What is the Amygdala Hijack?

The Amygdala Hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. In a nutshell, in situations where you perceive there is a threat to your safety– it’s normal to experience what is described as ‘The Amygdala Hijack’. When this happens, your ability to think clearly goes out the window. You may feel light headed, overwhelmed, feel your heart racing, and not be able to find the right words (or any words). Which can be experienced as very annoying if you are in a meeting or in the middle of important discussions.

The good news is it’s just your brain doing what it is meant to do – trying to keep you safe. When you perceive a danger, your brain is flooded with stress hormones. It’s normal and often very useful (if there is a real danger).

When might I experience the Amygdala Hijack at Work?

In the workplace, you can make many different things a threat to your safety. These could be a threat to your professional reputation, your personal reputation, or even your physical safety. Some people experience the Amygdala Hijack when n intimidating work colleague asks them a question in a meeting, or simply looks at them. Maybe they have just realized they made a huge error that could cost them their job – this could be experienced as a threat to their survival, a threat to their ability to pay the rent or buy food for their family.

So while the physical sensations are uncomfortable, they are not harmful. In fact, a useful way of thinking about it might be to consider it as information and feedback that you have perceived something as a threat. The amygdala hijack is like a little alarm going off in your brain. It’s saying ‘be careful, be careful’.

Breathe and wait for Six Seconds

Unlike a smoke alarm when you have to frantically try to make it stop because it’s piecing your eardrums, you only have to wait about six seconds for the flood to subside and for your brain to get back to functioning normally again. Also, you can hide it if you want to. You might be sitting in a meeting experiencing an Amygdala Hijack and your colleagues are unaware.

Sally, a General Manager, experienced an Amygdala Hijack about once per week in her workplace. She wanted to ‘get rid of them’. She also used to worry about experiencing an Amygdala Hijack at work, which made her feel anxious. She learnt to think about it as ‘feedback and information from my brain’. She decided to say ‘Hello and thank you for the feedback’ when she experienced an Amygdala Hijack. She knew it would pass, and then she could ask herself, ‘Is this really a threat to my safety?’  Instead of judging the Amygdala Hijack as bad and beating herself up about it, she gave it the meaning ‘How fascinating! It’s just my amazing brain trying to protect me’.

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