You may be reassured to know that it is completely normal to respond in this reflex (not thinking) way to threatening situations. When our thinking, rational, logical brain is overtaken by an immediate emotional response, this is sometimes referred to as an amygdala hijack.
Daniel Goleman was the first to use the phrase amygdala hijack in his book “Emotional Intelligence”. It refers to the part of the brain that controls the fight/flight/freeze response. In evolutionary terms this is the oldest part of the human brain, hence it is sometimes referred to as the reptile brain. It is “home” to our basic survival instincts and its main function is to protect the organism.
How does it work?
Sensory information is received by the thalamus. Part of the stimulus is passed directly to the amygdala while another is sent to the neocortex (the logical, thinking brain). If the amygdala senses a match to previous fearful or highly emotionally charged experiences, it will trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. This emotional response happens milliseconds before the stimulus reaches the rational neo-cortex so the thinking brain is effectively hijacked. This survival mechanism allows us to react to things before the rational brain has time to mull things over. Any delay caused by taking time to think about the response could place us in danger. This is why, when the amygdala detects a potential threat it can lead a person to react irrationally or destructively.
If the amygdala does not perceive a match between the stimulus received and its record of threatening situations, the stimulus will pass to the neocortex thus enabling a rational response.
How can we prevent an amygdala hijack?
Here are two ways to prevent a full-blown amygdala hijack:
- Deal with the triggers. Let’s imagine that like Steve Jobs, you suffered with Koumpounophobia – that’s a phobia of buttons. Your brain will have been programmed to perceive buttons as threatening. As a result the sight of buttons will trigger the amygdala and the fight / flight / freeze response. It is possible with NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) techniques to change how you represent buttons so that seeing a button no longer triggers the unhelpful response.
- Notice the first sign of the hijack. What is the first sign for you? Back track through a previous experience until you find the first sign – this will usually be something you were seeing externally, picturing internally, hearing externally, or thinking internally. When you have your early warning sign, use that to trigger a new response. A helpful alternative is 7-11 breathing. Take a breath in whilst counting to 7 and out counting to 11. Repeat this a couple of times. Any time you breathe out for longer than the in breath you are triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to produce a relaxation response. You are literally giving yourself some breathing space in which to develop a more useful response to the external stimulus.
But remember, the amygdala is there to serve a useful function – there are emergency situations where it is completely appropriate to act first then think afterwards so it is not a case of making the reptile the enemy, it is more a case of taming it!