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How to Avoid Emotional Outbursts and Save Your Relationships
Intervening in an amygdala hijack
These are the moments you can’t take back.
I had apologized. My apology had even been accepted. At least half-heartedly. Still, it was days later, and I could barely stop thinking about it. I played the incident over and over in my head.
Had I really told that junior engineer that what he’d just shared in the project review might be the stupidest idea I’d ever heard?
Sure, I said it half-jokingly. But only half. And nobody laughed.
It bothered me during the whole 45-minute drive home and during commutes for the next several days. And between meetings. And whenever I passed the junior engineer in the hallway. And before I fell asleep at night.
In hindsight, it was explainable. Not excusable, but explainable.
His was the last review in an all-day series of critical project reviews. Things hadn’t been going well. Most of the projects were at status code yellow, and many were at red. Nobody really seemed to care about how far behind we were. I was frustrated.
To top it off, I had skipped lunch to meet with several others for ad hoc discussions following up from the morning’s sessions.
In other words, it was the perfect set of conditions for an amygdala hijack.
Our Lizard Brains Are Small but Mighty
Daniel Goleman first coined the term “amygdala hijack” in his groundbreaking 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence.
Goleman was referring to the state where we’ve essentially lost our mind, reacting to emotion in the fight-or-flight, stimulus-response manner that once kept us from being devoured by sabre-toothed tigers and still keeps lizards from being devoured by whatever devours lizards.
We have two of these little fellas (the plural is amygdalae), one in each hemisphere of our brain. They’re buried deep, well past the higher-functioning stuff within our skull that helps us think logically and rationally, well past the stuff that keeps us from calling a relatively new employee stupid.
Our amygdalae compose a part of our brain that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. They’re responsible for keeping us out of life-threatening situations via that fight-or-flight response. This requires our amygdalae to help us make decisions very quickly. Faster decisions made it less likely for our evolutionary ancestors to end as bits stuck between a predator’s teeth.
While our amygdalae are busy helping us make snap judgments and encouraging us to rely on gut instinct, the rational part of our brain is trying to keep those impulses under control—trying to keep us from succumbing to the raw, sometimes animal nature of our emotional brain. This rational thinking happens in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain located right behind our forehead.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for logic, reason, and other higher-level functions. These are higher-level functions that allowed, for example, Einstein to devise his theory of relativity or Marie Curie to develop her theory of radioactivity.
Contrary to mounting evidence, an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex has not been shown as a causal factor of a career in politics.
While the prefrontal cortex enables more rational reasoning and logical thought than our amygdalae, it’s nowhere near as fast. All that analysis and hypothesizing takes time, and by the time we’ve reasoned through a decision using our prefrontal cortex functions, our amygdalae are likely already out to lunch.
While our amygdalae can be lightning quick, they can also be fairly dumb. Our prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, can be brilliant—but also painstakingly slow.
The trick, then, to engaging in a situation rationally is to quiet our emotional brain just enough to allow us to engage our rational brain.
Under normal conditions — not overly stressed, not reacting emotionally, not overcome by hunger—the rational part of our brain can engage and stay engaged fairly easily. Our human brain can keep our lizard brain under control.
But throw in a little stress, mix in some emotion, add a dash of low blood sugar from working through lunch, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for amygdala hijack. “Hangry” and tired, our prefrontal cortex gives up and lets the amygdalae take our decision-making and responses hostage.
We Don’t Have to Be Helpless Victims of an Amygdala Hijack
It’s possible to overcome this tendency, even when we’re emotional, even when we’re overwhelmed by the stress of nothing going well, even when we haven’t had a snack. Here’s how:
- Identify the behavior you’d like to stop engaging in.
Referring to people’s input as the stupidest idea since New Coke would qualify. Insulting people in front of others is the more general form of that behavior.
- Identify the emotion that accompanies (typically precedes) the behavior.
The frustration that precedes lashing out verbally, the depression that precedes overeating, the loneliness that precedes excessive drinking — all good examples. Here’s a list of emotions that might help.
- Find the emotional triggers.
What kinds of things lead to these emotions? Make note of them. Carry a journal or use a note-taking app on your phone to capture the triggers and resulting emotions as you experience them.
“I became frustrated when I learned how far behind the project is.”
“I feel depressed when I read a news article about the current political situation.”
“I’m lonely when my partner doesn’t return physical affection.”
- Become a witness.
Instead of being the emotion, be the human beyond the emotion. Watch yourself experience the emotion. Watch your lizard amygdalae kick into gear. Notice it and observe it, but don’t act on it. Separate yourself from it. Recognize the actions that your emotional brain is telling you to take, but don’t engage in them. Purposefully and consciously engage your prefrontal cortex.
“My lizard brain is telling me to call this guy an idiot.”
“My emotions are taking over and telling me to eat that box of Twinkies.”
“My animal instincts are sending me untrue messages about my partner’s intentions.”
- Choose a more appropriate response.
Our amygdalae drive us to react emotionally. Step four helps us intervene to halt this reaction. Now it’s time to engage the rational part of our brain to choose a more appropriate response.
“Rather than calling him an idiot, maybe I should ask a question that will help me better understand his idea.”
“If I eat the box of Twinkies, I’ll only feel worse about myself. I’ll go for a walk instead.”
“Instead of heading for the liquor cabinet, I ought to have a conversation with my partner and tell her how I’m feeling.”
Sometimes the Amygdala Hijack Can Be a Good Thing
Alone in a dark alleyway with three large figures, faces covered and carrying baseball bats, heading toward you. Your amygdalae will be firing like crazy. Let them take over. The answer is clear: flight.
There are also positive examples of appropriate amygdalae impulses. For example, with your partner, holding your newborn baby for the first time. Let the emotion wash over you. Soak it in.
We aren’t robots. The tapestry of human emotion helps define the richness of our lives.
But those emotions can also lead us to engage in behaviors we’ll regret later, especially when the situation calls for rational thinking. Slow down and recognize what your amygdalae are doing. You can’t stop the impulse, but you can stop it from controlling your behavior—and instead choose a more appropriate response.
And while you’re at it, remember to have a snack.