What triggers you? Have you got to know your Amygdala? You should, and here’s why.

I’m a rational individual, however there are times when something or someone triggers me, and I react without thinking the situation through. I recently learnt there’s a name for this, and what causes it. Being able to understand how and what is happening has made me better able to deal with stressful situations. So, have you heard of the amygdala?

The amygdala (I even love the word!) is the ’emotional command centre’ of the brain. While it controls pleasure, anger and fear, it’s mainly known for activating the ‘fight or flight’ response.

When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically sends signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. These hormones are adrenocorticotropic ACTH, cortisol, and adrenalin. Most likely you will feel one of the following:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Brain freeze (fog)
  • Disorientated
  • Shaky
  • Sweating
  • Lungs dilate, rapid breathing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Quivering voice

The amygdala is also known as the ‘dinosaur brain’. Think about the primitive man who had to venture out of his cave to find food. He walks around a corner and comes face to face with a man-eating Velociraptor, that ugly critter in Jurassic Park that stalked the poor kids in the kitchen. What does he do, fight or take flight?

An interview for the travel job you’ve always wanted, a customer unhappy about their holiday, travel tech not working as it should etc. triggers our amygdala. The person who pushes in front of us on the bus, the coffee shop worker who would rather talk to their colleague than serve us, our kids refusing to move at a pace quicker than snails when they need to get to school.

When the hormones start to rage it’s difficult to think straight; in fact you can’t. This is why I think it’s great to put a name to what is happening instead of just labelling it as “I’m stressed”. Knowing that it’s your amygdala causing the adrenalin to rush is the first step to getting back in control. In his book, ‘Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ’,  Daniel Goleman talks about how to overcome the ‘amygdala hijack’. Goleman states ‘emotions make us pay attention right now—this is urgent—and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: do I eat it, or does it eat me?’. He goes on to say ‘The emotional response can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.  An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realisation if the reaction was inappropriate.’

Diane Musho Hamilton, author and award-winning mediator and teacher of Zen, has a fantastic four step process to overcome the raging emotions. If anybody can provide great advice in this moment of emotional hijack a zen specialist can. In her book, Everything Is Workable, she says:

  1. Stay present – The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may feel a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioural cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened and are therefore running on automatic pilot. 
  2. Let go of the story – This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, briefly, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far clearer in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
  3. Focus on the body – Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.
  4. Breathe – Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: rhythm and smoothness.  To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So, if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; this establishes rhythm. At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw.

The hormones created by the amygdala hijack take approximately six seconds to disappear. Instead of giving into them, remember the four steps to get your thinking brain working again. 

I’ve worked in the travel  industry for over thirty years, and it’s only recently that one of our co-authors told me about the amygdala. I wish I’d known about it earlier in my career; having a process to calm my reaction would have greatly improved several situations.

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