EDIT: It’s March 2020, 8 after I first wrote this post, and, we have new awareness about the brain. See What Are You Predicting and The Orchestra of Your Brain for more current, up-to-date info on how the brain processes emotions, including fear.
We all know it. That feeling you’ve been taken over by forces beyond your control. Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) coined the term “amygdala hijack” a number of years ago to describe what happens when our buttons have been pushed so hard our rational brains are no longer in control. I’ve started calling it “the whoosh” because that’s kind of what it feels like in my body.
I really noticed my own “whoosh” when I was going through a divorce a few years ago. It was a difficult process because my ex was angry at me for leaving. His emails negotiating terms often had a bitter and sarcastic edge. I would see his name in my in-box and WHOOSH, a flush through my chest, my face would get hot and I’d feel butterflies (no, something bigger, maybe gila monsters) in my stomach. I’d read the email and I’d have an immediate nasty response. Or I’d want to run away all together.
Perhaps this sounds familiar — it should, if you are a homosapien. We have a very strongly ingrained fight-flight-freeze response, which lives in one of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system. The amygdala (small, almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the brain) is a key part of this system, and its main function is to scan for threats. It’s one of the earliest parts of the brain to develop , both historically and developmentally. In other words, as humans we’ve had it for a loooooong time, and it’s one part of the brain that is highly developed at birth.
When a threat is detected, the amygdala sends notifications to other parts of the brain to put us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Chemicals race to our extremities to make us stronger and quicker (or, in the case of freeze, so much that we imitate death by freezing) and into our higher brain to shut things down. These chemicals in motion are what I call “the whoosh.” And yes, as I said, part of their job is actually to shut down the active functioning of the pre-frontal cortex. This is where we think, plan and make productive choices.
Here’s why, in overly simplified terms (in other words, the way I have to think about it). If you and I are sitting by the campfire and a saber-toothed tiger comes over the hill and I sit there and calculate how fast it’s moving, how fast I can run, whether the fire will deter it, etc., and you run right away without thinking (fueled by a burst of adrenalin), then guess who gets eaten and whose ancestors are not sitting here writing a blog? At certain times, the higher brain just gets in the way.
However, we rarely encounter true saber-toothed tiger quality threats in our lives these days. Instead, it is the little things that bring in the whoosh. An email from an ex-husband. Too much traffic. The prospect of a performance review. Criticism by a boss or peer. Even weight going up on the scale or a child who is dawdling can activate the amygdala and thereby diminish our ability to think rationally. And once it’s been tripped, it trips more easily, so the cumulation of small stressors has an impact, as does being hungry or tired. Most of us in Western society live with some degree of whoosh on a daily basis.
Here’s the main point I want to make, and what I hope you will take away from this article. When we are in the whoosh, we are not capable of thinking clearly or doing the most productive thing (see my blog on Pre-Frontal Cortex for a more detailed explanation as to why this is). Luckily I knew this when I was going through the divorce, so I figured out how to manage myself. I’d write a bitter, angry self-righteous email back to my ex, and I’d put it in my Drafts folder. I told myself that if I wanted to send it the next day, I could. Often there were as many as five drafts (I’m not kidding) before I sent the email I felt good about. Each one was less angry, calmer, and more clear.
It worked, and we got through it, and I am incredibly proud of myself for never (well, ok, almost never, I’m not perfect) escalating the situation. I now train all my clients in the whoosh, and recommend the drafts folder as one self-management tool. Because email comes through with no emotional cues, it seems particularly good at activating the limbic system.
The main thing that is needed when we are in fight-flight-freeze mode is a way to move upward, to our higher brains. Taking a beat, deep breathing (adding oxygen to the system helps diffuse the chemicals) and techniques that activate the pre-frontal cortex. When this part of our brain comes “on line” it releases a chemical known as GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which acts as a kind of pepto-bismal for the brain, calming down the other chemicals causing the whoosh. Many things we do as coaches activate the pre-frontal cortex and help our clients think calmly again — I’ve outlined some of the best in my post on Coaching and Stress.
Happy coaching, and watch out for saber-toothed tigers.