Anxiety and FearEmotional Intelligencelife coachingSelf AwarenessSelf Management

Daniel Goleman: My Amygdala Has Hijacked me! 

Have you ever lost control in a situation where you felt very angry, or nervous? Did you react very quickly and say something you didn’t mean, or act in a way that you didn’t like? 

 

You are not the only one. 

 

Amygdala Hijack

 

Daniel Goleman, (for the ones who don’t know him… Emotional Intelligence’s godfather), calls this emotional temporary loss of control: ‘Amygdala Hijack’. To explain this, I will need to get a little technical: The amygdala is one small part of our brain that has the shape of an almond and is in charge of protecting us (the chimp lives there) – This little almond is part of the Limbic System of the brain (what is known as the Emotional Brain). When we experience something through our five senses, the information is first received by the Thalamus, and from there part of the stimulus goes straight to the amygdala while other parts are sent to the neocortex of the brain (Known as the rational part). Technically then, both of the parts of the brain would receive the stimulus. HOWEVER, the emotional brain (Amygdala) is milliseconds faster in processing the information received (and believe me my friend, here you can realise how much time matters!). WHEN the amygdala matches the information received with a threatening memory from the past, it considers it to be a fight, flight and freeze scenario and it hijacks the rational brain, and the neocortex doesn’t even receive the stimulus! 

 

When the rational brain is hijacked, you react before even being able to think rationally. Your reaction is as fast as if it was a life-death matter, and your impulsiveness makes decisions on your name. This is great if you are in a survival situation but not so great on day-to-day situations. Often straight after reacting you feel regret, as you realise your actions were inappropriate and unhelpful. But… it is too Late! 

 

Recently my amygdala hijacked my brain in a shocking situation, but fortunately days after I was lucky enough to meet Daniel Goleman personally to get all my questions answered! I will tell you all about it. 

 

Last week I was going to do my practical driving exam for the first time. I had sat my theory test before moving to Australia and passed it, but 2 years had passed since then so my right to sit the practical part was about to expire. Long story short: I only had one chance to pass this exam. 

 

To give you a little bit of background information, one of the main reasons why I decided to sit the driving exam was because of my fear of driving. For all my life, I had had an irrational feeling and a limiting belief that lead me to think that I was unable to drive. As a child, I develop the limiting belief that I was clumsy and that I would never be a good driver. Some women in my family have driving licenses but they don’t drive and I was convinced that I would be like them, so…

 

As I was aware that this fear was irrational, I decided to face it. 

 

When I came back from Australia I joined a driving school and I started my practical lessons with a wonderful teacher who helped me face my fear. In a matter of weeks, I was driving confidently and even better… I was really enjoying it! I could not believe the mind’s tricks; how could I have been living like this; driven by an imaginary, irrational fear for so long? 

 

Anyway, the day of the exam arrived, and I was feeling very relaxed. In fact, that day I did my morning meditation, I headed to the exam location with time and I felt calm and confident. I had the feeling that everything was going to go well, all the way up to the moment I sat down in the driver’s seat and the exam started. Then, everything went wrong. As soon as my hands hit the steering wheel, and realised it was my turn to show up, without a teacher to help me, I panicked. 

 

The experienced of being tested got into my amygdala, and it was perceived as an absolute threat. The amygdala related it to my old belief (that I was clumsy, incapable of driving) that was still recorded somewhere within me, and took action to protect me, in this case through freezing. My amygdala didn’t want me to move because it didn’t think it was safe so it blocked my rational brain and I was not able to drive properly. I forgot things I had never forgotten before like taking off the hand brake after parking, and even turning on the ignition! 


I failed the exam due to the irrational fear that awoke in the moment of truth and leaving me unable to think rationally. As soon as the exam passed, I was filled with regret. I wished I could have rewound time to sit it again.

 

My chimp had got the better of me and I couldn’t understand why. Worst of all, after failing, the chimp came up again to punish me for doing so!! 

 

I think it is important to understand this oddity: Not only was my rational brain upset after I failed, but my emotional brain was too! My chimp heavily criticised me for not being able to control my nervousness: ‘How can you call yourself a coach if you have amygdala hijacks? Hahahha’. A little unfair right? 

 

Luckily, and thanks to the emotional and mental training that I practice daily, I was able to identify the chimp and turn down her volume so I could practice compassion with myself, so shortly after felt much better. 

 

Days later, I went to the World Business Forum to see a dream speaker: Daniel Goleman. In his talk, he discussed Amygdala Hijacks extensively, something I have heard him talk about many times, but this time it particularly resonated as I had recently experienced that, and it was fortunate to explore the topic further with its creator. 

 

Often I use breathing techniques to deal with the Amygdala Hijack. If my chimp overpowers me and I find myself arguing with someone in a violent way: I press pause on life, go to the bathroom and breath until I am calm again to keep talking, but what to do when you are in a driving test? Are you going to ask the tester to stop the car and let you breath for some minutes? I Doubt it would be acceptable. 

 

 

So, what can we do in situations in which you are not allowed to stop, take a time out, and breath?

 

 

I am going to separate my tips into two sections to address this: Preparation, and Survival kit (for things you can do, right in the moment).

Pre-paration:

 

1. Practice Mindfulness and meditation daily:

If you practice meditation every day you can reduce the likelihood of having an amygdala hijack. Over time, Meditation and Mindfulness have a relaxing effect on your emotions, meaning that it takes a far greater provoking stimulus to awaken the chimp!

 

2. Practice your breathing techniques:

Find a breathing technique that works for you and practice it as often as you can. It Is good to put some alarms on during the day to check in with your breathing rhythm and to slow it down if need be. 

 

3. Dissolve the root of the problem:  

This is the most important step. If you pay attention, you will notice that the triggers that lead your amygdala to hijack your rational brain have things in common. Discover your triggers and transform your limiting beliefs, in my case I had worked on overcoming my fear of driving, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to a belief that I was still holding: Deep inside I was still convinced that I was clumsy and that I was only driving well because of my teacher’s guidance. 

 

 

Survival kit:  

 

1. Identify that the amygdala is hijacking you:

This is already a huge step, and I recommend you voice it out loud! This is a simple and effective way of alerting the rational brain to what is happening.

 

2. Try to regulate the rhythm of your breathing:

You might not be able to stop the car and breath but we are constantly breathing regardless of what we are doing, so I recommend you focus on the breath and to breath slower (Hopefully this will become easier if you have a daily breathing technique already internalised)  

 

3. Face your Fears:

How can we get rid of fears? By facing them! How can we convince the amygdala that something is not a threat? By proving that is not! Time and again, so in some cases, you might need more than one try. The guy that was with me in the exam has sat it 9 times, and that day he did perfectly. Why? Because he had overcome his fear by trial after trial. 

 

 

Last but not least important, it is to accept that we all get hijacked by our amygdala at some point, personal development is an endless process and undoing threats and limiting beliefs take time. We are far too imperfect and that is ok! Just keep training, keep practising and you will reduce the power of your amygdala to control you and feel better every day! 

 

 

Also, if you want to work deeper on your anxiety and fear, you can download this free meditation that will help you make peace with anxiety!

Love and Satisfaction,

 

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