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Amygdala Hijack Explained

Amygdala Hijack video
Hello and welcome to this section looking at fear, helping you to understand what’s going on in these unprecedented times. And probably more importantly, to give you some tools and tips as we go through this that will help you to be– to manage the situation. There is a lot of fear going on at the minute. It’s obviously a very strong emotion, and I think it’s something that we need to recognise. As we do that, and this starts with that self-awareness then you are able to look at ways that you can manage it in a way that’s going to be helpful. Our brain is an amazing thing. I’m sure many of you are aware of that.
They want to know– it wants to know what’s going on. You are very curious and we want to fix the problem that’s going on at the moment. And that’s fine. But the other thing that our brains do– our brains are doing is going into this fight/flight response. Where we are unsure, we’re out of control. We are afraid of what may happen to our own health and the health of our families. And we go into this survival threat mode. And that’s very familiar to you, I know, around the fight or flight response.
And really, what I’m asking you to do, looking at this particular set of slides, is to think about your own self and having that self-awareness to notice when you’re feeling those particular emotions, because it’s not necessary that you can stop it right there and then, but that self-awareness does allow you to build in some strategies that will enable you to manage. And in particular, if you’re working and you’re under pressure, then we do know that our brains, when it’s in survival mode, when its fight/flight is activated, then we can’t think straight. The cognitive part of our brain actually shuts down.
What we’re looking to do then is raise that awareness and to move from a fight/flight response to the rest and digest you may have heard of around meditation and yoga, for example. Now clearly, when you’re in the middle of an ICU you can’t stop to take a moment and go and meditate, but what you can do is notice and have that self-awareness of what is going on in your own body. And that’s what we’re going to outline in a moment. That as you know we go into the survival mode, which we need to do, but it’s very unhealthy if it goes on for a relatively long period of time.
That fear, we may have this fear around how we’re managing at work, about– worrying about our own families, as well as our own health. And how we respond to that can be something that we can take part of by reassuring our brain, first of all, that it’s OK. And we’ll explore that in a bit more detail in the next session around meeting emotion.
So your amygdala– I’m sure many of you are familiar, but your amygdala was first I think described by Daniel Goldman in his work with emotional intelligence. So they are two almond-shaped masses in your brain, and they’re there to sense danger. And of course, they go off automatically. You don’t have to think “Jump away if a bus or a car is approaching”. We do it automatically. It’s part of our system. So they sit just here at the back of your brain. And when they’re fighting off like this continually, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot out of us. And as I said earlier, it also means that our cortex shuts off, making it really hard to think.
Also, really interestingly, it can take hours to bring back to normal. So that’s why often if we’re working in a crisis, our adrenaline, as you know, keeps us going, but it’s often afterwards that we feel exhausted. And it may not just be when we’re involved in something particularly difficult. It’s enough to be in an area with colleagues where there’s lots of distress and issues happening all around us. And that may be something that is happening already or that we may find will be happening in the future. But as suggested, it can take at least 45 minutes for us, even when things are calmer, for our physiology to get back to normal.
And of course, if your amygdala’s being continually stimulated at length, then that will lead to chronic stress and anxiety. And that’s what we really want to try and avoid.
The good news, though, is that there are techniques that can really help us take control of this and to prevent the hijacking occurring. The first one, I’ve already mentioned briefly, and that is about having that self-awareness. Knowing what is going on in your own body and noticing that– those feelings of worry, fear, anxiety, whatever it may be. And being very mindful, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that later as we go through the programme and the sessions. And it’s really important that you notice it without judgement. So not about, “Oh my goodness, what’s happening to me? I can’t even do this because I’m– you know, I’m stressed out.”
It’s about noticing it, being aware of it, and sometimes about actually holding that. And again, we’ll look at that in a moment when we look at meeting emotion. But there are strategies that can help. And within this resource, we’ve posted a number of easy to access strategies that can help you. It doesn’t mean having to stop everything, and they’re not strategies that are really helpful like meditating or yoga, et cetera. They’re things that you can do in the here and now, and that starts with that self-awareness. The model around meeting emotion we’ll look at in a moment. But very simple things like being able to breathe. So belly breathing. Taking five minutes.
Making sure that before you are involved in, say, a very difficult procedure or a challenging conversation, that you draw awareness of how you are before you enter into that transaction. And then afterwards, again, reflecting and learning about what is happening. And in the final section of this work, we’ll be looking at self-compassion specifically. So remembering, which comes from a lovely quote that will be posted, is that you may not be able to change what’s going on around you. But what you can change and what you can choose to do is how you respond.

Building on our knowledge of the fight/flight response, this video describes how fear can impact on our ability to think and then outlines tools and tips to be more self-aware and meet ourselves with kindness.

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