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

What are you hiding?

Stressed out

People often tell me they don’t need Mindfulness.

They’re not stressed or depressed. They might admit to a touch of nerves now and then. Or maybe a little anxiety but that it’s nothing to worry about.

Stress is something that happens to other people, right?

I have news for you – your body is probably hiding all sorts of reactions and responses to what you experience at work or at home.

Sounds a little scary, but the science is pretty clear: the human brain has evolved to constantly evaluate our environment for ‘fight, flight or freeze’.
Our threat radar is operating tirelessly, on the lookout for danger and when it goes off, it primes the body’s systems to act quickly – because when the sabre tooth tiger starts running, there’s no time to think consciously, you just need to get out of there as fast you can!

Today, your prehistoric unconscious brain is quietly pumping out hormones and signals to your body thousands of years after we left our caves and campfires all without you realising:

  • Tension in the neck, shoulders and back
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Sleeplessness
  • Headaches
  • Snapping at your loved ones

Modern lives are full of ‘sabre-tooth tigers’; screaming kids, cramped commuter trains, awful bosses, idiots on the roads, someone giving you the eye in the supermarket. Whether we realise it or not, these daily life triggers are generating stress responses.

So, when someone says they don’t need Mindfulness, I think, “how do you actually know?”

Amongst other wonderful benefits, Mindfulness is a brilliant skill to learn because it connects you with what’s going on in your body:

  • You can choose a response rather than allow an unthinking reaction to make things worse.
  • You can become better able to ride emotional swings, recover faster (without suppressing or ignoring important experiences).
  • You can develop better responses to challenging situations.
  • You can find deeper joy and richer quality of experiences in the everyday as much as the extraordinary.

Learning Mindfulness is something you should want, not just something you might need.

Everyone can benefit from arresting the debilitating, often subconscious effects of challenging work and lives that we lead and learning a lifelong skill that has genuine impacts.

Where should you start?

Learn mindfulness with people, not apps! It’s a really important piece of the puzzle and Jo teaches with compassion, following the gold-standard MBSR syllabus developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 40 years ago.

Our next 5 session course begins on the 12th May and only costs £250 for 22 hours of quality training, including audio guides, home practice and course handbooks.

Please, help yourself out and book your place today.

Embracing an adventure into the unknown!

This is where I was yesterday! (No, I am not a football fan!)

It was such an incredible venue but possibly the least likely place to find a mindfulness consultant and practitioner!
However, I was invited to a launch day for a new corporate training programme with AndPartnership to give a presentation on Mindfulness in the Workplace.

Interesting Feedback There were 40 people in the audience and only 2 of them had ever practiced mindfulness meditation, dipping in and out of Apps and not really being able to commit to a regular practice. Their feedback was that although the Apps can be useful when you’re busy, they do not support you to keep a regular practice. What the Apps also do not offer, is the support of a practitioner or, the potential depth of learning that person-led courses can offer you. This is why the group mindfulness courses and 1-2-1 mindfulness training are the best way to learn the foundations of mindfulness.

What is so good about the MBSR Course? The 8 week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is specifically structured so that you not only learn a variety of mindfulness practices and how to integrate them into your daily life, but you learn about yourself, your behavioural patterns and your habits that can be unhelpful or harmful, which in turn, can lead to positive changes.

Why is Mindfulness needed within the workplace? Mindfulness is much needed in many workplace environments, particularly in the current climate of so much uncertainty, but often, people wait until something drastic happens, like physical exhaustion or burnout due to stress. Then it becomes about having to find ways to help yourself, rather than prevention.

Resistance & Denial Why are so many of us resistant to making changes within ourselves, unless we are given an absolute reason to, like an illness or burnout? And, why are so many of us in denial of there being anything ‘wrong’, ignoring and suppressing how we really feel about our life, job or circumstances?

