Imagine you are sitting and having a great talk with your best friend and all of the sudden a look of utter terror comes over her face. She screams and runs for cover. What just happened? Is she insane? Then you look over your shoulder to see what her terrified gaze is fixated on and you find yourself joining her in her crazy freak-out moment.
There it is. Crawling across the couch the two of you were just sitting on. The source of your deepest fear. The “it’s-soooo-going-to-kill-me” gigantic creepy spider. You know it’s going to crawl into your hair, latch on to your skin, inject you with some kind of lethal spider venom and leave you to die in agony.
So what really happens when a creature that is the size of a penny and physically no match for you, invades your world and creates such monumental fear?
Welcome To The Amygdala Hijack
“A-what-dala” hijack? The amygdala is the oldest part of your brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Daniel Goleman coined the phrase “amygdala hijack” to describe the emotional response when a person feels they are in immediate “it’s going to kill me” kind of danger. This type of response can take over your brain in a millisecond when a threat appears.
The 3 signs of an amygdala hijack are:
- Strong emotional reaction
- Sudden onset
- Do or say something stupid
The amygdala hijack is very good at getting our emotions to pay attention to an urgent situation and helps us to move into action without our rational mind getting in the way to analyze the situation. The time it takes to analyze what is happening could be the difference between life and death. It’s our brain’s way of protecting us.
For the record – the spider thing has NEVER happened to me. Nope – not ever. (Ya, I’m a big fat liar. But in my defense the spiders I’ve faced recently were WAY bigger than the size of a penny!)
What’s the big deal if the amygdala hijack’s your brain? Well, it can overreact to non-life-threatening situations which can create problems in work and personal relationships. Goleman states “self-control is crucial …when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack”.
During these hijacks, logic and reason get thrown out the window. Being aware your friend, spouse or coworker is in the midst of a hijack is important so you can step back, keep your cool and not become a victim of a hijack yourself.
A Look Inside
Basically, you have 3 brains inside your head. Let’s take a look:
- The oldest part is where the amygdala hijack takes place and is sometimes referred to as the reptilian, or as I like to call it, the lizard brain. It’s shown in blue in the illustration above. It’s the part of the brain which causes you to act and react.
- The middle part (in red) is responsible for your limbic system and is where emotions and meaning are created. It’s your “feeling brain”.
- The most recent and outermost part of your brain is the neocortex, which we’ll refer to as your thinking brain. It’s responsible for reason and logic. It’s the part that get’s hijacked when perceived threats and high emotion take over.
How To Put A Leash On Your Lizard
The good news is you can teach your thinking brain to control your lizard brain. You may never be able to tame it completely, but recognizing what it’s doing and having a plan for when it acts up will help you with future hijacks. Here are a couple of ways to put a leash on your inner lizard:
Name it – Your brain can’t be in two places at once. Just the act of naming an emotion, or the part of the brain that is responsible for the emotion, can help to minimize it. Neuroscience tells us that engaging the language part of the brain (thinking brain) starts the process of moving out of the emotional, feeling part of the brain. Naming it is a simple trick that will help you get out of that emotional reactionary response and into a rational response.
Time it – If you or someone you know has been hijacked, stop and allow 90 seconds to pass. This is the amount of time it takes for the chemical surge released by whatever triggered the fight-or-flight response in your body to go away. If you continue to “feed the lizard” after 90 seconds, you run the risk of saying or doing something you may regret later.
Why Stopping A Hijack Matters
How you think, feel and react to emotional hijacks can affect your closest relationships and the relationships with people you work with.
Research shows that teaching your brain to tame the lizard can actually help you to have more self confidence, higher energy and be in a better mood on a regular basis.
We are all human and emotions can run high in stressful situations, so being aware of your inner lizard and the inner lizards of your friends, family and coworkers is important. Plus, having a plan to put a leash on your lizard is crucial to keep things from escalating.
Has your lizard brain ever gotten the best of you?
Feel free to share your story (especially the gigantic creepy spider stories!)