5-second summary
  • The amygdala, or “reptilian brain,” is responsible for our fight-or-flight reactions to threatening situations.
  • When faced with conflict, we sometimes let that instinct take over – this is called an “amygdala hijack” – which manifests as intense physical or emotional distress that’s disproportionate to the actual situation we’re facing.
  • By establishing new habits and patterns of thinking, we can keep our amygdalas in check and tackle difficult situations with our best foot forward.

Have you ever had an overwhelming physical reaction during a difficult conversation? Maybe you’ve broken out in a cold sweat when confronting an impolite coworker, or turned tomato-red during a less-than-stellar performance review. Perhaps you tend to get more emotional than you intended when you’re in a disagreement, or you shut down altogether.

These involuntary fight-or-flight responses happen to even the most well-adjusted among us, thanks to a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of brain matter called the amygdala. It’s known colloquially as the reptilian brain – that primitive part of our psyche that exists in permanent survival mode, acting on instinct alone. For our prehistoric ancestors, the amygdala was clutch in confrontations with saber-toothed cats – but it’s decidedly inconvenient for the lower-stakes challenges we typically face at work.

When your amygdala takes you hostage

That intense response to interpersonal strife is known as an amygdala hijack: it’s your brain telling you to fight, run away, or freeze, even though there’s no actual physical threat. You know a heated conversation isn’t a life-or-death matter, but your amygdala doesn’t. And while no one should be discouraged from making their feelings known, when our responses are disproportionate to the severity of a conflict, we run the risk of being perceived as difficult to work with, or of compromising our confidence in ourselves.

Of course, we had to contend with this issue before remote work became the norm, but pandemic-era changes have required us to scale up the empathy, care, skill, and connection we bring to our interactions. This is especially true given the fact that amygdala responses are heightened when we’re struggling with our mental health, and the world we’ve been living in for two years has had a huge impact on our emotional well-being.

So, how can we keep our touchy amygdalas in check? Here are three strategies to try next time you feel a hijack coming on.

1. Turn on your neocortex

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You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by activating the neocortex – the logical part of your brain. Redirecting your thoughts like this is easier said than done, and would take more than one lifetime to perfect, but there are a few simple ways to channel your more rational side. 

  • Stay present. Notice, without judgment, that you’ve been provoked or triggered. We all have particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened; the idea here is to redirect our thoughts to avoid falling into autopilot mode.
  • Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe slowly and evenly. Think about the speed and rhythm of your breaths, and focus on what’s going on in your body as you inhale and exhale.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation. There are a thousand ways (and even more apps) to help us develop a meditation practice and live more mindfully. But even getting outside for five minutes or laughing with a friend can give us the perspective we need to fight off an amygdala ambush.

Ask a question. Our cheeky reptilian brain can’t respond to questions, so probing at what’s actually going on forces other parts of our brain (namely our friend the neocortex) to switch in and get involved, pulling you out of a kneejerk stress response.

2. Recognize your thoughts and set an intention

Use the phrase “the story I’m telling myself is…” to uncover the biased reality you might be spinning up. We can’t always control our environment, but we can control how we respond, and that starts with identifying the self-talk that might be getting in our way.

In the absence of data, we make up stories, because having complete information is a self-protective survival skill. But these stories often magnify our fears and anxieties. When we learn how to get curious and reality check the stories we make up, we can increase our resilience and reset faster after failures, setbacks, and disappointments.

Brene Brown

Set an intention to understand. Assume that you never know the whole truth, and that others peoples’ perspectives – especially our adversaries’ – can be wildly different from our own. The goal, then, becomes to explore reasoning, and better understand why someone thinks what they think. When we understand each other better, we’re better equipped to negotiate our differences and find solutions.

3. Practice conscious communication

When we indulge our logical sides and seek first to understand, we can communicate with each other in ways that are both honest and respectful. We can have difficult conversations and improve our relationships through conscious communication.

Conscious communication means:

  • We listen with empathy. Empathetic listening means listening with both your heart and your mind, and being fully open to another’s experience, with an aim of comprehending and empathizing with the needs of the other, and the meaning of the experience for that person.
  • We get vulnerable. We are prepared to reveal our implicit assumptions and the values our thinking is based on.
  • We don’t sugarcoat what is true for us. We know it and we share it with care and concern.  
Try the ‘THINK’ hack

Use the THINK hack to help you decide if you should say something, what you should say, and how you should say it.

  • Is it True? Is what you are saying factual, or is it speculation? Will your words contribute to the spread of panic, confusion, misinformation or ‘piling on’?
  • Is it Helpful? Will your words help someone else to make a better decision? Are you offering good advice or a possible solution? Would it be better to have a conversation in person (or on Zoom), rather than post online?
  • Is it Inspiring? Do your words lift others up or pull others down? Are you trying to empower someone or criticize them?
  • Is it Necessary? Do your words really need to be said? Do they really need to be said in that way? What would happen if you didn’t say anything?
  • Is it Kind? Have you considered how the receiver of your words might be feeling? Would you like to receive these words about you or your work? Would you say it in the same way if the person was sitting in front of you? What impact will your words have on someone else? Will your words cause someone to feel publicly shamed?

Conscious communication can transform our personal and professional relationships, especially in conjunction with an activated neocortex and a healthy mindfulness practice. Try these tactics next time you feel a hijack coming on – and teach your amygdala who’s boss.

Is your amygdala hijacking your success at work?