Tip One: Retrain Your Amygdala (Part Two)

(In Part One we explored the origin and consequences of amygdala hijacks.  In this post, I explore what you can do to retrain your brain.)

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 Here are some things you can do to retrain your brain:

Practice self-observation. By paying attention to your own moods and reactions, you can identify when you’ve been emotionally hijacked and can start to intervene with the thinking part of your brain. First, work on identifying what your triggers are, so that when a similar trigger happens in the future you will be able to understand what’s really happening. Self-observation also includes reflecting back after a hijack and identifying what triggered it. It’s also useful to keep track of how you respond when you’re emotionally flooded. Do you start yelling? Do you withdraw quickly from conflict? All of this information will be helpful as you work to stop yourself from experiencing uncontrolled emotional hijacks.

Delay your reaction and examine your experience. Our brains automatically respond to emotional hijacks, and we are programmed to revert to knee-jerk reactions. Instead of reacting the next time you’re emotionally hijacked, see if you can sit with the body’s response and the brain’s thoughts. Examine the feeling you’re having while knowing that you don’t have to do anything about it. One particularly helpful strategy is to engage in the practice of “mindfulness.” This is simply the practice of being aware of every moment and fully experiencing it. It means not judging or thinking, just observing what is happening. With this kind of detachment, you are likely to find that the normal slights and irritations of everyday life are really not that important, and you can learn to avoid an emotional reaction to them. Emotions, left alone, will dissipate on their own; if you continue to feed them through obsession or rumination, however, the emotions will gain strength.

        One of my clients, Leo, used to get emotionally hijacked at work when his boss didn’t praise his work on projects or acknowledge his contribution to the team efforts. Leo would often become upset and interpret her silence to mean that he hadn’t been performing well enough to earn any praise or recognition. Afterwards, he sought out his boss in order to get reassurance about his performance from her, but Leo eventually recognized that she was growing impatient with this constant need for what she called “hand holding.” Leo’s boss was tired of telling him that she was satisfied with his work and thought he was a good team member (except for his constant need for reassurance). So, Leo decided to work on his reaction to the feelings of not getting enough praise. He would still get hijacked at times when he felt that his boss was not praising him enough. Despite this, he learned not to react to these feelings but instead to just sit with them. Leo acknowledged his inner experience, in which he felt devalued and inadequate, but recognized that the feeling did not reflect reality. In fact, he reminded himself that his boss had reassured him about his value countless times. Leo adopted a new operating principle that said, “My boss will tell me if there is a problem. If she doesn’t say anything, it means everything is fine.” With this internal message, his negative emotional reactions became weaker.

        Separate feeling from reality. An emotional hijack occurs with very basic feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The emotions that occur during an emotional hijack are very broad. They aren’t subtle or nuanced in the way that happens when we can engage our logic or reason. This broad, negative feeling is not reality. You may be feeling like you’re being abandoned, rejected or attacked, but that is only a constructed reality based on inaccurate feelings, memories and information. If you say to yourself, “This is just a feeling. It is not reality,” it can help diffuse the power of the emotional hijack. Separating feelings from reality means recognizing that you don’t have to make any actions or draw any conclusions from the feeling you’re having. You don’t have to use it as the basis of forming connections about the present experience. This is exactly what Leo did in the example above.  By recognizing that his feeling didn’t reflect reality, he was able to detach himself from those feelings, calm down, and retrain his brain.

        Do or say something different. Break the pattern of the negative emotion by reacting in a new way. This will help your brain to develop new pathways and weaken the pathway that triggers an emotional hijack. If you usually withdraw when you’re emotionally hijacked, do something connective. Instead of walking away from someone you’re fighting with, reach out a hand to them. If you usually shout and scream when you’re mad, be quiet for once and see how that feels. Trying a new response will help your brain to learn creative and innovative responses to your traditional emotional triggers.

        So remember, you may not be able to prevent an amygdala hijack.  Instead of being lead around by the nose by your amygdala, you can unleash your positive energy.  How?  By using the strategies discussed here to manage your reactions and intentionally choose your responses.  Show that amygdala who’s in charge!


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