Tasting an amygdala hijack

May 8th, 2011

Warning: Contains self-reflection

I’ve always said that an ‘amygdala hijack’ is a great name for a cocktail. I’m not sure what would be in such a cocktail except that in my mind’s eye it’s red, so I guess cranberry juice would be a good start. A real amygdala hijack is a serious thing though – it’s when our primitive brain takes over and the amygdala ‘hijacks’ the higher functioning of the brain. It literally (through some process I really don’t understand) flicks a switch, so to speak, that means we lose our capacity to consider anything other than fright (deer caught in the headlights) or flight (just get out of there as quickly as possible).

I had what felt like a slow-onset amygdala hijack recently while facilitating and it’s been an interesting experience to reflect on. I’m also re-reading (by chance) Mindsight by Dan Siegel. He talks about how it’s possible to change the wiring and architecture of our brains, and how mindsight gives us the capacity for insight and empathy – two things I really lacked last week.

After getting some space (literally) away from the group and spending time outside, having some laughs and some tears, some exercise and some sleep, and some time alone, my brain is functioning again, the right and left hemispheres are integrated, the prefrontal cortex is back in business and the synapses are firing away. Empathy and creativity are back. (Phew!) I can now see with a clarity that’s a bit scary in comparison to the fog I was operating in. It felt like mentally crawling through molasses. I knew I had to move, but every movement felt laboured. I was operating on auto-pilot, and a pretty timid one at that. Fair to say, that’s not my usual style.

I fell into the trap of trying to think my way out. My body was telling me something else. I could feel the tension throughout my body, but mostly in my gut. People kept engaging with me at a cognitive level and I would try and respond similarly. Now I can see that what I really needed, and wanted, was a hug – human connection at a very basic level to calm down my amygdala and give my brain time to recover and start functioning again.

Writing this, I feel completely different. Optimistic, brave, creative. I no longer feel frustrated, angry, trapped, afraid. I feel like me again.

This line from Dan Siegel’s book really resonates: “Before we can reconnect with others, we need to reconnect with ourselves”. This means checking in with our internal sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. He also talks about not beating ourselves up: “What’s wrong with you, Viv? You’ve done this before, you know how to facilitate, you understand status, you know what’s going on here…Why can’t you keep your head together?”

Siegel say that ‘reflection requires an attunement to the self that is supportive and kind, not a judgmental stance of interrogation and derogation. Reflection is a compassionate state of mind.’

Facilitation is harder than it looks. Great facilitation is barely visible at all, yet takes an enormous amount of effort, mainly around what not to do. It’s always easier, whether facilitating, or doing anything else, to take along everything, to do more, to say a bit more. It’s easier to keep adding, adding, adding. Take a few extra clothes on that trip, add a few more slides to that presentation, talk for a bit longer. It’s harder – much harder – to stop. To stop doing and to start being.

I’ve been reminded to reconnect with myself, and to allow time and space for that to happen. I’ve also been reminded that others probably need this too.

8 Comments so far

  1. Lynn Walsh on May 8, 2011 6:55 pm

    Wow! “I fell into the trap of thinking my way out” This took me right back to a day where a critical part to a process (from the client’s perspective) fell flat and suddenly I was getting individual advice from a number of the status people in the room. I could feel the world crumble around me and responded to their advices rather than following my gut. The day ended up limping to a conclusion. Fortunately a follow up day picked up the pieces (and included a break for me). Great reflection Viv – always helps to remember what it felt like so you can pull out quickly when ‘it’ starts to happen and never go there again!

  2. Stuart Reid on May 8, 2011 7:14 pm

    There’s a benefit of co-facilitation I never thought of before: having someone around you can ask for a hug (assuming you get on ok…)!

    I could feel my own gut churning as I read your post, because I was recalling very similar situations I’ve been in too. I’ve been doing some mindfulness practice lately which is helping to open up the space where I have a choice about how to respond to such a situation – with kindly curiosity rather than with fight or flight. But I also know that I’ll be back there again some day – that’s how the amygdala works. But hopefully I’ll be able to forgive myself quickly and reconnect.

