Your Brain is Sabotaging You – Here’s How to Outsmart It

Guest Blogger – Allison Nielsen, Director of Training

EmailYou’re sitting at your computer, trying to get your email inbox under control, when you read a message from a coworker with a question about a task you just completed. You detect a tone in the email as you read through the question. Maybe it was the punctuation, or the words they chose – maybe it’s because you know that they have an opinion about almost everything- but no doubt about it, you sense a tone.

You feel a rush – rage? Embarrassment? Injustice? Your cheeks burn, and you sit straight up in your chair. You feel the need to respond right now. You click Reply and shoot off a quick, snarky response back. Hitting Send gives you a feeling of satisfaction and triumph- but that feeling dissipates as the minutes go by. You re-read the email thread and start to wonder if you responded too strongly. Thirty minutes later, you’re still feeling a little shaky and unsure about the whole event.

What just happened?

You just became the latest victim of an amygdala hijack. This term refers to what happens when our brain interprets a threat around us, and responds by flooding our system with stress hormones that drives us to act with a cloudy mind.

To understand this, you first need to understand some basic makeup of the brain (real basic, I’m a trainer not a neurologist J). There’s the prefrontal cortex, which helps you consider reason and logic to make decisions. This is located right behind your forehead. Then there’s the amygdala- the part of your brain located near the base of your head that pushes your body to act in cases of perceived danger.

Let’s go back in time, thousands and thousands of years- when early modern humans were battling dangers all day, every day just to stay alive. In many of these cases, your brain’s prefrontal cortex couldn’t afford to take a minute to decide if that GIANT BOULDER THAT YOU SEE FALLING TOWARD YOU is going to seriously hurt or kill you (calculating weight, velocity, etc.). You would be hit by the giant boulder and die before you could figure it out. So instead, your brain would quickly assess the situation and trigger the amygdala to flood your body with stress hormones that would instigate two things:

1) temporary ‘clouding’ of the prefrontal cortex so that you couldn’t think yourself out of    reacting

2) prompt a reaction via fight or flight – in this case, MOVE out of the path of the giant boulder

Bringing it back to modern times, we still have this reaction if we touch something that’s hot. We don’t touch a hot stovetop and wait several seconds for our prefrontal cortex to realize that we need to move our hand- rather, we pull it back within milliseconds and react to the heat, often only feeling the sting of the burn after we’ve moved our hand. The amygdala clouded the prefrontal cortex and flooded cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) throughout our body in fractions of a second so that we were driven to move that hand before we got too burned.

So this all sounds pretty great, right? The amygdala helps us stay alive. Awesome.


…But. With all of the power that the amygdala has, it’s not too smart. Remember, it’s designed to sense perceived danger. While this comes in handy when perceived danger is physical in nature, social danger is another animal altogether.

Let’s go back to the email with a tone scenario. Your amygdala is trained to sense danger in that email (Why are they paying such close attention to my work? Is this coworker trying to get me in trouble?) and will push your body to respond to it the same way that it does with any physical danger:

1) temporary ‘clouding’ of the prefrontal cortex

2) prompt a reaction via fight or flight

See how this could be a problem in the case of the email response? You are biologically driven to respond as if the email is the same as the boulder falling down on you. This means that you are sending that snarky email with a bunch of stress hormones clouding your best judgment. So you may send a sentence or two that could haunt you once those stress hormones wear off.

So here’s the kicker- you cannot talk yourself out of having an amygdala hijack. This is deep-seated biological response stuff that is programmed in us. It doesn’t matter how professional you are, how nice you are- you are not able to stop yourself from feeling the effects of the amygdala hijack.


(Just kidding.)

So you can’t stop an amygdala hijack. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Recognize the Signs

Amygdala hijacks trigger adrenaline and cortisol to flood our systems- and these often make us feel a specific way. Symptoms include: shakiness, flushed, a rush of energy, heart racing, dry mouth, and many other uncomfortable things. When you find yourself feeling this way, stop reacting and move to #2.

  1. BreatheTake a Breather

While you can’t stop the flood of stress hormones, you can stop yourself from making decisions or taking action while the hormones are clouding your judgment. Talk a walk outside, stretch your muscles, listen to some feel-good music- anything that allows you twenty minutes or so in a calm, pleasant environment removed from the stressor. This allows your body enough time to disseminate the stress hormones, get your chemical balance back on track and clear the fog in your prefrontal cortex- so that you can approach that stressor with a clear head.

computer-hand3. Communicate

If you are speaking with someone and you recognize the signs of an amygdala hijack within yourself (or in them!), use phrases that may provide the opportunity to regroup before responding. Something like, “I’d like to think through that point and get back to you with a plan,” or “Let me consider that today and come back to you with a fresh perspective.” While this type of communication could delay tasks, it’s often smarter than not responding while under the influence of those stress hormones (remember, you aren’t responding with your whole brain working)!

So there you go- you’re officially a brain wizard now. Or at least, you’re a little bit more emotionally intelligent on how your brain perceives danger- and how to make the best decisions when the situation doesn’t exactly call for it! #callitawin

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