What happens when your emotions take over and you can’t think? Maybe your boss just yelled at you or your husband said something very upsetting. Whatever the cause, emotions override your capacity to think. When this happens, you have what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala hijack.” Basically, your thinking brain goes off-line.
When we are exposed to stress, these almond-like structures in the brain called the amygdala act like smoke detectors. Their job is to detect danger. When they do, your body goes into action to defend itself against any perceived danger. Then, a cascade of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline is released, preparing you for an emergency response.
This brain hijack happens within 6 seconds. It’s so fast you aren’t even aware of it. The feeling part of your brain (the amygdala) takes over and strong emotions are felt. Those emotions can be so strong, that it is hard to think or remember.
When this happens, complex decision-making disappears, and so does your ability to think from the other person’s perspective. Your attention narrows, you find yourself trapped in your own thoughts in order to feel safe. You think, “I must be right and you’re wrong.”
Think of a time you were in a fight with your spouse or friend, and you literally could not remember a positive thing about them? It’s like the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat of the moment. During the hijack, you can’t trust your memory because your emotions are soaring.
This hijacking is why marriage expert and researcher John Gottman measured how aroused couples became when they fought. He knew that when the amygdala hijacked occurred, couples would say and do things they normally would not. Then they would regret what they said later.
So, during a heated argument, the best way to calm down is to take a time out. Then take some long deep breathes and distract the brain. Don’t dwell on the argument or think about how bad your partner seems at the moment, or how your boss or friend made you feel-that won’t calm you down. It will keep you aroused and in a bad state.
Regulating your emotions is part of emotional intelligence. It is also a fruit of the Spirit. And when you exercise self-control during high emotional times, you make a better friend, partner, family member and coworker. Once calm, the thinking part of your brain is activated again.
Here are a few tips to help you avoid the amygdala hijack:
- Take a few long deep breaths. Breathing slows everything down. It takes about 6 seconds for the chemicals in your brain to dissipate that strong emotional reaction. Breathe six times during those six seconds. When you do, you stop the flight and fight danger feeling.
- Label your feelings. “I feel anxious right now.” Attaching words engages the thinking part of the brain. Therapists say, Name it to Tame it!
- Now, refocus your thoughts to something distracting -count to 10 backwards, describe the lamp in the room, focus on your feet and the fact that they touch the ground. Or name 5 cities that begin with the letter A. When you do this type of specific distraction, the thinking part of your brain gets back on-line again.
- Finally, take any negative thought captive. Replace the thought with a godly thought based on scripture. Meditate on the Word of God. Meditation is a great way to distract the brain from that amygdala hijack. And we know from studies that meditation and prayer calm the brain.