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How Fear Hijacks the Brain

Have you ever done something in the heat of the moment that you regretted later? Maybe you were so overwhelmed with emotion like fear or anger or you were just so stressed out that you had a “what was I thinking moment?” Well, the explanation is that weren’t thinking.

You were hijacked.

The brain has two minds -  one that thinks and one that feels? Your hand is a good model of the brain. The downstairs brain is in charge of survival.  The upstairs part of the brain is in charge of rational thought. This is where the prefrontal cortex is and that’s the part of the brain that handles executive functions like planning, goal setting and insight.

The limbic system sits right in the middle, and that is where the amygdala is located. The amygdala is the emotional sentinel and it has a lot of power. Any strong emotion, anxiety, anger, fear, or betrayal trips off the amygdala and initiates a rush of stress hormones floods the body before the prefrontal cortex can respond.

Daniel Goleman coined the term amygdala hijack to explain how the downstairs brain takes over to survive and puts the upstairs brain – or the thinking brain on hold.

Neuroscientists have found an inverse relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When the amygdala is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. It’s like when we are really stressed or angry or upset, the brain sends all the fuel downstairs to the feeling brain rather than upstairs to the thinking brain. It’s kind of like losing 10 to 15 IQ points temporarily, which explains “what was I thinking?”

One way to prevent the amygdala hijack is to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into your routine. MRI scans show that after regular mindfulness practice, the amygdala appears to shrink and the prefrontal cortex becomes thicker and stronger. 

The neural connectivity in the brain also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker while the networks associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

So what exactly is mindfulness?  Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present, without judgment. While 20 minutes seems to be the gold standard, tuning in to your senses for a few minutes at a time can produce significant results, too. You can do this in a few simple steps. 

  1. Take Notice. What are you paying attention to in that specific moment? Where is your head?

  2. Focus Inward. Give yourself permission to push everything else aside, even if what’s there is impatience or frustration, as you inhale for a count of 6 and exhale for a count of 6.

  3. Shift to your Senses. Feel the expansion and contraction of your lungs. What do you see, taste, feel, hear, and smell? Look for something you’ve never noticed before. What are you grateful for -  in that moment?

  4. Savor the mindfulness that you’re experiencing.  

That last step is what allows you to extend the psychological present and actually create neural connections in the brain.

We all get hijacked at times, but having an understanding of what’s actually happening in the brain is the first step in putting the thinking brain back in charge.


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