Blog > Tasting an amygdala hijack

May 8, 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.

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