How to take control of the Amygdala Hijack!

Your brain is getting hijacked by ancient history, despite millennia of evolution!

You’re a smart person, totally in command of how you come across to other people, fully in control of your behaviour, right?

When you snap at a colleague or loved-one because you’re having a bad day, you’ll quickly say “I didn’t mean it”, but the truth is you got hijacked.

Thing is, the mind and body are closely linked and our reactions to modern day problems still use what Professor Paul Gilbert refers to as our ‘Old Brain’ – the brain that had a simple life as a forager, hunting, keeping the fire lit and protecting the family from danger.

Without highly developed self-awareness, your old brain will merrily keep on hijacking your responses because it can’t tell the difference between your computer not being able to see the printer and you not being able to see where that growling sabre-tooth tiger is.

The prehistoric part of your brain responsible for hijacking your control and preparing the body to act without conscious thought is called the amygdala.

Emotional reactions begin with the amygdala, a part of the limbic system and the part of the brain that acts as an emergency alarm.

Within seconds of being triggered, the amygdala very quickly fires off messages to the body so that it can get physiologically prepared to respond to danger! But what if there is no danger?

In my last article, “What are you hiding?”, I touched on the science around the human brain constantly evaluating our environment to react with ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and how mindfulness can be used to connect us with what’s going on in the body and the physical reactions to stress.

When you sense that your body has responded with fight, flight or freeze, it’s worth developing the ability to understand where the trigger has come from and why it’s affected you.

If you have ever read Professor Steve Peters book, “The Chimp Paradox”, you will have heard about the ‘chimp’. The ‘chimp’ is the brain’s reaction to the amygdala hijack.

“When anger or anxiety is triggered, the amygdala drives prefrontal circuitry; as such disturbing emotions reach their peak, an amygdala hijack paralyzes executive function. But when we take active control of our attention – as when we meditate – we deploy this prefrontal circuitry, and the amygdala quietens.” (The Science of meditation)

Think about that for a minute. “Paralyses executive function” means your ability to actively think and consciously choose a response is switched off.

So, how can you tell you’ve been hijacked?

Here are some likely physical responses:

  • Butterflies
  • Temperature flushes
  • Racing heart
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to sounds and movement
  • Sleeplessness

And some typical behavioural responses:

  • Lashing out at friends or colleagues
  • Saying something without thinking
  • Doing something that is comforting but bad for you

Most of these responses would be useful if you needed to get ready to defend the cave or fight off a beastie, but not so much when the kids are kicking off or you’ve run out of loo roll.

In fact, the last thing you need is an amygdala hijack preventing you from being able to choose how to respond.

In modern day to day life, an amygdala hijack because of ancient history doesn’t really help.

In the Chimp Paradox, Peters talks about recuperation from the chimp’s reactions and this is where mindfulness really comes into play.

I often refer to mindfulness as a superpower, but it’s a superpower you can learn.

The skill and practice of mindfulness meditation can lead us to becoming aware of our body’s reaction to stressful situations and in turn help us recover faster.

  1. Notice that you are being hijacked!
  2. Take a pause / a step back from the situation / feelings / emotions causing the hijack (sometimes these cannot be seen)
  3. Bring your attention to your body and the sensations you’re experiencing

Within Mindfulness meditation practice, we learn to see and experience fully all our thoughts and the emotions that go with them. By doing this within a meditation practice, our reactive brain begins to calm and to be less inflamed. 

We allow the mind to wander freely, not getting caught up on whether a thought is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, noticing our desire to hold on to certain thoughts (usually the pleasant ones) or wanting to push away and get rid of the thoughts that are unpleasant.

The more you practice, the quicker you can learn to recognise and recover from hijack situations.

Remember, mindfulness can be learned – it’s a skill for life and really helps to avoid your prehistoric brain hijacking responses.

If you’d like to learn more, I run a variety of mindfulness courses, workshops and classes for individuals and organisations. Please get in touch!

Jo Clarke – Inner Space Works
07889 295959