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.)