Over time man has evolved into the rational, thinking being he is today. At least, for the most part. Some of the traits that were necessary thousands of years ago still exist within us, and unfortunately these evolutionary relics can create problems in our modern world. One of these issues is often referred to as, “amygdala hijack”.
We all have those buttons inside us that once pushed, puts us into rage mode. Those things that can take you from 0 to 60 on the “angry-ometer” in 2 seconds flat. And once the launch sequence to rage is initiated, it seems there is nothing to be done but ride it out. In a sense, that is almost true, due to how our brains are wired.
When we perceive a threat (one of our buttons), the stimulus goes into a part of our brain called the amygdala. From there, two things happen: 1) a slower signal is sent to the rational, thinking parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex to analyze the threat and 2) a second, quicker signal is sent to our more primitive limbic system where memories are stored. If in a past memory this threat was large, our higher functioning, rational brain is shutdown as we go into “freeze, fight, or flight” mode, which is referred to as “amygdala hijack”. Although this split-second improvement in processing time (around 0.3 seconds) may have been useful when running from sabretoothed tigers, today this antiquated neural response tends to do more harm than good.
You may be thinking, “If I’m hardwired to react this way then there is nothing I can do, right?” Well…right…and wrong. Once the rage cascade reaches a certain point, our mental faculties for dealing with it are shutdown, and we just have to wait until our body’s chemistry balances out. The solution to avoiding this is two pronged. First, know your “triggers” and work on the reason behind them. I keep a list entitled, “Scott Drotar’s Hot Button Triggers” on my iPhone, and periodically I will read it to keep myself aware to avoid my triggers as much as I can. This will stop the hijack process from even starting. Second, learn to catch the anger before it escalates to “the point of no return”, and use strategies to stop the build-up process. At the very least, this will curb the length and intensity of the episode. I offer Roll Models workshops and coaching on methods to accomplish this.
So, the next time you see someone fly off the handle and make a fool of themselves in anger, keep in mind that at this point they can’t help it. Just imagine them narrowly avoiding the jaws of a giant, fanged tiger and be thankful. Because if not for this neurological tool, man may have died out long ago.