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Beware of the Amygdala Hijack!

By Ken and Lee Estridge

Despite all of our efforts to be civilized human beings, at our core, we are animals. The amygdala is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. It is the part of our brain that protects us from danger by triggering the fight or flight response. The stimulus that it sends is so rapid that we usually react first and think about the consequences later or not at all. This may be useful when running from tigers and bears, but there are many times when this fight or flight response has an unwanted impact on the people in our personal and professional lives. When a stimulus is followed by an instantaneous automatic reaction, there is no time to think about the desired outcome. Often times our reaction is disproportion in magnitude to the stimulus, i.e. our body thinks it is being chased by a bear and it is only our spouse, business partner, client or colleague.

In Steven Covey's landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of his seven habits is to "Begin with the end in mind". What this requires in terms of dialogue, or interactions with others, is the ability to insert a pause between stimulus and response so that we can choose our response based on the desired outcome we want to have rather than reacting automatically. 

So, what's the problem? We know we should pause before reacting. But, it happens so fast that we find ourselves reacting and we end up damaging relationships and having to do damage control after the event. Clearly, this is not the desired outcome!

Here are some tips that you may find helpful:

  • Recognize when it is happening, and look for the reoccurring patterns. (Ask, what is it that tends to trigger me?)
  • When you feel a fight or flight response coming on, and your energy coming up and out, take a deep breath, pull the energy down and in and count to 10. Buy yourself some time to think.
  • During this pause, ask yourself three questions:
    1. Is what I'm feeling justified by the stimulus, or is it some old wound being pricked?
    2. What do I want the outcome of my response to be?
    3. What response from me is likely to achieve the outcome I desire?

This all sounds very simple, but it is extremely difficult to do because most of us are not good self-observers and we often run on auto-pilot. Furthermore, we have been behaving this way our whole life, so we tend to think it is okay and not to see the damage this behavior causes. When people react adversely to our behavior, we tend to make them wrong rather than looking at ourselves. Remember, when you point your finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you. Think of this as an opportunity to look at yourself and grow.