How Can We Stop An Amygdala Hijack?
Updated: Apr 17
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it... - Rudyard Kipling
A week ago I received a call from a dear friend in Italy – she was worried about me because of the COVID-19 outbreak. She insisted that I stay at home and that I use a mask for protection. She was adamant that I keep myself safe, regardless of my efforts to reassure her that, in the current situation, it is not necessary to barricade myself at home, and a bit of care and personal hygiene is enough.
Bizarrely, a couple of days after her call, the first few cases of Coronavirus were reported in Italy. And, in only three days, those few cases multiplied to over 150, including three deaths. A wild panic took over after such a rapid spread of the virus, made worse by the lack of confidence in the Italian authorities to contain the outbreak.
Although some panic is understandable, I wasn’t proud of my home country as I read an article about how the Coronavirus has triggered "hysterical" and "shameful waves of xenophobia" in Italy. It reported the many hateful statements doing the rounds on social media, including that of a woman telling a Chinese person, "It's because of you that we're all going to die!", and for them to reply "Ma’am, I've only seen China on Google Maps" in fluent Italian.
At this moment in time, when COVID-19 is taking over the news globally, a number of interesting psychological phenomena are being discussed by the experts:
· psychological biases in judging the danger
· the spread of fake news
· social media magnifying events and distorting general public perception
· moral panic irrationally fomenting stigmatisation and xenophobia
Panic spreads much faster than any pandemic.
In this scenario, blaming those who are panicking and behaving irrationally is not useful either; we need to acknowledge that their fear is real. At the end of the day, very little is known about this virus and about its evolution and future scenarios.
So the question we should ask is – what can we do to calm ourselves down and avoid making harmful and irrational choices when we feel overwhelmed by fear or other emotions?
Before discussing any strategies, I would like to take a step back and focus on a psychological phenomenon named “amygdala hijack”. This term was coined by the psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing. When we feel threatened, our thoughts and emotions can bypass the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and take over. Our emotions tell us that this is urgent, that we need to pay attention and react without thinking twice. This is called the fight-or-flight response and it evolved to help early humans survive in an environment full of threats – do I eat it or does it eat me?
If you were a caveman or cavewoman coming out of your cave one morning to see a beautiful rainbow on one side and a tiger on the other side, it’s in your best survival interests to focus on the tiger and be ready for action without wasting time thinking about a rational plan. In these current times, we are continually bombarded by “threats” and we are still reacting to them as if they were tigers. During this reaction, the emotional brain doesn’t allow logic to penetrate through the hormones bombarding our body, logic becomes hazy and we may even find it difficult to think straight.
In some situations, amygdala even takes control over my rational brain. For example, I couldn’t help but feel anxious when, after an episode of panic buying, all toilet paper was sold out in all the supermarkets in town and no slots were available for online deliveries. That’s how easy it is to fall victim of the amygdala’s plot!
So, what can we do to stop the amygdala hijack and make positive, rational choices?
Let’s explore a few tips and considerations:
The first step is to acknowledge that you feel threatened or stressed and that your fight-or-flight response has been activated. Become aware of how your emotions and body react to significant stress.
Calm down and take control
When you feel overwhelmed by emotion (it could be fear, anger, anxiety or stress) take some time for yourself to calm down by practicing deep breathing or meditation. By relaxing your body and mind in this way, you can change your brain’s focus from responding to a threat or stress to inner peace and calmness.
Engage your reasoning brain
Use your frontal lobe to think the situation through, review the possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond. Help engage logic by writing down:
▪ the worst-case scenario
▪ the best-case scenario
▪ the most-likely outcome from the stressful situation
Be mindful of bias
Unfortunately, our rational thinking is not bias-free. The reason why bias exists is because our brain needs to make swift decisions without being overwhelmed by excessive information – so it filters the information and makes shortcuts.
For example, with regards to the Coronavirus - as the media bombards us with cases of this outbreak (availability bias) - we tend to view the virus as being more widespread than influenza (less spoken of). However, data shows us that in the USA alone, influenza has already caused an estimated 26 million illnesses and 14,000 deaths this season, compared with 75,000 illnesses and 2,000 deaths, primarily in mainland China, caused by COVID-19. Dengue is also a good benchmark in Singapore: 300-400 cases per week and nine deaths since the beginning of 2020!
So how can we remain bias-free? We can’t – and this is a subject for another time. However, in the case of Coronavirus, we can make a conscious effort to listen and heed official advice. Authorities don’t have the full story, but they are seeking advice from the biggest experts available and are the best bet we have.
Consciously focus your attention
A resilient person would focus on the positive – not ignoring the tiger but also noticing the rainbow, and what is under their control.
Going back to the virus, you can focus on the number of people who have been discharged from hospital and what you can do in this situation. This could be to keep yourself informed, practice good personal hygiene and keep your body and mind healthy so you are stronger if you contract the virus. Panicking won’t help, as stress weakens our immune system!
Finally, in difficult times, we must reach out to others for support.
With COVID-19, let’s support each other and those fighting stigma and discrimination. Mass hysteria may result in heavier consequences than the virus itself.
Being aware of the amygdala hijack won’t make you immune from stress or emotional overload. However, recognising when it happens will give you the chance to notice the rainbow and to make more positive and rational choices.
Author: Ivana Fertitta
Editor: Nedda Chaplin
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