28 May 2024

Learn how to battle the Amygdala Hijack

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Bridges, like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, are engineered to be dynamic, flexible and responsive so they can continue to do their job even in the face of major stressors. Photo: Kim Treasure.

May Busch says people under stress often make decisions they regret later. She explains why this happens, and what we can do to avoid it.

Have you ever driven across a bridge? If so, you probably take it for granted as an extension of the road. A static structure you hardly give a thought to as you continue your journey.

Yet did you know that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge flexed by more than two metres when 300,000 people walked across it during its 100th-anniversary celebration?

In reality, bridges are engineered to be dynamic, flexible and responsive so they can continue to do their job even in the face of major stressors such as accidents, earthquakes and hurricanes.

The same should be true for leaders. Here is some advice for staying strong and flexible under stressful conditions.

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Beware of Amygdala Hijack: When you’re under stress, instead of calmly stepping back to assess the situation and make a good decision, your thinking brain gets ‘‘hijacked’’ by its oldest and most instinctive part — the amygdala.

The amygdala triggers the stress hormone cortisol to save you from danger by triggering the ‘’fight or flight’’ instinct.

In prehistoric times, this instinctive reaction was literally a life saver, but in the physical safety of your home or office, this same reflex causes you to make bad decisions in the heat of the moment.

If you’ve ever looked back on a situation you didn’t handle well and wondered “What was I thinking?”, that was probably the Amygdala Hijack at work. The key is to notice that your amygdala has been triggered. Once you recognise that, you have a chance to do something to send it back into its cave.

Start by thanking your amygdala for making an appearance. After all, it’s just trying to do its job and protect you from perceived danger. Then reassure it that you’ve got things under control. We all like to be acknowledged and your amygdala is no exception. Then you can turn to managing your physical and emotional state so your thinking brain – the prefrontal cortex – can get back in the driver’s seat.

Manage your nervous system: The simplest, most effective way to do this is through breathing. If you do it properly, you’ll be able to get yourself back to a state of calm where you can make good decisions again.

In particular, it’s about rhythmic breathing. One way to do this is ‘’triangle breathing’’, whereby you breathe in for three counts, hold for three counts, and breathe out for three counts. Do this slowly and ideally with your eyes closed to get the best effects.

The beauty of triangle breathing is you can do it anywhere and at any time without people around you noticing — and you don’t have to do it for long. As little as one minute of focused breathing can clear your bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol.

Don’t wait for an Amygdala Hijack: In an ideal world, you would want to prevent Amygdala Hijack from happening to begin with. While that’s not always possible, you can get better at it with practice. It requires you to anticipate when you’re likely to be triggered.

For me, it’s any time money or finances are involved, and when I find myself in a conflict situation. For you, it might be a certain person who always annoys you, or being reminded of a project that’s not going well.

Once you anticipate the triggers, you can decide what you’ll do if and when those triggers appear. For example, by engaging in the triangle breathing technique – it helps if you’ve pre-decided your strategy so you can jump to it immediately.

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Also, see if you can create at least one new habit that clears your mind. One that keeps you grounded before you need to make important decisions. Choose something you enjoy so you can make it part of your daily or weekly routine. Activities such as exercise, meditation, gardening and yoga are all ways to clear your mind.

Engaging regularly in your calming habit will help you nudge yourself into a new ‘‘normal’’ state where it becomes easier and easier to stay away from being triggered. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be much more equipped to make better decisions no matter what’s going on around you.

Just like the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be able to flex and adapt to the pressures of having 300,000 people breathing down your neck and still function at your best.

May Busch’s mission is to help leaders and their organisations achieve their full potential. She works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected]. This article first appeared on May’s blogsite.

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