“Self-control,” said George Bernard Shaw “is the quality that distinguishes the fittest to survive.” The recent incident involving former CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez is a public example of loss of emotional self-control that can derail a successful career in a matter of seconds. “What I was feeling,” said Sanchez, “got in the way of what I should have done and said… I went in there with a chip on my shoulder… I was a little bit angry.” At one time or another, all of us have been hijacked by a lack of emotional self-control where we have done or said things that we later regretted.
To fully understand what is at play and what to do about it, it helps to become familiar with our amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons which is a part of our limbic system and plays a key role in processing emotions. The amygdala acts as an early warning system alerting us to danger. It’s a part of our body’s protective response to help us stay alive. It was Dr. Joseph Ledoux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, and professor at The Center for Neural Science of New York University who first discovered a “neural back alley,” through which information is quickly routed to the amygdala before it reaches the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for thinking and reasoning.
This happens when we are angered or feel threatened and the result is what is commonly known as “blowing your cool.”— We act quickly before we think. Dr. Daniel Goleman reported on LeDoux’s research and coined the phrase “amygdala hijack” to describe this emotional state where the amygdala takes command control of the brain. In this fascinating video, Goleman explains the workings of the amygdala hijack.
When we are in its grip, our impulses override our rationality and we do or say things that we later regret. We are on auto pilot. We can experience a range of reactions from outright anger to ruminating over an event and shutting down or withdrawing in brooding, pent-up silence. The amygdala hijack can last for seconds, for hours and even days or weeks, if we don’t intervene to stop the second wave of intense emotion.
The ability to pause before reacting is a key component of emotional and social intelligence. When we are in the throes of an emotional hijack, our muscles start to tense up, our blood pressure rises and our brain starts to release adrenaline and other hormones. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist (whose speech at TED.com is listed in the category of “most favorited all-time,”) gives us a tool for managing the Amygdala in her insightful book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey:
“Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”
The 90 second rule is a powerful tool for self-management. It gives our brain time to engage the left pre-frontal cortex which has an inhibitory circuit for the amygdala. We can then choose a more socially intelligent response.
While we cannot live in a bubble wrap when it comes to emotions, there is a lot we can do to manage an amygdala hijack. Besides the 90 second pause, here are a few, additional, cool-down tactics to prevent emotions from clouding our judgment:
1. Heed the physical manifestations. Before our amygdala hijacks our thinking brain, our body gives us plenty of signals: a clenched jaw, increased heart rate, a tightening in the vocal cords, feeling flush in the face or other similar reactions. These are alarm bells that we should not tune out. They are our first opportunity to intervene and prevent the emotion from escalating.
2. Take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing delivers more oxygen to the brain and helps us to calm down so that we can focus our attention and think more clearly.
3. Acknowledge the emotion. Take a moment to focus on what you are feeling, for example, telling yourself: “I am starting to get angry” or “I am feeling anxious.” In a research paper in Psychological Sciences entitled Putting Feeling into Words, Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman et al report that labeling feelings helps to weaken the amygdala response. In other words, it buys you time.
4. Reframe how you see the situation. Cognitive reframing or reappraisal is a conscious re-interpretation of a situation to shift our frame of reference to a more positive one. For example: “He is shooting down my idea to belittle me in front of my peers” could be viewed as “He is challenging me because this proposal impacts his bottom line.” Scientists have found that the conscious act of reframing engages the frontal cortex and dampens the amygdala. If you need coaching on how to achieve this, consider reading Coaching With the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice by David Rock and Linda J. Page.
5. Know your triggers. We are more likely to experience an amygdala hijack if we are fatigued from working long hours without time for renewal, or if we are experiencing stress at work or at home. In that state, a trigger can set us off. Become very intimate with your personal triggers so that you are not blindsided by your emotional reactions.
For example, if one of your deep-seated values is punctuality and you are meeting with someone who is habitually 30 minutes late for meetings, this could be a trigger to cause you to lose your grace. If harmony is something you value deeply and you are surrounded by negativity and excessive criticism, this could also be a trigger. Know your emotional hot buttons. Who are the corporate button-pushers in your life? Self-awareness precedes self-management.
6. Practice mindful meditation. Scientific studies reported in This Emotional Life, a PBS program, have discovered that meditation helps us cultivate the capacity to restrain our impulsive emotional reactions. A habit of meditating strengthens our ability to remain cool under fire. Just as music is referred to as the silence between the notes, so meditation is “the silence between thoughts.” If practiced regularly, it quiets the emotional noise in our lives, strengthens our self-control and can drop anxiety by 50 percent.
7. Help others restore equilibrium. If you are a leader, it is important for you to recognize the signs of the onset of an amygdala hijack in a constituent and to help him or her restore equilibrium. Make an effort to know the stressors and energizers for your people. For example, for some, having to cope with sudden change or lack of control over their schedule of work can be particularly stressful. Do your part in creating a good place to work by being a model of composure for your people. It is an admirable leadership trait.
Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” What we dislike in others is a crack in the door which allows us to catch a glimpse of who we are, of hidden fears and potential blind spots. The next time someone gets under your skin, do a forensic audit of the situation. Is it the person or the behavior that bothers you? What or who does the behavior remind you of? If you mapped your emotions with certain individuals, what patterns emerge? The answers may yield important information to help you become aware of your inner landscape and increase your emotional self-control. There is no greater knowledge than the knowledge of oneself.
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.