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The Cost of Fear and Anger: Avoiding the Amygdala Hijack

I recently conducted an executive feedback session using The Leadership Circle 360 instrument for a senior executive who was also trained as a physician. Part of our conversation centered on the Amygdala Hijack, an event produced when our primitive brain senses a threat and "hijacks" the cognitive systems to take charge of our response.*  

Fear is a formidable protector and I am very interested in the active responses engendered when we are hijacked into the aggressive fight-flight-protect mode. My doctor client told me about a study in which the amygdalas of rhesus monkeys were disabled. The assumption being that the removal of such a valuable early warning system would make the monkeys vulnerable to attack by predators. But the outcome was quite different. The monkeys, normally intensely afraid of snakes and large spiders, not only ceased to fear them-they began to eat them.

Understanding the hijack process is an important step for many of my executive coaching clients. Usually, the focus is on keeping our responses under control and exercising what Steven Covey calls a "moment of humanity" by not allowing ourselves to be swept. But it is also valuable to understand that we can impact how often and how deeply the alarm is triggered and that an overly hair-trigger hijack response insulates us from opportunities for productivity, effectiveness and personal satisfaction.

We are Vulnerable When We are Hijacked

I recently got to see this at work on the golf course. An errant tee shot smacked into a tree with a resounding thwack! A squirrel who was in the bushes at the base of the tree sprinted out and into the fairway and continued to run full-tilt in the open ground for about 200 yards where it disappeared into the hedges again. The ability to respond instantly to a threat is instinctual, and critical to the survival of squirrels and humans. But the squirrel has no capacity to realize after the initial fright that a golf ball is not a predator.

It is not an enormous leap from that squirrel to the executive who receives unexpected news in an email and sends a terse reply (or worse, a vitriolic "reply all") before she calms down. Ironically, the cost of sustained panic is not only the loss of the work happening at the moment, but the fact that you are more vulnerable to attack and loss during the time that you are reacting from instinct. In general, the fallout from the incendiary email example above is worse than the original surprise.

What if Our Fears were Food?

I do not recommend throwing fear out the window entirely. Fear keeps us from taking extreme and unreasonable risks. Anger also is a powerful and useful emotional ally. However, it is also important to know the cost of letting fear and anger drive our decisions, especially when they are dressed in the clothes of reason and prudence. What would happen in your life and your business if you found out that the "snakes" you fear could actually be a new source of food?

* Click here to download a PDF coaching document with more information about the amygdala hijack.

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