Amygdala Hijacks and Triggers

Not too long ago I was in a planning meeting in Fargo, ND with my partner Jerry Nagel and two of our colleagues from Folkways. After the meeting I was headed to the airport to catch the first of my three flights to take me home to Halifax, NS. While still in the meeting I get a text and glancing at my phone, I read, “Your flight is now departing….”

Instantaneously, my heart rate accelerated into a whole new speed zone and my body started to shake as shock washed over me. I was in an immediate amygdala hijack. Then the hypothalamus began to kick in and my rational brain slowly woke up. The whole text message read, “Your flight is now departing at (a new time).” Even with a continued racing heart, I realized that the airline does not send text messages to you as your flight is about to depart. Typically from Fargo I am on an 11:00 am or a 1:00 pm flight. This day it was a 1:00 pm flight but the text came in around 11:00. In that moment of confusion, I thought I must have gotten my departure time mixed up – even though that is something I typically check, double check and triple check. And my brain panicked wondering how such a thing could have happened and what it was going to mean to my whole travel day – and none of this was conscious thought – it happened in a nano-second.

amygdala hijackAs messages are routed through the brain, the amygdala does an immediate threat assessment and, if a threat is perceived, blocks the routing to the slower thinking brain to ensure an immediate response: what is often referred to as the fight/flight/freeze response. While invaluable during the time we lived in caves and threats meant life and death, this response no longer serves most of us most of the time. Yet, we still experience it and we experience it often.

Not only is it sparked by the kind of situation described above, it is also sparked when you are triggered by a person, situation or event. Something happens, someone does something and you are triggered into a response where the rational brain is not functioning because your body has been flooded with cortisol (nicknamed the stress hormone) and a host of other chemical and hormonal changes that are not helpful or healthy in the long run (as in your immune system and anti-aging hormones drop dramatically). If you haven’t learned how to press the pause button, you may do or say something you will regret later.

We all have patterns of being triggered. There’s that favourite person who, when they show up, call or email, your body is already in full flight, fight or freeze response. Before you even know the content of the message or the reason for the call. When you default to your triggered response, you perpetuate the situation and you can make it worse because a cycle of response that feeds on itself is initiated.

And these triggers can become engrained patterns of response if they are not countered, creating deep neural pathways that evoke unconscious reactions time over time.

Becoming aware of what your triggers are, what your typical reactions are and how you usually respond gives you information and choice. The faster you can calm yourself down the faster cortisol decreases and your anti-aging and immune system hormones increase. You can develop a trigger response plan that you can activate at times when you notice you are triggered. You can create this by reflecting on what triggers you and what happens to you when you are triggered.

You can do it right now. Recall a situation or a person who triggers you. What happened during the situation you are recalling? How did you react when it happened? What bodily sensations did you experience? What thoughts were rolling through your mind? Was your “ittty-bitty-shitty committee” activated – you know, that internal voice trying to be helpful but really giving you a hard time? What emotions or feelings are you aware of? Your emotions are an important guidance system and contain a lot of useful information.

Understanding what your emotional response is telling you can be very helpful to understanding your experiences. This is where the six dimensions of Worldview Intelligence can be of service. Sometimes a trigger response is evoked because your value system is challenged, you vehemently disagree with the practices a person or organization is using or you feel like your own knowledge is invalidated, by way of examples. When you understand the underlying source of why you have been triggered you can get more quickly to options and choices for reacting or responding – including no response.

When you are triggered, what do you typically do? Withdraw? Lash out? Change the subject? How do your own actions impact your communication and/or your relationship? Is this what you want to happen or what you want to perpetuate? If not, how can you use your reflection of times you have been triggered to imagine different responses or different approaches?

The more often you reflect on and imagine alternative approaches the greater your potential to be intentional about your responses. The more you can envision what you want to achieve with the relationship and the communication the greater the likelihood of bringing Worldview Intelligence to situations that have triggered you in the past or when you have pressed the pause button on that amygdala hijack.