Have you ever been in the presence of a young toddler in the midst of an all-out temper tantrum? Can you replay in your head how the conversation escaladed exponentially, and your logical brain is asking yourself “what in the heck happened” and “why are you even upset”? Did you know that the exact same “temper tantrums” that happen for children happen to adults as well, especially during difficult conversations? We just use a fancier term called Amygdala Hijack.
Amygdala Hijack – coined by Daniel Goleman – is when we are triggered by a treat, perceived or real, that triggers our survival brain, shuts the door to our problem-solving center and activates our limbic center which holds all of our emotional experience and memories of similar hurt and fear.
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Basically, our brain is so smart that it activates all of our brain’s protect mode at once when we feel threatened. The problem is that this shuts off all ability to connect, engage, hold compassion and utilize problem-solving. When we have difficult conversations, Amygdala Hijacking is one of the most problematic hardwired reactions we need to overcome.
As with the piece about overcoming our self-limiting beliefs and preconceived notions, conquering our amygdala hijack takes practice, patience and persistence. In Step 2: Getting the Schmutz Out of the Way, we focus on tackling our internal obstacles in order for us to be in the right mindset to hold productive difficult conversations.
Conquering Amygdala Hijack interestingly comes before the actual conversation as our brain is designed to anticipate threats and often goes into overdrive when we consider difficult conversations. Have you ever walked into the conversation and already thought about the one hundred worst-case scenarios? That is your overactive Amygdala. It is critical that we learn to quell our Amygdala Hijacks before entering the difficult conversation as that provides us the best foundation for a successful interaction.
In order to do this for our Amygdala Hijacks, we work through a reflective exercise designed to discover our amygdala hijacks and build self-awareness strategies to overcome them.
1. Label Our Reaction as Normal: Understand the science and biology of an amygdala hijack. It is how we are hardwired in our brains. We are designed to anticipate and protect ourselves from harm. Tell yourself: I know this is normal and now I am recognizing it so I can consciously make change and growth.
2. Notice How You React: Write down your thoughts on the following items: Do you go into Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease? What causes you to go into that survival state? What do you notice about your body when you go into an Amygdala Hijack? What are your thoughts as you reflect on your reaction?
3. Take Some Deep Breaths: Seems too simple, right? Research shows that three to five nice, deep breaths gives our brain the time to process the information, move to the problem-solving portion of our brain and quell our amygdala. Take deep breaths and count to ten.