Leadership

Understanding the Brain’s Response to Threats

Have you ever had an entirely unreasonable response to a conflict, or did you see someone taking disagreements altogether at a different level of response when you hear a very loud sound? Well, all these people are under the Amygdala hijack. That’s a hijack of the brain’s reasoning and cognitive ability. 

Let’s explore what this mental hijack is and how to deal with it.

The fight-flight response, being a primary function of our brain aimed at ensuring survival, closely parallels the instinctual drive for survival.

This response is helpful when you get attacked by a lion or a building is on fire. The brain cannot distinguish between real danger and perceived danger, thus it can initiate the fight or flight response for perceived danger just as if it would do for the real one. Some of the examples of perceived danger may be like public speaking, talking to a boss, conflict, disagreements, a new role in the office, a surprise visit from a client, etc.

The amygdala is the fear manager of the brain who loves us and wants to protect us at any cost. You may think of it as a paranoid security guard on the job 24 – 7, right from your birth until you take your last breath. 

The term amygdala comes from Latin and translates to “almond,” because one of the most prominent nuclei of the amygdala has an almond-like shape. Although we often refer to it in the singular, there are two amygdalae—one in each cerebral hemisphere.

 

Conflict inflicts mayhem on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. 

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, detects fear and threats, and initiates a fight or flight response. However, when faced with a threatening situation, the thalamus sends sensory information to both the amygdala and the neocortex. If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split-second decision to initiate the fight-or-flight response before the neocortex has time to overrule it.

This cascade of events triggers the release of stress hormones, including the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare your body to flee or fight by increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure, and boosting your energy levels, among other things. This is what we experience in every situation that our brain perceives as a threat.

During the fight-or-flight response, the amygdala takes over. Security force in action. 

The structure causes the adrenal gland to release epinephrine into the bloodstream, along with other hormones like cortisol; signals the heart to pump harder, increasing blood pressure; opens airways in the lungs; narrows blood vessels in the skin and intestine to increase blood flow to major muscle groups; and performs other functions to enable the body to fight or run when encountering a perceived threat. Many bodily functions take a back seat during the fight-or-flight response.


Understanding fear and anxiety is essential

In the case of chronic stress, the body’s stress response is triggered repeatedly on a daily basis in response to actual physical and psychological threats, as well as perceived psychological threats. It is too tiring for your brain and body and dangerous in the long run. As a result, the body can become exhausted, and the overabundance of epinephrine and cortisol can result in lowered immunity and other health problems. 

Hyperactivity of the amygdala has been associated with fear (an emotional and physical response to danger) and anxiety disorders (anxiety is a psychological response to something perceived as dangerous.) Anxiety can lead to panic attacks that occur when the amygdala sends signals that a person is in danger, even when there is no real threat.

New studies show that amygdala responds to positive stimuli as well. It seems the amygdala is more complex than we initially thought. Not all limbic hijackings are distressing. When a joke strikes someone as so uproarious that their laughter is almost explosive, that, too, is a limbic response. It is also at work in moments of intense joy. Fear is an emotional and physical response to danger. 

 

Since anxiety is a psychological response to something perceived as dangerous, the question is – how to manage the situation?

I Take your focus on breathing; this calms down the brain.

II Focus on the body—simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, without trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur and what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurting. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of sensations and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.

III Breathe in a pattern: inhale through the nose 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6 through the mouth.

IV See the threat from a third-person perspective; this helps in gaining a new perspective on the situation and makes solution-finding much faster.

V Practice to develop new neural pathways for dealing with threat situations in the future, and eventually new responses will trigger in place of amygdala hijack.


What can you do as leader or manager?

Create a culture of openness. Involve people rather than inform them. Communicate frequently and effectively. Give constructive feedback and be ready to listen to an honest response. Be approachable and accessible to the team; it’s more than an open-door policy.

Example: Before entering a conflict situation where you might experience Amygdala hijacking, it can be helpful to mentally prepare yourself. 

I Take a moment to anticipate potential questions or arguments and visualize yourself calmly addressing them. This proactive approach can assist in maintaining composure and effectively managing the situation. This creates neural pathways to deal with such situations in the future, and the amygdala will not perceive conflict as dangerous.

II During conflict, take deep breaths and focus on your breath. This gives time to the neocortex to take control of the amygdala and use reasoning.

III Name the emotion; once named, gradual control moves to the neocortex. Name to tame it.

IV Take a break, go for tea or coffee, meet a friend, watch some funny video, and discuss it later. Change surroundings – go to another room, or outside.

Prolonged amygdala hijack may lead to SAD (social anxiety disorder), panic disorder, anxiety disorder, chronic stress, and other related chronic diseases. Since you now know what triggers the panic response and how to override the amygdala hijack, create a culture where the team feels less threatened or is not threatened at all. This will create a culture of thriving and surviving. 

 

Author:

Neetu Choudhary

discuss@neetuchoudhary.com

LinkedIn: choudharyneetu

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