    Thanks for writing about that experience Viv.


  3. Penny Walker on May 8, 2011 8:21 pm

    Stuart you have beaten me to it! I read the post and thought immediately of the co-facilitator as hugger.

    One of the things I miss and sometimes need most when doing an overnight away-from-home job is my partner simply giving me a hug and reassuring me.

    AND – no chance of him giving me advice or cognitive stuff about groups and process, because he knows next-to nothing of the world of facilitation and would cheerfully never go to another meeting in his life.


  4. Geoff Brown on May 9, 2011 8:27 am

    You have struck a chord here Viv! The previous comments have also stolen my thunder.

    As you know I am a student of Mindsight at the moment and sitting on the Queenscliff ferry on my way to a 2 day gig where playing games will be a cornerstone of my approach. I also intend to bring some ‘thinking skills’ to the group I am working with. These skills relate to our Mindsight, ability to pay attention, immerse in experiences and understand how all of this re shapes the wiring of the brain. What I lack in these 2 days is the company and Mindsight of a co facilitator. Like you, I will need to draw on my own abililty to reflect and reconnect with myself.

    My understanding of that process of ‘bringing the mind back online’ has me exploring the integrative ability of our brain. Dan Seigel suggest that Integration (the ability to bring together diverse parts into a convergent whole and in relationship with others) is the key to mental health and wellbeing. Mental dysfunction (like when we go offline and down the low road) is a movement away from Integration to a state of either Rigidity (like in depression) or Chaos (like in the manic phase of bipolar disorder).

    Dan goes onto suggest that Complexity is the key here. (As you know) When a system is capable of chaos, it is said to and complex and “A system that moves toward complexity is the most stable and adaptive.” When a system moves toward complexity it moves toward harmony … not rigidity or chaos. This maximises vitality and harmony.

    This link between Integration, complexity, systems biology and the experience of ‘playing games’ has me excited right now. Many more blog posts and safe-fail experiments to follow 🙂

    Hang in their Viv, that second mind is on it’s way from the UK soon.


  5. Genevieve Roberts on May 9, 2011 7:27 pm

    Hey Viv
    Thank you so much for this – and Geoff, too!
    As Geoff knows, I am a BIG fan of Dan Siegal and Mindsight.
    This all very much strikes a chord, especially as I marry my facilitation work with my Wellsprings health & wellbeing work.
    The foundation of Wellsprings is connection to self, others and earth.
    I begin every Wellsprings meeting/gathering with ‘coming to one’s senses’: a mindful meditation to check in and connect with self.
    So, as you said Viv “this line from Dan Siegel’s book really resonates: “Before we can reconnect with others, we need to reconnect with ourselves”. This means checking in with our internal sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts.”
    What is exciting for me now, is really bringing improv into my wellness work. I’m loving embedding processes to ensure that wellness is the profound experience as well as the content of the work.
    Thank you sooo much for your apt description of an ‘amygdala hijack’- as Lynn says, if you remember and recognise the signs, you have a chance to pull out quickly before a full blown attack!

  6. Viv McWaters on May 10, 2011 1:12 am

    Thanks all for your comments. It’s certainly comforting to hear that my experience is not unique! I think this is a rich area for we facilitators to explore.

  7. Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then I’ll begin.. | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus on May 12, 2011 7:20 pm

    […] about our learning here at Rhizome, but Viv McWaters has far outshone us with her fantastic post Tasting an amygdala hijack.  A cautionary tale of when the lizard brain asserts its presence. You only need to look at the […]

  8. Ashelle Paras on June 14, 2011 7:09 pm

    “Before we can reconnect with others, we need to reconnect with ourselves”. I cannot over emphasized that.
    Great reflection Viv! And sending you a virtual ((hug))

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