by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LPC
I was recently unfortunate enough to have to attend a legal proceeding. It was one of only a few times I had ever even set foot in a courtroom, though this courtroom was virtual. As I was observing various individuals testifying to the matter at hand, I was struck profoundly by what I was witnessing. Individuals who I knew quite well, and who were typically chatty and warm, came across not only reserved and uncooperative, but also as having partial amnesia. As questions were asked, that I knew first-hand they knew the answer to, one after another they froze, were unable to articulate answers, and quite frankly became agitated. At first I was a little baffled by what I was observing. Again, I knew these individuals. I knew that they were attempting to be honest and that they knew very well the answers to many of the questions. Yet, they could barely get a word out.
What is Amygdala Highjacking?
After the hearing was over I found myself constantly revisiting what I had observed. What initially baffled me quickly began to make perfect sense. The way that the lawyer who was questioning them was approaching them was aggressive and accusatory. Her approach incited an immediate emotional reaction in the people that she was attempting to garner accurate information from, causing their bodies to respond with a surge of stress hormones. When an individual experiences a potentially dangerous situation, the sympathetic nervous symptom kicks in and signals the body to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to prepare the body to defend or escape. Unfortunately, what we know about Neuroscience is that when this happens, the emotional brain reacts and the thinking part of the brain is temporarily suspended, impacting cognitive function and memory.
Daniel Goleman referred to this process of reactivity as “Amygdala Hijacking” in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in which he defined it as an overreaction to a threat or stimulus. When an individual is receiving sensory related information, typically the Thalamus sends a sensory signal to the neocortex, referred to as the “thinking brain”. Next, it sends a signal to the amygdala, known as the “emotional brain”. However, when an individual receives incoming messages of danger, real or imagined, the Thalamus sends this message to both the thinking brain and emotional brain simultaneously, often resulting in an immediate initiation of the fight-or-flight response, before the thinking brain has a chance to cognitively process the information.
Amygdala Highjacking and Mental Health
In Mental Health Counseling, this same brain circuitry is responsible for things like anxiety, panic attacks, and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). An over-active fight-or-flight response, likely due to an overactive Amygdala, results in frequent and intense surges of stress hormones even in the absence of true danger. Likewise, in relationship counseling, such as the Gottman Method, this process is at the center of work focused on improving communication around difficult subjects . In fact, the Gottman researchers conducted a six year-long study that resulted in researchers being able to predict the likeliness of a couple divorcing simply by observing the first three minutes of conversations they had during conflict. Based on the significance of this discovery, the Gottman Institute has incorporated education around what they call the “soft startup”, a process in which a great deal of focus is placed on the approach and wording that is used to begin difficult conversations to prevent Amygdala Highjacking. This technique involves starting conversations by focusing on one’s own feelings and thoughts, while avoiding sounding critical or blaming. This process can drastically impact the outcome of a difficult conversation.
Conversations and Reactivity
I’ve been thinking a lot about the justice system since I attended that court hearing. I can’t help but wonder just how much impact the approach, tone of voice, and language used during questioning impacts an individual’s testimony. Just as partners can be unable to have difficult conversations because of amygdala hijacking, I am willing to bet that many a testimony has been muddled and confused due to the inability of the individual to efficiently access memory and to effectively process information while in a state fight-or-flight. This is an unfortunate revelation but also a clear example of how the approach and context of conversation can prove detrimental to an individual being able to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Without the ability to access our thoughts and memories, process information, and articulate them to others, we are left literally crippled in conversation. If we want to communicate effectively with our friends, partners, children, or even at work, we must learn to approach others in a way that gives them a chance to respond without us inciting reactivity and without them being paralyzed by their fear response.
Tips to Avoid Amygdala Highjacking and Have Productive Conversations
Whether you are someone that experiences intense reactivity to suggested or perceived threats, or whether you simply desire to have more effective conversations with your partner, friends and family, there are things that you can do to increase your chance of having productive conversations:
During conversations, practice soft start ups. Start conversations with your own feelings and focus on tone of voice, language, and avoiding accusatory statements.
Improve your emotional vocabulary so that you can focus on communicating what you are experiencing and feeling during difficult conversations.
Be conscientious about your fear response and anxiety. If you feel physical symptoms in your body such as rapidly beating heart, sweating, or feeling like you can’t breath, take a break. It won’t serve your purpose or benefit your relationship to attempt to have a conversation during a fight-or-flight response.
Practice breathing exercises and mindfulness exercises to ground yourself, regulate your breathing, and to calm your mind.
Once you have taken a break, take the time you need to return to a non-aroused state. Explore your thoughts and feelings and how you would like to respond to what you’ve heard. When you are ready and prepared, use a soft start up and re-initiate the conversation.
Remember that if you or your partner begin to feel the physiological symptoms of a fight-or-flight response, take another break. It is better to delay a conversation than to cause more damage to your relationship by reacting aggressively (aka giving into a fight reaction) or feeling overwhelmed and abandoning the conversation (aka giving into a flight reaction). Remember that the flight-or-flight response is all about survival, and we weren’t designed to have calm, rational, productive conversations in this state. Being self-aware enough to stop the conversation until you are able to return to a calmer state may be the thing that secures your relationship’s survival.
For further reading on the neurological impact of trauma and creating new neuro-pathways, see Putting the Pieces Together: How Trauma Leads to Dissociation.