I have a sweet spot for facilitating groups to do any kind of work—strategy, visioning, daily business, new product development, planning—you name it. I love to be in the thick of it—helping leaders, groups, teams, boards, or collectives get better results than they think is possible.
Recently a group brought me in to facilitate a series of meetings. The group’s committed, well-intentioned, and sincere. They come together to support the well-being of the organization and they will do what it takes to ensure things go well. There are no hidden agendas or surprising power plays. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The Elephant Landed in the Middle of the Room
Well, almost. At the last meeting, there was a big fat elephant in the room that showed up unexpectedly and it took over the energy in the room, filling it with tension for a bit. It was a perfect example of an amygdala hijack. What is that? You might ask. Let me explain how it showed up then I’ll explain what I know about the science. And please remember I’m an amateur who’s just really interested in brain science.
The elephant plopped in the middle of the room when someone asked the general manager—or GM—a question. It was a request for more information about staffing and operations. The GM snapped, “Operations are not your responsibility. They are my responsibility. You don’t need to know what is going on. That’s my job.”
“Every time I ask about it, you freak out,” the questioner muttered. The elephant started flapping his ears at this point.
Wait a minute, I thought. What is this elephant about? I slowed the group down and explored what was going on. We needed to understand the tension and clarify what was needed to get the elephant moving out of our space.
When the question about staffing landed, the GM moved into stress mode. He had been stung in the past and didn’t want to spend all his time giving people information they could find on their own if they just looked on the website. I suggested that he advocate and explain his reasoning and, even though I had a sense that an amygdala hijack was in progress, I didn’t want to stop to talk about brain science. The team needed to move forward and get through the tense impasse. Advocating with clear language and using the ladder of inference as a reference helps everyone see the elephant more clearly. We noted the boundary the GM had. He was clear that he didn’t want to be sucked into a time sink. The team member wanted and needed information and didn’t want to be yelled at for asking for what she needed. They understood the two perspectives, figured out what was needed and came up with a mutually satisfying solution. But the GM was withdrawn and his snapping at the team member remained as a residue. I felt like the GM’s stressful experience of the past had clouded the present. That is how I recognized the amygdala hijack.
The Amygdala: Our Brain’s Smoke Alarm
The amygdala is our internal smoke alarm—sensing and responding to fear, storing and encoding emotions. It gets complicated very quickly. When we experience a stressful situation, our amygdala is activated and it wants to help keep us safe by alerting our brains to the fearful situation and preparing us to take action. As the stressful or fearful situation is happening, the amygdala responds to the emotion and begins to encode the experience. This enables us to evaluate the danger based on past experience.
Stress hormones activate adrenal receptors in the amygdala and this modulates how the memories are consolidated and stored in structures further up the brain—the hippocampal complex. An adverse experience gets stored in a complex construction that includes many parts of the brain.
The amygdala is always vigilant when we experience stress, especially when it reminds us of the past experiences. When the amygdala becomes “kindled” or activated with the possibility of stress occurring, it shuts off access to our brain’s executive functions in our prefrontal cortex as a precaution. We may need to escape or freeze or fight our way through the fearful situation. This limits our thinking and talking abilities, and prepares us for immediate and effective action to limit the stress and keep us safe.
The problem is that the stressful situation may or may not actually be occurring in the present. The amygdala’s job is to identify the possibility of something happening. So it prepares us for action. If it waits until the threat is happening, that could be too late. Think about the dangers we survived in the early years of our species’ existence.
We Think the Past is the Present and the Present Becomes Confused with the Past
In this situation, the GM’s amygdala ignited under the assumption that a bad, past experience was about to happen. When the question came in, instead of responding to what was needed in the moment, the GM snapped. There was no discrimination between what was happening in the present and the past stressful experience.
This can happen to any of us, and probably has. Amygdala hijackings can derail our best intentions.
Three Things to do when your Amygdala Hijacks your Thinking
1. Come into the present and be aware of what’s happening right now.
2. Turn our attention inward. This gives us understanding to ease our own stress and bring on our higher thinking capabilities. Once we are attuned to ourselves again, our state can influence a positive outcome for the group. Our brains respond so quickly that hijackings can happen in a matter of seconds, without our conscious awareness.
3. Take a deep breath. Connecting with ourselves and the present moment can work wonders.