Behavior Change and Cognitive Collapse: What Do I Do When my Amygdala is Hijacked?!

Recently, I was attending a virtual bootcamp and we experienced the dreaded “ZoomBomb!”  It was shocking and invasive – someone took over the screen and started yelling expletives.  Fortunately, one of the organizers realized what was going on and quickly got us out of the situation.  But suddenly, my heart was racing, my mind felt flooded with panic and fear, and I was sweating more than I should have been during that workout.  What was going on with my body?  I wasn’t being faced with a predator 10 feet away from me and yet my body was reacting as if I was about to run the race of my life – for my life!

This is a classic amygdala hijack or maybe a more accessible term is cognitive collapse.  The amygdala is the most primitive part of our brains and it is what protected our species from our demise and allowed us to evolve into the humans we are today.  It creates the feeling of fight or flight or freeze that we all have experienced after being faced with danger.  The hard thing though is our amygdala, while being part of our brain, is not very “smart.”  It doesn’t really understand the difference between a jarring online experience and a lion looking at us with a salivating mouth.  It reacts to perceived and real danger the same way.  The trouble is an online offensive does not warrant the same reaction as a threat against our livelihoods and really just results in us having a bad reaction or an overreaction to a seemingly harmless event.  Our amygdala response also doesn’t really help us when we do face stress and need some good cognitive functions.  Take for example, your flight is cancelled, and you have only a few minutes to decide what you do next.  Going into fight/flight/freeze mode isn’t going to help you with coming up with a Plan B.  

Cognitive collapse is real, and we face it all the time.  What we need is a way to bypass the initial response of the amygdala and move into the part of our brain where we do our best thinking.  But when we are in collapse, we aren’t going to remember what we should do next – we will just be reactive.  This is where having a check list that can help you move into your best thinking when facing stress is key.  If pilots who have flown thousands of flights use checklists, there is something to be said about their importance and effectiveness.  Having a checklist that you run through when you go into cognitive collapse or you feel the adrenalin running unnecessarily in your body can get your best thinking back online.

Here is my checklist that I use when I find I am stuck in my primitive responses:

  • Breathe – making my exhales longer than my inhales and taking really big exhales out of my mouth. This tells my brain that I can breathe and if I can tell my brain that I can slow down my breathing, I must not be in danger.
  • Movement – doing something with the energy in my body is a way of directing it in a productive way.  Otherwise, I am stuck with a bunch of adrenalines that will likely lead to some healthy road rage later that day.
  • Meditate – I am not talking about the “clear your mind and find your zen” find of meditation.  But rooting myself in the present moment by feeling my body is a way for me to tell my brain that I am ok, and we can get our thinking back online. 
  • Talking – I am typically an internal processor but when I am stressed, I need to talk it out.  And I sometimes need advice.  I call my big sister. She has this amazing ability to be very non-reactive when I am being very reactive, and I lean on this.  She can help me figure out my next two steps and then usually I am good from there.  

What is on your list?  What helps you when you are stressed and need to find a way out to a more productive response?  How can you overcome the next amygdala hijacking that we all know will come?  

Pro-tip: put this checklist in your phone under Notes so that you always have it with you when the proverbial lion strikes.  

Tip shared by Jessi Chadd, a certified financial planner (CFP®) and a certified financial transitions specialist (CeFT®). Jessi lives at the intersection of wellness and wealth and enjoys helping people be well in all areas of their life including their finances. For more information on how you can improve your financial wellness, please reach Jessi at Jessi is a co-organizer for Priority Fit Camp. Each week, we publish a health and wellness tip that is shared at the Priority Fit Camp community workout. The free group class happens every Saturday at 7:50 a.m.  

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