Have you ever noticed how an external stimulus can trigger what you perceive to be an uncontrollable cascade of emotions and responses? If you can relate to this you are not alone and there is a specific reason why related to your brain. When you understand the mechanism that causes this to happen and a simple 5 step process, you can minimize its immediate effects and then learn to prevent your mind from being hijacked and discover how to create a more conscious life.
Understanding how you become conditioned
Each of us become unconsciously programmed to respond to things that happen in our life. The vast majority of the time you are not consciously aware of this because your unconscious mind operates like an automatic pilot that helps you conserve energy for your conscious mind by not requiring you to invest energy on making basic day to day choices.
This works very well for responses in our life like when driving in traffic and the traffic light turns yellow. Your unconscious mind signals for your brain to prepare to stop without any conscious effort and while this a simple example, it is much more complex than that.
Your brain has stored and hardwired responses to multiple scenarios in your life and each of them are designed to protect you from experiencing pain, discomfort and to ensure your survival. When you feel triggered by something and have a deep emotional response, this is because your brain’s limbic system has recognized a stimulus and associated it with a past memory or experience and is sending you a strong signal to respond in a way that it perceives you must to protect yourself.
How your limbic system hijacks you
Within your limbic system is your amygdala which sits at the base of your brain. This is the part of your brain where emotions are assigned meaning and responds to them. One of its primary roles is to process strong emotions like fear and pleasure.
When you perceive a threat your amygdala activates your fight-or-flight response by sending signals that release stress hormones and prepares your body to fight or run away.
Your conscious mind and its role
The part of your brain that is responsible for logic and reason is your frontal lobe which sits in your cerebral cortex at the front of your brain. This is the newest part of our brain as humans have evolved over time and is often referred to as the CEO of your mind. Your frontal lobes allow you to process your thoughts and feelings with logic while observing multiple potential responses and to then act accordingly.
Unlike the unconscious response of your amygdala, when your conscious mind is in control, you are able to make decisions like a great CEO. That being said, it is well known that the vast majority of decisions that you make each day (95 – 98%) are made by your subconscious mind and it is important to invest time to take inventory to discover what your behaviors are and if the are truly supporting you (In another piece, we discuss why it’s important to take inventory of your unconscious patterns to identify what automatic behaviors are serving you and which ones are not).
How your conscious mind gets overridden
When you have a circumstance or event that comes into your life that produces a low emotional response, your conscious mind is able to sit in the driver’s seat, pause, observe the situation and various ways in which you can respond and choose the best solution for you. When an experience or stimulus happens in your life that produces a strong emotional response, your amygdala overrides your conscious mind by automatically flooding your body with emotions. This happens because on a subconscious level, your brain is being triggered for survival and there is no time to think logically or make plans and this trigger can happen in an instant.
Once this happens, your adrenal glands are prompted to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol that flood into your body. Adrenaline rapidly increases your heart rate and blood pressure while cortisol induces emotions including fear and overwhelm. This can literally be like a bad trip on drugs, too much alcohol or caffeine where you lose control of your ability to think consciously and feel a sense of calm and depending on the intensity of the emotions can take several hours or even days to recover.
Just like being intoxicated or drugged, this can cause you to act in irrational ways and to overreact to the circumstance in such a way that you may regret later on.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
What to do when you’ve been hijacked
Unfortunately once your amygdala triggers this stress response it can be difficult to calm your body and mind and make conscious choices. There are a few practices to create Conscious Growth that will help you reduce the intensity and to shorten the length of the experience and to get your conscious mind back into the CEO role.
- Recognize that you’ve been hijacked: This is a simple practice of awareness and one of the most important practices to develop and the more you practice this the quicker you will be at recognizing when you’ve been hijacked. Once you become aware of what just took place, you can shift into the role of the observer rather than being overrun by the experience. The quicker you recognize this, the less potential opportunity there is for you to react in ways you might regret.
- Pause and breathe: As soon as you can, pause whatever are doing in the moment and begin focusing on your breath. If you can, focus on the area of your heart and imagine breathing into and out of your heart. Take several slow and deep breaths, longer than you would typically breathe although still comfortable. The energy of your heart will calm your mind and body down.
- Be gentle on yourself: It is common when recognizing that you have done something that doesn’t serve you to be critical of yourself. Doing this only prolongs and intensifies the negative experience and can create a cycle of negative self talk. The best thing you can do is to have compassion for yourself. Understand that what happened is based on an automatic response that is deeply rooted in your subconscious mind and it wasn’t you (your conscious self) that put it there. Do not be in a hurry in the moment to fix it or to get out of this state and become aware that it is a natural process to allow your body and mind to calm down, just like after having too much caffeine.
- Move your body: Exercise is one of the best ways to release pent up energy and adrenaline in your body. For some, a calm yoga practice might be the best way to do this and for others it could be martial arts, lifting weights, going for a run or any other physical activity. Please know it is important to ensure you don’t “overdo” your workout because the excess adrenaline might cause you to injure yourself or at minimum be extra sore.
- Focus on gratitude: Where your attention goes, energy and emotion flows. One of the first things you can be grateful for in this moment is that you are being conscious and aware that this happened and that you are developing an ability to release this unconscious trigger from your mind so it won’t happen again. Then think of 1 or 2 other things that you are grateful for in your life right now and allow yourself to focus on these things and feel the emotions of love, gratitude and appreciation. This will greatly contribute to changing how you feel and to calm your mind down so you can become in conscious control of your thoughts.
How to prevent future occurrences
One of the most important elements to create Conscious Growth in your life is to identify your patterns of unconscious thoughts, feelings and actions that you have in your life. When your mind is hijacked, it’s an involuntary experience that was triggered by an unconscious belief. This is often because of previous emotional trauma or deeply rooted fears or anxieties that you have in your life.
The great news is that you can reprogram your brain so this automatic response does not happen again or if it does, you will experience much less intensity and have greater control over your experience than before. Think of this process as playing detective. You get to search for clues that will allow you to get to the root of the program and prevent future experiences like this from happening again. The best practice is to invest some time journaling. The following are a few powerful questions you can answer.
- What was the event that happened that caused me to feel this way?
- How did this make me feel and why do I believe I feel this way?
- What is this experience here to teach me?
- What can I do differently to prevent this from happening again?
Clear Your Field
The more you become aware of the patterns that are programmed in your unconscious mind and the triggers that cause your brain to become hijacked the better you will become at preventing these occurrences from happening again in the future. In many cases, it’s simply a matter of making different choices. As an example, if you tend to become triggered every time you watch a specific news station or read a person’s post on a social media feed, you can choose to no longer watch those stations or unfollow those people that cause this trigger to happen. There might also be people that are toxic in your life or within your business. In these cases often times it’s best to choose to no longer associate with these people and in others, you can create boundaries that minimize the exposure you have with them.
These are just a few perspectives and tools that can help you become more conscious in your life such that you remain the CEO of your mind and are able to navigate through life with less stress, overwhelm and to prevent your limbic system from being hijacked.