• Daniel Bowman PhD

Keeping Emotions from Destroying your Game & Life: Amygdala-Hijacking

When people feel pressure and begin worrying about their performance or become angry, a pea-sized part of their brains, called the amygdala, takes over their brains, in what neuroscientists call amygdala-hijacking.  When your amygdala hijacks your brain, you panic or rage and act without reason and skill.  Your mind and body shut down and you see only threats, not opportunities.   Your decisions become poor. And your performance tanks.

I often witness amygdala-hijacking with athletes I work with on the golf course. They hit a poor shot or two and suddenly they become angry and agitated. They stop going through their pre-shot routines, they make poor decisions, call themselves names, and a couple of poor shots turn into a few bad holes. By the time they recover, if they do, their round is a mess.

I've also watched amygdala-hijacking destroy a number of relationships and some businesses. An angry boss or spouse will say or do things he or she would never say or do when calm. And if the words or actions are bad enough, the relationship may never be repaired.

I have helped thousands of athletes, from children to professionals, calm themselves under high pressure.  In extreme sports, such as auto racing and big wave surfing, there is a saying, “Panic equals death.”

Although some fear can protect us from harm and can help us perform better by waking up our minds and bodies, panic can be deadly.  There is a law in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that some fear or arousal helps performance, but too much fear or arousal destroys performance (due to amygdala-hijacking). 

So how do you keep anger, panic, and amygdala-hijacking from ruining your performances, relationships, or career? The first step is to become aware that although it may temporarily relieve some pressure to speak cruelly to someone, throw a golf club, or break something in anger, you will regret it later when you have calmed down and realize you have created a mess. A lot of people think that letting out their anger will help them move forward, it doesn't; it destroys performances and relationships.

After you can acknowledge that amygdala-hijacking is damaging, you then become determined to recognize and minimalize it. One way to minimalize it is too shrink your amygdala! Research by Sara Lazar out of Harvard shows that practicing mindfulness for a few minutes a day will actually shrink your amygdala, making it less likely to hijack your brain. See my earlier blog/vlog "Using Mindfulness to Improve your Performance." Practice mindfulness regularly.

Another important step to reclaim your brain when it's hijacked by your amygdala is to take a clearing breath and to breath diaphragmatically, also discussed in detail in my above mentioned blog/vlog about mindfulness. When you control your breathing, you control your arousal and your mind.

Other techniques to reclaim your brain when it's hijacked include, using distraction, getting away from the situation until you're calm, and refusing to talk when you're angry. If you're a baseball player, you might step away from the plate or mound to clear your head. I find with every athlete and every business executive, we have to find a number of ways, often unique, that enable them to quickly regain their poise. Remember you can learn to control your brain and your emotions; don't let your amygdala take you hostage.