Learning from an amygdala hijack

Last week I was hijacked.

By my amygdala.

I should have known better. I do know better. But last week, I didn’t prevent it when I could have and boom – I was hijacked by my amygdala.  An amygdala hijack (google the web for lots more on the subject) basically occurs when your adrenaline increases and you find yourself reacting in a far more emotional way than the situation warrants.  It is usually a sign of feeling threatened resulting in your amygdala kicking in to help you protect yourself. The result, at least in our modern world where we are more often confronted by an aggressive colleague rather than a saber-tooth tiger, is often an overreaction that can  cause more trouble and more long-lasting damage than the initial situation itself.

The key to avoiding the amygdala hijack is to see it coming and stop it before it stops you. Listen to your feelings and ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are. In most cases, you can make yourself realize that you feel threatened in some way that probably wasn’t intended and you can work more calmly and more systematically to address the issue rather than jumping immediately and aggressively into fight or flight mode.  If you know what your hot buttons are, you can usually identify them as the cause for your high emotions and can then cancel the amygdala’s red alert and act more rationally.

Image of a person probably rightfully under an amygdala hijack courtesy of http://fightorflightsurvival.blogspot.com/2012/11/mind-control.html.

Alas, in one particular instance last week, I did none of this. I felt threatened and I attacked back.  Luckily, the “threat maker” stopped and took control of the situation, allowing me to see the hijacking that was going on and stop it.  In the end, I thanked my colleague for taking the time to do so, but I wished I had stopped it myself.  So, what happened?

I had earlier received an email I did not like from this colleague.  I felt she (or maybe it was a he? 😉 ) was threatening my team and telling me what I was allowed to do with them.  That was not of course, what she meant, as it turns out, but this is one my hot buttons, and I got angry over the email and told myself that she was not going to get away with that. No one was going to limit the progress of my team.  Who does she think she is?  It was at this point that I should have caught myself. My reaction was over and above what was appropriate for the email. And it was an email after all; they are so easily misinterpreted that you should never get mad over an email. I knew that, but I did not stop myself. I allowed the hijacking to begin.  Seeing my hostile reaction, I should have stopped myself right there and asked myself what else my colleague could have meant in her email. If I were giving her the benefit of the doubt, what was she trying to tell me?  With this framework in mind, I should have talked to her at the next opportunity to see what she really meant. If necessary, I could calmly indentify my fears and help her understand the performance and independence of my team are important to me, but that probably would not have been necessary; she was not threatening me or my team at all, but I didn’t see that. I was being hijacked.

So, the next day when our paths crossed in the hall, I was still annoyed at this email so when she asked me what I thought about it, I got aggressive.  It briefly escalated from there as I told her that she couldn’t tell me how to run my team, etc., until she took a breath and started a sentence with something like “Scot, I’m feeling a little bit … now” and started to tell me how she was feeling about our interaction.  The adrenaline was still pumping in me (I could feel my heart beating), so I wasted no time in telling her how I was feeling, as well.  It wasn’t nice, but acknowledging why I was feeling angry started my hijack recovery process. It was the step I should have taken when I got that earlier email.  (And in hindsight, my colleague’s “I feel” statement seems like a very good way to respond to an amygdala hijack in someone else.)  I started to calm down and realize what just happened.  I began to realize why I was upset and how that was not really a result of anything my colleague had actually said or done.  I was able to calm down and listen and talk to my colleague in the way I normally do to solve problems for mutual benefit. After a few more moments, we got to the core of the issue and reached a good agreement.  Where only a few moments ago, I was ready to go to battle with this person, I now felt we had formed a successful partnership in understanding and meeting our mutual needs.

What a great outcome that I would have missed out on completely had my colleague not helped me tame my amygdala. I am grateful to her for doing so and I made a note to myself to pay more attention to these situations in the future. Watch my emotions, watch where they are coming from, and when I feel that rush of adrenaline when there isn’t a wild animal leaping towards me, take a step back and address the issue calmly.

As an enneagram 3, being in touch with his emotions is not one of Scot’s natural strengths. Being so, however, has great benefits both personally and professionally, so it is an area he constantly works to improve, with some success and the occasional setback.

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