You feel anxious and don’t know why. Someone says something to you and you respond, “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

Have you ever had this experience? Your emotions have taken over and you can’t think. You find yourself overreacting to stress. When that happens, your emotions guide your thinking and behavior. In fact, you can’t think, you just feel.

You are having what psychologist Daniel Goleman called an “amygdala hijack.” This is when the thinking part of your brain is literally hijacked by the feeling part. When that happens, your thinking brain goes off-line.

Here is what happens.

You have stress. When exposed to that stress, the brain causes the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. This prepares your body to defend itself against any perceived danger. It happens quickly so you aren’t even aware of it. The feeling part of your brain is taking over and strong emotions are felt. Those emotions can be so strong, it’s hard to think or remember.

When this happens, the amygdala (the feeling part) activates, your hands sweat, your heart races, you feel light headed… you feel anxiety. You don’t know why but the anxious feeling is fast and strong. You can’t think! You just feel. And it is not a good feeling since your brain is signaling danger. Once you calm down, the thinking part is activated again. So the key here is to stop the hijack.

In order to stop the amygdala hijack…

  1. Take a few long deep breaths. Breathing slows everything down. It takes about 6 seconds for the chemicals in your brain to dissipate that strong emotional reaction. Breathe six times during those six seconds.
  2. Next label you feelings. “I am feeing anxious right now.” Attaching words engages the thinking part of the brain.
  3. Now, refocus your thoughts to something distracting -count to 10 backwards, describe the lamp in the room, focus on your feet and the fact that they touch the ground. Or move to another part of the room and name 5 cities that begin with the letter A. When you do this type of specific distraction, the thinking part of your brain gets on-line again.
  4. After the fact, think about what triggered that strong reaction so you can handle it differently next time.

Basically, you are developing  your emotional intelligence by paying attention to strong feelings and regulate them.  With a little practice, you can calm down your brain and prevent anxiety.

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