How to reduce the desire to shout at people in traffic!

skyeteam leadership development

Last week I shared my own emotional intelligence challenge, teenage daughters. This week I explain the science behind the ‘fight or flight’ response and what you can do when you are triggered!

Because, Science

Our brains are the product of thousands of years of evolution, and our own patterns and histories. There are three systems in our brains that govern how we navigate life on this mortal coil. The first is known colloquially as the Reptilian Brain. This is the brain system that’s really focused on keeping us alive. It regulates important functions like heart rate, body temperature, and balance. It’s the system that remembers to breathe for you while you’re asleep. This functionality happens primarily in the brain stem and cerebellum.

Beyond ensuring basic life functionality, which is reasonably important, the Neocortex is kind of a big deal. This system is responsible for complex thought. This is where your language centers are, this is the system that is capable of rational and abstract thought. Imagination and consciousness reside here. It’s not just the thumbs, this is the system that makes us human, and interestingly, this is the system that gets bypassed in a hijack.

The Limbic System sits in between these other two systems and is a bit of a “brain bandit.” This system operates as our threat detection system. Bear in mind, that this threat detection system doesn’t always differentiate appropriately between real and perceived threats. It just does the best it can to keep us alive. It doesn’t do this in the “keep us breathing” sort of way that the reptilian brain does; however, it answers the fundamental question, “Do I eat it, or does it eat me?” This system stores emotional memories of things that were pleasant and agreeable, and those things that were less than awesome. It uses these memories to decrease the time required to make the who-eats-whom decision. The primary organ in the Limbic System is the amygdala, and it makes quick work of stimuli. In less than one millisecond, the amygdala makes that decision about who’s eating whom, and will elicit one of four potential responses from you, the poor human who’s Neocortex doesn’t even know there’s a party, to which it hasn’t even been invited yet. Side note: there was an NYU study published in August of 2014 that indicates that the amygdala also determines the trustworthiness of a human face within thirty three milliseconds. This system is amazing in its capability, and works incredibly quickly.

Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight response, but there are a couple of other responses that are possible as well; we’ll refer to them as “freeze” and “appease.” Freeze is that deer-in-the-headlights response that happens when you find yourself with no words. Appease can be characterized by “pleaser” behavior. You find yourself saying things to assuage the situation and make it go away, even if you don’t necessarily espouse a particular point of view you seem to be advocating (see: argument with spouse).

Biochemical Change

So what happens, chemically, when you hijack? First, blood flow and oxygen are directed away from your brain. This is necessary to prime the pump for your “fighters” or your “flighters.” All this blood and oxygen is headed for your extremities to give you the juice that you’ll need to stay alive.

At the same time blood is flowing away from your brain, a rich cocktail of hormones is released. Cortisol (the stress hormone), testosterone (responsible for aggression), and adrenaline (to grease the entire system) all flood your system. This release, combined with the speed of the amygdala’s decision, has totally bypassed your rational thought center. The “brain bandit” that is your amygdala has effectively hijacked your neocortex. To make matters worse, these hormones will remain active in your system for nearly 20 minutes, and take nearly four hours to dissipate completely (provided you don’t hijack again).

Let’s revisit the 14 year old instigated hijack. I walked in the house and saw the state of affairs, the pump was primed. I receive the sighroll and before she even completed the exhalation, I’m hijacking. My initial response (fight) comes out in spades.

What Can I Do?

So, I facilitate classes in Emotional Intelligence. I’m aware of the stimulus (it even has a name), and I know what is happening in my brain when I hijack. Mitigating a hijack involves actively re-engaging neocortical function. There are a couple of easy tricks that you can employ to invite your rational brain to the party.

Naming The Emotion

One way to mitigate a hijack is to overtly name the emotion that you are experiencing. Noticing and stating to yourself, “Wow, I’m pretty freaking torqued” actually forces blood flow back to your brain. Neocortical function breaks a hijack.

Ask A Question

It seems silly. It’s too easy, right? Nope. The simple act of asking a question is enough to redirect blood flow northbound. Any question will do, “What’s happening?” “What’s my cat’s name?” “Did I leave the iron on?” Putting the rational center back in charge is critical in mitigating and managing a hijack.

Do Sighrolls Still Get You?

Sadly, yes….they do. I am, however, better at managing. Sometimes I’ll Power Pose prior to the interaction to preempt the hijack (more on that in a subsequent post). Sometimes I have to actually mitigate it as it’s happening. Occassionally, my wife will throw me a lifeline. We have what is tantamount to a “safe word.” If she sees the situation unfolding, she’ll tap me on the shoulder and ask a question. She’ll say, “Don’t you need to get on a call?”

Yes. Yes, I do need to get on a call. =)

Hijacks happen fast, and they’re not your fault. Being aware of the biochemical changes taking place in your brain and body is the first step to getting better at dealing with these suckers. If you’re not paying attention, the others around you – at work, at home, in traffic – I can almost guarantee you…will be.