with a self-righting tendency, the capacity to spring back from adversity and bad experiences.  Researchers call this capacity resilience, and those who study resiliency point out that we can either help or hinder this self-righting tendency.  In other words, we can either unleash our life force or shut off its flow.  The choice is yours.

And this brings us back to the Cherokee chief.  The chief’s message to his grandson was to feed the positive wolf.  My way of delivering the same advice is to allow your positive energy to flow. The four tips discussed in this blog are designed to prevent negative weeds from taking root and to keep your soil free of rocks.  They focus on treating yourself (and others) with kindness, generosity and compassion. They empower you to focus on your strengths, to adopt a perspective of optimism and hope, and to enjoy the journey that is your life.

Imagine that you are a cork, floating down the stream of wellbeing that is your birthright.  Yes, everyone faces potential obstacles in the stream.  No one goes through life without experiencing some setbacks, failures, and tragedies.  When faced with adversity, you have a choice.  You can experience the adversity as if a hand is holding the cork under the water by continuing to focus on fear and worry, anger and guilt?  Or, you can release the hand of the negative wolf by practicing these ten tips, allowing your cork to bop up to the surface, once again enjoying the power of positive energy to propel you forward and upward.      

The Four Tips that will be explored in subsequent posts are:

  1. Retrain your amygdala
  2. Get in your control zone
  3. Focus on the positive aspects
  4. Become solution-oriented

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It’s All In Your View

December 12th, 2014

DSC05428How can you feel bad when you look at a view like this?  While most of us don’t wake up and see this kind of sunrise from our bedroom window, even those who do can be on a downward spiral.  Because it is not what is outside that determines our mood and life experiences, it is what is on the inside.  Yes, it is often easier to feel positive when things are going well, but even when they aren’t, you have a choice.   This photo was taken in Mendocino, California, where the majority of the time, you would never see this view in the early hours of the morning.  That’s because Mendocino is usually covered in fog, the view literally clouded from your vision.  Yet, you know it’s there.  When the fog lifts, the view appears.  Our  negative moods are just like the fog.  They obscure our view of possibilities, excitement, passion and contentment.  But I guarantee they are there. 

Unlike with the weather, you have control over your moods.  When you are feeling down, you can make a choice that you want to and deserve to live life on an upward spiral.  You can clear the fog by deciding to choose thoughts and actions that will turn your downward momentum around.  It takes some effort, practice and determination, but it can be done.  Don’t settle for anything less.  The goodies are always there, when you decide to lift the veil and let the sun shine. 

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Who Pushes Your Hot Buttons?

November 11th, 2014

hot button

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax was asked by a reader  how to handle her “button-pushing sister.”  In her response, Hax in part tells the questioner not to allow others to control the access to her sensitivities.  The questioner then writes back to Hax to elaborate on this strategy, stating “I don’t ‘give’ people like this access to my sensitivities, they just now exactly what they are and how to use them to hurt me  Even if I put on a show like it doesn’t hurt, it still hurts.”

Hax’s response was so perfectly stated, I am restating it here, with the caption: “I couldn’t have said it better myself!”

Answer:  I’ll use my experience in reading hostile mail for 16 years, and also in some volatile, now-ex friendships.  Both used to upset me deeply, and now the same things barely register.  Nothing about the other parties changed, the abuse still comes.  What has changed is inside me: I value their (or anyone’s) opinion less; I am more accepting of, less embarrassed by, and therefore less defensive about my own shortcomings; and I learned more constructive ways to handle my hard feelings.  Combine the three and I am just not as, for lack of a better work, hurtable as I used to be.

Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.  Dealing with difficult people is an INSIDE job!!!

Source:  The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 2014, p. C2

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