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How Mindfulness Helps Manage Emotions

I had an employee who was a successful project manager and made a project plan presentation to his team. One of his team members made a reasonable suggestion to revise a part of the plan because of the inherent risk. The project manager took this suggestion as a personal attack and reacted swiftly with anger, missing an important opportunity to make the plan better.

Furthermore, the team members – not just the one with the suggestion – witnessed this reaction and felt unsafe, got discouraged and made note not to give candid feedback anymore. This is not a scenario for a strong team or the recipe for a high quality project outcome.

Have you ever witnessed something like the above scenario? Maybe it was you who reacted badly, and afterward, you deeply regretted your behavior and weren’t quite sure where it even came from.

It can be a terribly destructive and embarrassing experience if it happens in the workplace where you’ve worked so hard to put your best foot forward.

What you experienced, as a witness or the subject, is known as an amygdala hijack.


The Definition of Amygdala Hijack

Coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995, amygdala hijack refers to a primitive fight-or-flight response in the brain that was once meant as a protection mechanism and is now more of a disruption. The structure in the brain that triggered immediate responses to physical threats for our primitive ancestors can, today, be activated by subtler emotional threats.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the temporal lobe that is involved in the fear response. Many of the things that our brains perceive as threats today are things that do not place us in physical peril.

Nevertheless, when the amygdala senses danger, it makes an instantaneous decision and triggers a physical response that includes the release of adrenaline and puts us immediately in fight-readiness mode.

What follows is an unconscious and strong emotional response that turns off the cortex, making it difficult to think clearly. Additionally, the brain releases cortisol and other hormones that produce stress.


Amygdala Hijacking in the Workplace

When it happens in our personal lives, an amygdala hijack can take a significant toll on our relationships. However, those who love us find it easier to forgive such events than those who surround us at work.

At work, the amygdala hijack can present itself in other ways such as:

  • Yelling or speaking too loud when experiencing an unexpected event
  • Responding with anger when receiving complaints or negative feedback
  • Feeling threatened and becoming over-projective when somebody starts yelling

Episodes like these can be detrimental to morale, teamwork, and productivity. Work environments where an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear is prevalent are more conducive to producing incidences of an amygdala hijack.

In his book entitled The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz listed the top five most common amygdala triggers in the workplace:

  1. Condescension and lack of respect
  2. Unfair treatment
  3. Unappreciation
  4. Not being listened to or heard
  5. Being held to unrealistic deadlines

When a leader exhibits those behaviors within the organization, the effects can seriously hurt morale. When team members do it, it can throw the team off kilter and halt progress. Thankfully, a mindfulness leadership practice can help reduce and eliminate these kinds of regrettable emotional outbursts or help you stabilize yourself if you are on the receiving end.


How Mindfulness Meditation Can Help

When it comes to amygdala hijack, it’s true that prevention is the best medicine. It is possible to manage the way our amygdala functions by developing our emotional intelligence (a.k.a. EQ). It could be said that a high EQ is an antidote to an emotional hijack.

Through mindfulness training, we can develop emotional intelligence that allows us to maintain our peace and clarity when an emotional trigger occurs. Instead of reacting with anger, we gain the perspective to say “I have anger now, but I do not need to react with anger. I can choose how to respond.”

Mindfulness practice can contribute greatly to boosting one’s emotional intelligence in the following ways:

  • It sharpens your ability to notice and observe your own emotions without being trapped by them
  • It helps you notice and recognize the feelings of those around you
  • It improves your ability to regulate your emotions

When most people zoom through the day on auto-pilot, taking little notice of what surrounds them and taking their own thoughts and feelings for granted, we might call that mindlessness. So, mindfulness is the opposite. The crucial role that mindfulness plays in emotional intelligence stems from the way it focuses your awareness on the now.

Regular mindfulness meditation consists of training yourself to only focus on the present moment; what you are thinking, what your body is feeling, what is around you, and what emotions you are experiencing. As you become aware of these things, you notice them without assigning a value judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ They just are.

When one’s attention is solely on the present, it makes the past and the future disappear with their inherent regrets and worries, allowing the mind to achieve greater clarity.

As one incorporates Mindful Leadership Training and meditation into their daily routine, they will train themselves to be fully focused on what is most important at the present moment.


The Effects of Mindful Meditation on the Amygdala

Studies have shown that, after eight weeks of mindfulness training, the amygdala seems to diminish in size and the pre-frontal cortex thickens. That means the area that initiates fight-or-flight mode or responses to perceived threats becomes less predominant. The regions associated with higher thought, decision-making, and concentration become more powerful. This makes it less likely for you to experience a high jack and ultimately sustain better working relationships.

If you are interested in finding out more about how implementing a Mindfulness Leadership program in your workplace could bring potential benefits to you and your company, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation. Or simply contact the Ascent Leadership Institute through our contact form.

Find out all the other ways mindfulness training can help you reach your highest leadership potential in our Ultimate Mindful Leadership Guide.


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