Tips to Prevent Emotional Hijacking

We are often very quick to judge the silly mistakes of others but we are all prone to making errors of judgement, it’s just your brain at work.  It is easy to get wound up when you suddenly have to deal with an irate client because one of your team made a simple error, especially when the mistake should have been easy to avoid.  But your emotions can just as easily trip you up.  It doesn’t take much to hijack your brain just like what happened to the member of your team.   

I’ve recently been asked to coach a number of Directors and Managers because they were having challenges with their work-load, making mountains out of molehills, and were beginning to undermine working relationships with others.  The problem they have in common is that their brains are constantly being hijacked by emotions and this causes a number of things to happen.

Your Hyper-alert Brain
Our ancestral brain is designed to notice threats to our survival and is therefore hyper-alert to anything it perceives as a danger.  If you had once seen a poisonous snake by the edge of a path your brain would keep a memory of it so you can be alert to a similar situation.  However, in order to save thousands of ‘danger’ memories your brain reduces them to a simplified form, just like a low-resolution thumbnail, so it can respond to a threat in milliseconds.  This means that if your brain notices a snake-like shape by the side of the path it will set off an immediate threat-response even if a moment later you see that it is just an old rope.   

The problem with the threat-response is that it has an impact on your ability to use your Prefrontal Cortex.  The Prefrontal Cortex is a very thin layer covering the front part of the brain just behind your forehead.  It is only about 4-5% of your total brain mass and it was the last major part of the brain to evolve in humans.  We use it to understand and make connections between contexts and concepts; to plan, prioritise and make decisions; to visualise ideas and be creative, and to inhibit impulses that come from our unconscious instincts. 

While the Prefrontal Cortex is handy it also has serious limitations.  Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology at Yale Medical School says that the Prefrontal Cortex is like the Goldilocks of the brain – everything has to be just right.  If it doesn’t have the perfect amount of glucose and oxygen as well as the right balance of neuro-transmitters it can rapidly lose processing power. This means we don’t think straight and can make stupid mistakes.

Easily Triggered
The Limbic System is the large part of your brain that is permanently alert to threats and rewards. It tracks your thought related people, objects and events and includes the Hippocampus which is central to storing memories and the Amygdala which is hypersensitive to threats or perceived threats.  The Limbic System is designed to be very reactive so you are either driven away from threats or towards rewards.  However, the drive away from a threat is five times stronger and lasts far longer, creating and imbedding powerful feelings that are recalled very easily.  This means it doesn’t take much to trigger a threat response.      

In his excellent book Your Brain at Work, David Rock mentions a curious experiment where two groups of students completed the same paper maze starting as a mouse in the middle of the page.  One group had a picture of cheese, a reward for the mouse, at the edge of the maze; the other had an owl, a natural predator of mice.   The groups then completed a number of creativity tests.  The group heading towards the cheese could solve around 50% more problems.  Other studies show that prefrontal performance is impacted just from seeing smiling faces versus frowning faces at the end of sentences.   Rock concludes that it is very easy to set off the Limbic System in a way that measurably reduces prefrontal performance.

Many people also fall into the trap within ‘Positive Thinking’ that the evangelical motivational speakers and gurus fail to mention.  Positive thinking can be misinterpreted as the need to supress and bury negative thoughts.  This is missing a crucial point.  Having negative thoughts is perfectly normal, your brain will inevitably create them, and attempts to supress them can actually make them more powerful and disruptive (for more on this Click Here).  The key to being smarter, more effective and happy is knowing how to manage these thoughts with ‘Emotional Agility’.

Emotional Agility
Susan David and Christina Congleton coined the phrase Emotional Agility based on their work with Senior Leaders. They researched successful leaders who didn’t get high-jacked by their emotions because they are able to recognise what was happening and still remain effective.

Susan and Christina emphasise the need to identify the feelings and the fact that your brain created them because it is simply reacting to a trigger.  Once you claim it as your own, you can acknowledge that you created it and therefore also have the power to change it.  But in order to change it you need to label it.  This means identifying the feeling and giving it a name, and then distinguishing the intensity of it.  For example; are you very angry, frustrated, infuriated or just a bit annoyed?  Each of these emotions has various levels of intensity.  

When we can classify and rank the level of our feelings our brain can label them and this dampens the threat response so we can get back to normal.  If we are overwhelmed with feelings and can’t distinguish them, our brain concludes that it is a dangerous situation and will keep searching memories until it finds something from the past that matches the feelings, or it may create future scenarios that it imagines will generate similar feelings.  This uses up a lot of brain power and depletes the effectiveness of your delicate Prefrontal Cortex.  It is also the cause of your mind dwelling on and relentlessly going over the same unpleasant thoughts which can lead to sleep-loss and chronic anxiety.

Another problem that arises when we have a strong threat-response is that the brain can make accidental connections and think that two unrelated things are creating a cause and effect.  For example, your brain may remember the look on a team member’s face the other day and make it mean they are disengaged, it then concludes that they are sabotaging your business by making mistakes on purpose.  Once your brain makes this accidental connection it will be as if the member of staff has sprouted horns and become the devil.  You will only see every mistake they make which proves your (accidental) theory so you get to be right.  A brain that is pumped full of threat-response neurochemicals will not admit to being wrong because that will only increase the level of threat!   And before we know it we can be deluding ourselves and find it almost impossible to snap out of it.

Avoiding Emotional High-jacking
So the key to avoiding Emotional High-jacking is to consider the following tips.  There are various versions of these and I can’t find an original source but I like this version as it’s relatively easy to remember.

  1. Claim it – When an emotion arises acknowledge that it is yours.  You and you alone created it.  Someone else or an external situation may have triggered it, but your brain and your previous experiences generated the feelings.
  2. Name it – What is the feeling you are experiencing? Can you give it a specific name?  The greater our emotional vocabulary is and the more we can distinguish the intensity of our feelings the more we increase our emotional agility. 
  3. Tame it - Once our brain can label the feeling it begins to calm down.  This creates a tiny gap between stimulus and response to acknowledge it and re-evaluate it.  Rather than getting triggered and reacting with an impulse from below your conscious awareness.
  4. Aim it – Once you have thinking space and a fully functioning Prefrontal Cortex you can use it to re-assess the situation and choose the best way to use the energy created by the threat response.  The wisest leaders in the research by Susan and Christina use their values to guide their actions.

It is obvious that putting these tips into action takes effort and that means it is more challenging to do when you have a tired or exhausted brain. 

  • How well are you looking after your brain? 
  • Are you getting enough rest and recuperation? 
  • Do you have strategies for managing stress so you have just the right amount to flourish without burning out or letting you emotions highjack your brain? (for more on this Click Here)
  • How clear are you about your values and are you using them consciously to be a better leader?

Do let me know how you get on with applying some of the above.

If you would like to expand your Emotional Vocabulary please send an email to Amanda at with ‘Emotional Vocabulary Tool’ in the Subject line.

Remember, especially as you consider your feelings . . . Stay Curious!

With kind regards,
David Klaasen 

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