The Leaders’ Guide to Surviving an Amygdala Hijack

January 20, 2022

If there’s one clear message about leadership in the late 2010s, it’s that the pace of change is accelerating. Complex challenges are becoming more relentless. Leaders are becoming far more frequently overwhelmed.

Even when we’re not actively overwhelmed, many of us are running on high levels of adrenaline, and are geared up for constant fight-or-flight. It’s exhausting.

Dealing with constant change and pressure; managing our own anxiety and the anxiety of the people around us; living amid uncertainty – all these things impact our bodies as well as our minds. And one of the most striking physical manifestations of this is the Amygdala Hijack.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with fear. Specifically fear of things that are outside our control. Given how much time leaders spend trying to deal with things outside our control, it’s no surprise that our amygdalae are lighting up time and again. And that’s a real problem, because when our amygdala takes control, our higher mental capacities to think rationally, respond calmly, plan and make good decisions become significantly compromised.

We didn’t invent the phrase (it was coined by Daniel Goleman), but at Cru we refer to this experience as an Amygdala Hijack.

An Amygdala Hijack is an immediate, overwhelming emotional response, based on fear. When we ask our clients to describe their Amygdala Hijack experiences to us, they use expressions like ‘I felt flooded’; ‘I was overwhelmed’; ‘I couldn’t think straight’; ‘I just wanted to run out of the room’. It’s only after the event, once we’ve calmed ourselves, that we’re able to see that our response was excessive, given the trigger.

Three kinds of leadership conversation

The first step towards being able to deal with an Amygdala Hijack, soothe ourselves, and start to think straight again, is simply to recognise that we’re having one. Being able to name what’s happening to us is calming, and begins to restore some perspective.

At Cru we’ve found it helpful to explain the concept of an Amygdala Hijack to teams, because while we’re often surprisingly poor at recognising our own hijack, we tend to be good at spotting it in others. If someone asks me with kindness whether I’ve been hijacked, I experience a huge sense of relief and release. To be helpful, our enquiry needs to be positively motivated. We need to ask someone with compassion, not level an accusation at them.

We need to be kind to ourselves and each other. Even when we’ve recognised that we’ve been hijacked, we still can’t turn off an Amygdala Hijack with a flick of the switch. It takes a while to soothe ourselves after a powerful emotional surge. Our bodies are awash with hormones. But there is a simple, and surprisingly effective, tool from leadership coaching we can use to help restore ourselves and each other.

Listening deeply to someone, and making yourself fully present to them, is the most effective route out of an Amygdala Hijack that we have experienced. You don’t need to be a coach to do this. You do, however, need to remember what’s really meant by listening.

When someone needs our help, there are three completely different kinds of conversations they might ask us for:

1 – I just want you to listen to me.

2 – I want you to listen to me and give me some feedback.

3 – I want you to listen to me and give me some advice.

When helping someone come down from their Amygdala Hijack, it’s the first kind of conversation that most helps. It can be so tempting to head towards the second or third kinds of conversation, but be aware that’ll be more about your needs (maybe the need to be helpful, or to look skilful, or to ‘make someone feel better’) than the needs of the person who has experienced the hijack. So don’t go there, unless they specifically ask you to. Listen, and show that you’ve understood what they’re saying and how they’re feeling. Trust that listening is enough. Full listening acts as a mirror. When I’m listened to, I can hear what I’m saying. I can see what’s going on, and I can find a way back to myself.

Conversely, if you have enough presence of mind in the middle of your own hijack, and someone is prepared to listen to you, it can be very helpful to ask them to just listen to you. It might sound affronting to ask, but my experience is that asking helps the person listening to you to be more fully present, and listen more effectively, because they won’t be spending mental energy worrying about whether or not they’re saying the ‘right’ thing.

Cru’s 100 word summary

Leaders are living with unprecedented levels of change and stress. We are experiencing Amygdala Hijacks with increasing frequency, as a fear response to things outside our control.

Amygdala Hijacks interfere with our ability to think straight and make good decisions.

To calm down from a hijack, or to help someone else:

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