A little understanding of brain science can go a long way to improve our interpersonal effectiveness in multiple aspects of our life. While our IQ – or intelligence quotient – is pretty well set by the time we are adults, our EQ – or emotional quotient – can change over time. EQ is the measure of emotional intelligence, and scores of books have been written on this subject by experts in the field like Daniel Goleman. There are also a number of tests available online to find out how we score on emotional intelligence competencies. Fortunately, regardless of our test results, we can work to develop and refine our competencies in these four fundamental areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. We will begin here with the basics of self-awareness.
For a moment imagine you’re living back in caveman days. What were the common threats you might have encountered while out on a hunting or gathering trip? Perhaps you run into a saber-toothed tiger, a woolly mammoth, or a member from a rival clan? Let’s say you came across a saber-toothed tiger, unexpectedly, and he wasn’t very happy to see you. What would happen in your body at that very moment? Chances are, your heart beat and breathing rates would increase dramatically, your palms would get sweaty, your pupils would dilate, and you’d feel a rush of adrenaline coursing through your veins. Your body would be getting ready to take on the tiger or do your best to get away from it. (That’s if you’re not paralyzed like a deer in headlights!) You might recognize this kind of physical reaction to danger as the “fight-or-flight” response, or as the 3 F’s – fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight-or-flight is your body’s natural response to a frightening situation or threat. An almond-shaped gland in the brain, called the amygdala, is activated when a threat is sensed, and it immediately begins to release hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare the body to either stay and fight or run away. A miraculous part of this process is the activation of the amygdala happens more than 100 times faster than the thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) can register what’s happening. In other words, the fight- or-flight response begins before we even get a chance to think about what we are going to do next. Before we know it, the rational part of our brain has been “hijacked” by our amygdala! Our ability to think rationally is stalled for a time, as the majority of our body’s resources are directed toward eliminating the threat. This inability to think rationally can last from several minutes to several hours.
Now, take a moment to think of the things that might cause you to experience fight-or-flight in your life right now. Maybe it’s when someone cuts you off on the freeway, the way someone treats you at work, having to wait in a long line, or talking with a person you find especially difficult. Can you recall feeling these same sensations in your body in any of these situations? Did you respond in a way you wish you hadn’t? Have you ever replied defensively to an upsetting email, maybe even copying people you probably shouldn’t have? These reactions are a result of basic brain function; you perceived something as a threat, whether physical or emotional, and your amygdala took over. Your rational brain was hijacked by your emotional brain, and since your reactions in the situation were not rationally based, later you may have experienced subsequent feelings of regret.
Now that we can recognize when we are in a hijacked state, what can we do about it? How can we prevent these negative reactions that cause stress for ourselves and for the people around us? Fortunately, there are a number of ways to lessen the effects and duration of a brain hijack in progress and reduce their frequency altogether.
Here are 4 steps to help get your amygdala out of the pilot’s seat:
- STOP. The very moment you realize you’re experiencing a hijack, stop and take notice of what is happening in your body. Recognize the physical signs that come with a pronounced increase in adrenaline, such as your heart beating faster or your breathing rate increasing significantly. Remember, your natural inclination may be to react fairly quickly, so the sooner you are aware your brain has been hijacked, the sooner you can take steps to change course.
- BREATHE. Take a deep breath, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then release it. Repeat. How does your body feel? Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that when we focus on our breathing, it releases anxiety and tension in the body. It can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the body after an episode of flight-or-flight. Harvard professor, Dr. Herbert Benson, developed a simple breathing exercise called the “relaxation response,” also known as the antidote to fight-or-flight syndrome, which can be found online. In fact, long-time meditators have been found to experience far fewer hijack episodes – and recover from stressful situations more quickly – than those who don’t employ a regular and effective meditation regimen. Taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can lessen the intensity and duration of a hijacking, making you more resourceful to deal effectively with the situation at hand. Breathe before you hit ‘reply all’ and send something you might regret. (Or better yet, sleep on it!)
- APPRECIATE. It’s almost impossible to have feelings of fear and anger at the same time you’re feeling gratitude and appreciation. To the best of your ability, try to appreciate where the other person is coming from and what is driving their behavior. Appreciate that they have a different frame of reference than you do. Their upbringing was probably different than yours. If they cut you off on the road, maybe they were dealing with an emergency. Also, remember they probably haven’t had emotional intelligence training and are not likely to be aware they are emotionally hijacked — or know how to manage it. If you have a hard time with these approaches, try appreciating that the other person is a human being, with strengths and weaknesses just as you have. Like you, they have better days and worse days. Remember they have many gifts to contribute to this world, even if you can’t see them at the moment. Trust that deep down they want to be happy, just like you do, and they probably believe their behavior – however misguided it may be – will somehow lead them to happiness. Finally, if none of the above work, think of something you feel extremely grateful for in your life… perhaps your family, your health, or your faith. Just the exercise of feeling appreciation and gratitude can help transform your negative emotions into positive ones thus helping to reverse the effects of your hijacking.
- ASK QUESTIONS. Have you ever gotten really upset about something, and then later, when you found out some additional information, realized you shouldn’t have gotten so worked up? You might even have said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have…” Often, especially when the rational part of our brain has been hijacked, we react and make decisions without having all of the information. This may be necessary in the case of real danger, but most of the time, we are missing some of the information we need to have a full understanding of the situation and react appropriately. Rather than respond automatically, relax and ask questions to better understand the situation. Demonstrate good listening skills. You might learn something that will change your entire perspective on the situation! Asking questions can also give you some additional time to breathe and strengthen your feelings of appreciation.
To reduce the likelihood of your rational brain being hijacked in the first place, it is important to become aware of the conditions that caused you to be less thoughtful and more reactionary. You might find when you’re hungry or tired, you feel more edgy and less patient, making it more likely you’ll react too emotionally and less appropriately to a challenging situation. When you’re stressed or pressed for time, you’re also more likely to be emotionally hijacked and respond to something without restraint. Know all of your triggers and do your best to prepare yourself in advance to handle them effectively by cultivating feelings of appreciation. Finally, try not to skip meals, get plenty of rest, and take time to relax so you can be your most resourceful self.
These are the first steps to developing accurate self-awareness and strengthening your emotional intelligence toolkit. For a list of additional resources on this topic, please visit the Research section of this website. For a link to Daniel Goleman’s website, please visit the Links section of this website.