What to do when your amygdala hijacks you - instantteamwork



What to do when your amygdala hijacks you

  • Stress is not the same as pressure (which can be healthy)
  • Stress is our internal reaction to a perception of imbalance between the demands made on us (real or perceived) and the personal resources to deal with the demands.

“But I need to be stressed, otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done”  “Stress is good isn’t it?”  “Stress is normal – that’s just work every day”  “I don’t ‘do’ stress!”

These are just some of the responses we hear when we run our Resilience (including Stress Management) and Leadership sessions. Most of us really don’t want to admit that we experience stress at work – it seems like an admission of defeat – surely at our age and level of experience we shouldn’t have any stress left.  Because we’re totally professional, right?

So some people pretend to the world that they are always ‘fine’ and develop a great professional mask, and others pretend to themselves too and pretty much numb out.  But guess what – the pretending is simply papering over cracks in a wall; the chemical, emotional, physical and mental processes are going on regardless under the surface.

And, yes, we’re willing to believe that there are a very few among us who don’t actually feel much stress – but generally it takes a frontal lobotomy or some very powerful mind-altering drugs to bring that about.  Because unfortunately stress is a normal human response, a form of fear, to a perceived threat.


Amygdala Hijack is quite a sexy phrase for something that’s generally an unpleasant experience.  The Amygdala is a tiny part of the brain with a big impact – it controls our raw emotions, especially FEAR. During moments of stress the Amygdala can hijack the Neo Cortex – which is the more sensible part of the brain that controls complex and rational thinking processes.

So suddenly the Amygdala may trigger a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, releasing streams of fearful/ stressed emotions, and denying access to our rational thought processes.  This is a good thing if we are being faced with a mugger with a gun, but not so helpful if we are at work trying to come to a decision about something important. (more impacts below)

Unless the Neo Cortex can send messages to the Amygdala fast that the situation isn’t life threatening, it can take several hours for the stress symptoms to die down.

You see the problem?

  1. This Amygdala hijack is happening in a split second
  2. It’s blocking our higher thinking faculties leaving us open to making unreliable decisions and alienating our teams
  3. It’s happening between our own ears, invisibly, so seems really hard to control.
  4. Pretending it’s not happening doesn’t make it better or get our neo cortex back on track
  5. It takes an indeterminate time to settle down, during which time we find it increasingly hard to focus and think logically

BUT – what if we could find ways of getting the Neo Cortex back in the driving seat as quickly as possible?

 Our workshops and longer programmes teach tried and tested ways to intervene powerfully once we identify that we are in a stress state – or even low-level anxiety – or when we notice we are experiencing any of the following signs:

Signs of stress:

Sense of too much pressure, frustration, worry, getting frequently annoyed or irritable, fatigue, exhaustion, reduced creativity, reduction in enjoyment generally, headaches, backache, digestive trouble – even mild panic.

In-the-Moment Stress Relief (that doesn’t involve alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sex or hitting someone)

We teach several ways of enabling people to handle and alleviate stress – from physical, emotional, and cognitive positions.  Here is one:

Breathing Attentively.

When we are stressed we stop breathing properly – it becomes shallow or almost non-existent. Our brain needs to be oxygenated in order to makes changes and function well.  This simple exercise will quiet the mind, as well as oxygenating the brain.

  1. Notice you are feeling stressed
  2. Start to put your attention on your breathing – don’t alter your breathing much, just notice the in and out breath, where the air seems to go in the body, what it feels like, the changes in temperature on the in and out breaths.
  3. Do this for 3-8 breaths – slightly deepen the breath but don’t hyper-ventilate!
  4. Notice what you feel – especially if the stress is diminishing

 NOW – call us and book a session for you and your teams!

 “Happy February”

 More impacts of Amygdala Hijack

Being in survival mode like this impedes:

  • Problem-solving thinking
  • Clarity in decision making
  • Confidence in personal capability
  • Happiness, innovation and productivity
  • Ability to initiate and carry out plans necessary to complete on promises
  • Efficient, logical thought
  • Ability to create and sustain relationships

Amygdala hijacking can exhaust our whole system.

It creates neural pathways in the brain that fix patterns of stress and anxiety so that they become normal.

One of the results of this is that we may default to old patterns of thinking and learning and will not be open to new possibilities or personal change.

Amygdala hijacking creates circuits of activity that etch patterns of anxiety and other emotions onto the brain as normal. People then recreate episodes that set in motion fear states even though the distinct situation, occuring in the moment, may not in itself elicit fear. In this state, people habitually default to accrued knowledge or previous imprinting rather than being completely present to potential and possibility.