How often are you ‘emotionally hijacked’?
Most of us have been there. ‘Losing it’ at the workplace is not new, especially in the last couple of years when work-related challenges dramatically quadrupled. Leaders, in particular, are usually under a continuous stream of pressure and face stressful situations daily, including unpredictable and uncontrollable events. However, keeping emotional reactions in check is imperative for business leaders. Losing control of our emotions usually means a massive negative impact on the people we lead.
Experts believe that maintaining healthy business and personal relationships requires emphasizing emotional self-management. Leaders that are emotionally ‘hijacked’ fail to comprehend critical situations or information during high-stakes conversations. We call it the ‘Amygdala Hijack,’ when emotions take over the thinking part of the brain. In part one of this two-part series, we will look into the fight or flight center of the brain – the amygdala - and discuss some common reactions when we fail to keep our cool in stressful situations.
Be mindful of your amygdala!
The amygdala is our brain’s radar for danger. It is the size of a small kidney bean and is located in the middle of the brain. This region of the brain is associated with emotional processes and is an essential part of the stress-response system. When the amygdala detects a stressful event, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that works as a command center. It communicates with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.” This happens when you face a threat like a dangerous animal or when someone realizes their house is on fire. You don’t think; you simply react.
The hormones released in the process prepare our body to fight or flee. They increase our heart rate, elevate blood pressure, boost energy levels, and wake us up. The ‘fight or flight’ response is a gift of evolution since our brains had to deal with physical threats to survival. Although we don’t usually find an actual physical threat in our daily lives, our brain still responds with biological changes that trigger the ‘fight or flight response.
Have you ever had an ‘Amygdala Hijack’?
The ‘amygdala hijack’ is a term coined by Daniel Goleman. It refers to an intense emotional reaction that limits the analytical thinking part of the brain and makes the person blow things out of proportion. In the face of perceived threats, the amygdala blocks information from reaching our pre-frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for all rational and analytical thinking. Instead, the amygdala activates the ‘fight or flight’ response, which means that we are in survival mode, and our reactions will probably be: fight, flee, or freeze.
Our emotions run high during an ‘amygdala hijack,’ which results in a rush of blood and oxygen flow to the amygdala—significantly reducing the pre-frontal cortex’s ability to think and solve problems. The amygdala hijacks our ability to stay calm, cool, and analytical during intense situations.
Organizational life, however, demands the use of more cognitive skills. When we respond to stressful situations at work with our amygdala, we follow a dangerous path. An amygdala hijack stirs strong emotions within us, and many people lose their minds and say or do things that make them feel guilty, embarrassed, sheepish, or regretful at a later stage.
Diana Bilimoria, from Case Western Reserve University, proposes an interesting reflection on a recent amygdala hijacking episode in our lives.5
What set it off?
What fed it or kept it going?
What emotional reactions/behaviors did you have?
What were the consequences of such an episode?
Which behaviors would have been more effective in this specific episode?
The more we understand our reactions and what usually triggers our emotional responses, the better prepared we will be to deal with such situations and try to prevent being emotionally hijacked. In the following article, we will discuss ways of acting with more emotional intelligence in these difficult situations. Stay tuned!
Leader Essentials Group can help your management team navigate the challenges of dealing with stressful situations through the development of Emotional Intelligence competencies. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a meeting and learn more about how we can partner with you to develop and execute strategic leadership outcomes for your organization!
People also read:
Vera Alves is the Chief Consulting Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience in leadership development and business management. With over 12 years of experience as a C-suite executive, Vera is highly skilled in leadership, strategic planning, operations management, organizational behavior, and change management. She possesses highly developed communication, training, and linguistic skills reflective of a very strong and charismatic leadership style.
_________________________________________________________________________  Boyatzis, R., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Harvard Business Press.  Goleman, D. (2011). Resilience for the rest of us. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 05/10/2022, Resilience for the Rest of Us_Daniel Goleman_HBR.PDF.  Harvard Medical School (2020). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved 05/10/2021, Understanding the stress response - Harvard Health.  Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing.  Bilimoria, D. (2016). Introduction to Emotional Intelligence. Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.