Haven’t we all had the experience of doing something in the heat of the moment that we regretted later? Wasn’t that almost as if our rational mind stopped and what came out not only surprised us but everyone else around? This overwhelming emotional reaction is called ‘amygdala hijack’ (as described by Daniel Goleman in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux). I have experienced and observed amygdala hijacks a couple of times, both at work and at home.
The amygdala is the part of the brain’s limbic system, which plays a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, emotional reactions, and empathy. When threatened, the amygdala can respond irrationally, and a flow of stress hormones streams the body before the regulating prefrontal lobes have a chance to reconcile this bottom-up impulse. An amygdala hijack displays three typical signs: Strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization that the reaction was inappropriate.
My actions are my true belongings.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk and peace activist, *1926
What consequences can a few seconds of an emotional outburst have in the corporate world? Think about your own career. What your bosses, peers and subordinates will always remember is the impression of ‘an unmastered moron’. Think about your team. Emotions are contagious (via so-called ‘mirror neurons’) and designed to be in tune with your surroundings. If one person is emotionally hijacked on your team, others will most likely catch it – like a virus. It’s surprising how fast an executive decision can then be jeopardized and collaboration deteriorated. Think about your organization. Today’s economy triggers people to feel more stressed out, apprehensive and fearful about the future. Hence, the increased likelihood of emotional hijacks could lead to reduced morale, performance and productivity.
From a neuro-scientific perspective performance is the result of the subtraction ‘Potential – Interferences = Performance’. Interferences that can get into your way are emotions, thoughts, cravings, stress, time or social pressure, information overload, multitasking and so forth. Interferences can present a threat to the amygdala and deplete your capacity for cognitive control.
We know from many research sources that the leaders’ influence over the climate of the team is significant. Thus, their ability to manage themselves and their emotions is supreme and equals a regulating ‘emotional thermostat’ for their team.
How does the executive function in the brain regulate top-down control? The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC or ‘Perfect Friend Civilization’ as Dr. Karolien Notebaert from Goethe University Frankfurt calls it) is the area of the brain that is in charge of abstract thinking, thought analysis, and adjusting behavior. This includes mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong, and predicting the probable outcomes of actions or events. The PFC also governs social control, such as suppressing emotional urges. The executive function of the brain regulates thought in terms of short-term and long-term decision-making. It allows humans to plan ahead and create strategies, and also to adjust actions or reactions in changing situations. Additionally, the PFC helps to focus thoughts, which enables people to pay attention, learn, and concentrate on goals.
Self-control is a crucial component of emotional intelligence. Neuroscientists define self-control as the capacity to overcome automatic impulses in favor of long-term goals or desired behavior. Thanks to our PFC, self-control separates us from our ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. Instead of reacting to immediate impulses, we can plan and evaluate alternative actions, and we can refrain from doing things that we will surely regret. Self-control is an innate human ability enabling us to develop wisdom and willpower.
Emotions provide us with energy and drive, and can communicate important information. Any strong emotion, though, like anxiety, anger, joy, or betrayal trips off the amygdala and impairs the prefrontal cortex’s capacity for self-control. The result is stronger reactions to negative situations, we can’t think straight and amygdala hijacks can occur.
How can you enhance your self-control? Start with eating regularly to avoid lower glucose levels in your blood. Then include short bursts of exercise in your daily routine; 10 – 15 minutes result in an increased blood and oxygen flow in the PFC. Sleep – it restores the glucose in the PFC; tired executives and employees are not good for business. And remind yourself of the big picture of your plan or project continuously.
The ultimate self-control booster for a sustainable balanced state in the brain is meditating and practicing mindfulness.
As we live in a turbulent world that can be experienced as stressful, we need practical ways to relax and practice serenity throughout the day in order to empower our prefrontal cortex. Please find two tools below that help you bring awareness and attentiveness into your day and appreciate each moment for what it is.
- When waking-up: Put a sign or the word ‘smile’ on the ceiling or wall so that you can immediately see it when you open your eyes. This sign serves as a reminder. Before you actually get up, take a few minutes to feel your breath. Gently inhale and exhale three times and keep the half-smile – just like Mona Lisa – on your face.
- Free moments: Wherever you sit or stand, practice your half-smile. Look at a child, a leaf, a painting on the wall or something else that radiates tranquility, and smile. Quietly inhale and exhale three times, keep smiling, and focus your attention on what you are looking at.
- While listening to music: Listen to a piece of music for two or three minutes. Focus your attention on the lyrics, the music, the rhythm and your feelings. Smile and watch your breathing.
- When you feel tense or irritable: When something bugs you, practice your half-smile. Breathe in and out calmly, and hold up your half-smile for three breaths.
We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk and peace activist, *1926
Based on certain categories, we are able to guide our awareness in a way that is soothing and eases the mind. One after another, you channel your awareness towards these areas:
- Outside world
- What do I see?
- What do I hear?
- What do I sense/touch?
- Inner world
- Which sensations do perceive in my body?
- What do I feel?
- What do I think?
- What is pleasant?
- What is neutral?
- What is unpleasant?
The benefits of practicing mindfulness are manifold. Mindfulness increases performance, creativity, well-being, and promotes happiness; it reduces stress and pain, eases worry and calms the heart. Mindfulness results in a better immune functioning, lowers the risk to relapse (depression, addictions), fosters stability, develops wisdom, and improves decision-making.
Great leaders know themselves well, anticipate situations that may be stressful for them and take preventative measures. They then have multiple constructive solutions to handle the amygdala hijack and maintain their and their team’s high performance.
Coaching provides you with an individual approach to further developing and increasing your self-control. Contact me.
With a big smile for you and me, Annette.
PS – If you are interested in reading a related article, go to https://www.inspired-executives.com/anger-management-take-control-express/