Why is that? Well, pausing to ask ourselves how we really are, can be scary. But then, if you become curious about what it is you’re feel scared about, it often turns out that there’s nothing there, except a mixture of thoughts, feelings, emotions with all the layers that we have built up to protect ourselves over the years. Being curious can lead us towards more self-acceptance, acceptance of others, a letting go of unnecessary burdens and learning to deal with the negative self-talk, which is purely a habit that we can change.

Testimonial – What mindfulness training is really about! “Mindfulness training is so much more than just learning mindfulness meditation, it’s about self-discovery. I learnt things about myself that I never knew existed. As a result of attending the course, I am enjoying my life more!” ~ Anonymous participant of an 8 week course.

Finding a way to happiness, contentment and joy

Have you ever noticed how exhausting it is to think? Now, when I use the term thinking, I mean when you find yourself talking and questioning with others or to yourself about ‘over-thinking’. Not only do you label it as over-thinking, but you find yourself going on (and on), ruminating on the same issue, then judging yourself, telling yourself you’re stupid to over-think and questioning why you’re over-thinking this subject, situation, issue as it isn’t really that important…is it? You then find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, thinking about the same thing, over and over again! You might then get angry with yourself for thinking those things and for disturbing your sleep and yet, you continue to think about the subject, situation or issue even more so, looking and searching for an answer or a solution!

And then, you wake up the following morning with the hope of having a less stressful day, feeling like you can conquer everything that occurs throughout the day, only to find that you are exhausted, unable to keep your eyes open during the morning huddle meeting and when you return to your desk, you find yourself staring at the computer screen with the overwhelming number of emails that need an urgent response, unable to focus on the words on the screen and wondering what the hell you’re going to do!
When you feel this stuck, it can be difficult to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” (an indication that a long period of difficulty is nearing an end) and that this is only a temporary phase. And yet, it is possible to find happiness, contentment, joy, fulfillment again.

As Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman have understood from 30 years of Mindfulness research at Oxford University;

“This work has discovered the secret to happiness and how you can successfully tackle anxiety, stress, exhaustion and even full-blown depression. It’s the kind of happiness and peace that gets into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skillfully with the worst that life throws at you.”

WILLIAMS, M., & PENMAN, D. (2011). Mindfulness: an eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Emmaus, Pa, Rodale Books.

Mindfulness can be a useful, practical resource to self-regulate the body’s response to stress and to manage emotional overload. It can help to prevent and manage anxiety, compassion fatigue (think of those who work in the Healthcare profession), depression, stress and burnout (when your mind and body have been overloaded by unsustainable pressure). Cultivating compassion and empathy begins with our attitude towards ourselves. Mindfulness training can help us to develop an attitude of kindness towards ourselves by increasing levels of self-awareness and teaching us how to be fully with our experience. Mindfulness helps us to face up to challenges by teaching us how to approach with a different attitude; one of openness, curiosity, interest and intrigue. We learn to look at problem-solving differently, discovering how our body reacts with an automatic response of Fight, Flight or Freeze which, if prolonged can cause physical and psychological symptoms such as high blood pressure, aching, tense muscles, anxiety or depression.

Through Mindfulness training, we learn to listen to our mind and body giving us the ‘heads up’, a warning that something is not quite right, enabling us to prevent burnout and to self-manage our anxiety and stress levels. When you are able to recognise the ‘alert’, you then have the opportunity to choose how you respond to this warning and new found, deeper sense of self-awareness.
There many books and apps that can help feed your curiosity and support your learning of Mindfulness. During the experiential, supported training programme that Inner Space Works offers, you are provided with audio tracks (specifically recorded by Jo Clarke for the purposes of the course) and weekly handbooks (written by Bangor University) to support each session. Alongside these resources, you will have the support of Jo to answer any questions for the duration of the course.

References – Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on July 23, 2018 — Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso – Jan 2, 2017. Last Updated on February 8, 2019 – Written by Jessie Zhu
KABAT-ZINN, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, Hyperion.
KABAT-ZINN, J. (1991). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, N.Y., Pub. by Dell Pub., a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. Group.
WILLIAMS, M., & PENMAN, D. (2011). Mindfulness: an eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Emmaus, Pa, Rodale Books.