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Keeping Your Cool When Others Turn Up the Heat
Have you ever been in an intense or heated conversation with someone and then seemingly just “lost it?” You lost control of your emotions; maybe said something you later regretted; and overall felt pretty terrible afterwards.
You’ve just been a victim of a hijacking—an amygdala hijacking. Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala highjack” in 1995 in his book Emotional Intelligence to refer to an immediate and intense emotional reaction that’s out of proportion for the situation. The amygdala is your body’s emotional thermostat, and when it perceives you are under attack, it triggers the flight-or-fight response and signals a release of adrenaline and cortisol to combat the assailant.
If you were in the tundra fighting of a pack of hyenas, this would be great. But when you are simply in a disagreement, it may not always be helpful. There are 5 steps you can take to avoid or control the hijack.
1. Be aware of your triggers – This awareness may require post-argument exploration, but it is important to understand what behaviors, words and attitudes may “get under your skin”—especially from a person with whom you are in regular contact, e.g., your partner. When these triggers enter a disagreement, you can try to rationally manage them before the amygdala takes over.
2. Notice your body’s warning signs – Pay attention to typical warning signs that you might be on the precipice of losing it—change in tone or volume of your voice, faster breathing, elevated heartrate.
3. Count to 10 – This actually works! Plus, science tells us that it takes 6 seconds for the chemicals released by the amygdala to dissipate. So, you could just count to 6 but why not throw in a few extra seconds to ensure the calming effect.
4. Breathe…and keep breathing – Breathing will help you to manage the physical responses of the hijack. It can help to lower your heart rate and give you some time for your pre-frontal cortex—the amygdala manager—to engage.
5. Take a timeout – When all else fails, take a timeout. Once I have fallen over the cliff and am in an emotional freefall, the only thing that works for me is a timeout. Continuing to try to talk it out only results in more anger, more regrettable words and little resolution.
In the end, amygdala hijacking happens to all of us. It’s part of being a human being. When it happens to you, work to make amends, recover the relationship, and analyze and learn something from the experience to prevent it from happening in the future.
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