23rd May, 2023

How to Avoid Amygdala Hijack Part 1

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

Criticism and feedback are fundamental to growing as an individual and professional. However, often, our brain perceives such conflicts as a threat. The amygdala acts upon this and kicks in our survival instincts. As a result, we check out and shut down to protect ourselves.

How do we avoid acting from this place of fear and focus on working toward developing ourselves?

In this quick dip episode, we uncover the overarching principle of the amygdala. We discuss how to avoid an amygdala hijack and how not to operate from our threat zone. We have a choice around how we perceive and respond to triggers. We introduce the first principle of the SCARF Model and how to get over it.

Learn how to minimise threats for yourself and others. If you want to know how to avoid an amygdala hijack, this episode is for you.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  1. Learn why avoiding amygdala hijack increases performance and happiness.
  2. Discover the idea of Civility Saves Lives.
  3. Discover the ‘S’ in the SCARF model.

Episode highlights


Avoiding Amygdala Hijack


Civility Saves Lives


You Have a Choice


The ā€˜Sā€™ in SCARF Model


Becoming Aware of How You Display Status


Getting Over Status


Being in a Higher Status

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You Are Not A Frog Quick Dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energized and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You Are Not A Frog wherever you get your podcasts. I’d like to talk to you today about ways to avoid amygdala hijack. It’s something that I talked about on the last quick dip episode. And it is one of the most important things you can do to increase your performance and to increase your effectiveness and just feel better, feel calmer, feel free and have a happier life. And that is no exaggeration.

Now, conventionally, we have thought that performance and effectiveness and success comes with skills and comes with knowledge. And absolutely, it does. But we have underestimated the amount that managing our amygdalas plays in our success. And in our effectiveness and in our impact on other people. A few years ago, I had a patient who came in to see me and I had never set eyes on her before. She was a new patient. She sat down in my consulting room and she said, “I don’t know I’ve effing bothered to come to see you. All doctors I’ve ever seen are effing useless. You’ll be no different.” You can imagine the effect that that had on me. I took a big gulp. I sort of stuttered my way through the consultation. I was completely ineffective, thereby proving her points.

Now, sidenote, I would never put up with that these days, because I would have recognized that I just couldn’t possibly be effective after an opening line like that and I would have approached it completely differently. But I was quite proud of myself for not responding angrily, for sitting there and listening. But actually, my brain had checked out. There was so much threat in the room from her having uttered those sentences. See, our brains operate on this overarching principle of avoiding threats and maximizing reward. And so when people are performing badly, we should be focusing much more on how we can minimize the threat for them, and how we can increase the reward for them.

Rather than just sending them on this course, or that course, or getting them in and telling them exactly what they’ve done wrong. Now, I’m not saying we should never performance manage people, I’m not saying we should never give people feedback. But in the way that we’ve traditionally been trained to do it, and we all know what it’s like with the medical teaching and learning by humiliation, this is just not a good way to get the best out of people. We know from lots of research that’s been done, particularly with the ‘Civility Saves Lives’ Movement, that if there is any sort of conflict in the room, even if it’s not within your team, it’s somewhere else, people detect it, and their performance goes down because their brains are distracted, because they’re constantly scanning the horizon to see, ‘where’s the threat, where’s the threat.’ This is a very unconscious thing.

We can’t help it. It’s normal. Because the way our amygdala operates, it wants to keep us safe. It wants to keep us alive. It doesn’t want to keep us happy. It rather keep us safe and alive and miserable, then obviously happy and dead. I’m quite grateful for that. But I would rather be happy and alive as well. If we don’t acknowledge that one of the best ways that we can perform well is by minimizing the threat and being in our zone of operating out of relaxation, out of love, then in our threat zone and operating out of fear, then we’re going to be going after the wrong things all the time. We’re going to be constantly trying to upskill ourselves to relearn stuff, rather than focusing on actually how can we stay psychologically safe? How can we make our relationships better as a team?

Because that will be better for everybody and our performance will go up. There’s so much evidence that people who are stressed, make many, many more mistakes. They make bad decisions, that teamwork goes down. Now I can imagine a lot of you are listening to this and going ‘Yes, but I can’t change the environment that I work in. There’s so many threats around and pretty much no reward. I feel constantly triggered. There’s nothing I can do about that.’ But over the years, I’ve learned that you know what, no matter what’s going on out there, there are things that we can do ourselves.

There are choices that we can make, whether it’s around how we think about stuff, or even the mindset that we’re in. A friend of mine told me that the other day they were in a team meeting and there was a new MD had come in and they were taking credit for something that had happened in the organization. And a friend was there in the meeting. They’d been there for ages. They were very secure in their position but there was somebody that was new that had done quite a lot of work on this project. And they took this MD, taking credit for the project that they just won and done really well.

They took the fact that they were taking credit as a massive threat to them, the massive impact on them which my friend could just ignore it. There are things that we can do, to change the way that we’re thinking in order for ourselves to minimize the threats and to maximize the reward. But first of all, identifying what these factors are, can be really helpful. And one thing we didn’t know about the amygdala, that is just starting to emerge in neuroscience is that the amygdala doesn’t just detect a threat, it will also move us towards the reward. So as well as running away from the tiger, we will be moving towards that piece of chocolate or ice cream or best friend.

This is great news that shows that we can actually change things a little bit away from threats, and towards reward. I’ve come across the recent body of work by a chap called David Rock, who founded that NeuroLeadership Institute. He has written a brilliant article and devise a brilliant model called the Scarf Model. I’d like to just share some of those principles with you now. And if you want to check out more about David Rock and the Scarf Model, I will put all the links and the references in the show notes.

Now, I find the Scarf Model really, really helpful. Because when you look at it, you think, ‘Oh, yeah, of course, that’s really obvious.’ But I’ve noticed that when people are reacting badly to something, and I can’t quite work out why. Or I’ve had a sort of threat reaction, and I can’t quite work out why. Looking at the Scarf Model will just help me identify it. And then I can go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why.’

For example, this is a really trivial example, I started playing tennis with a group on a Sunday morning. And this group is full of a lot of older players who have played for ages and ages. I’ve been having some one to one tennis lessons. I thought that when I started playing in this group, I would be okay. But actually, I started playing and my first match was an utter disaster. Nothing I hit went in. When thinking about what was going on there, I didn’t know people I was really worried about the relationships. I was worried that I be accepted in the group that they think well of me.

I was quite triggered from that point of view. I was really worried about being good enough. All that contributed to me just completely freezing, and whacking the ball into the net most of the time. Now, that is a really trivial example. But I bet if you think about some situations that you were in, where maybe you reacted badly, you can probably narrow it down to one of these five factors. I’m gonna go through them.

If you want to know more about the Scarf Model, please check out David Rock’s work. So S stands for status. When we talk about status, it’s not just ‘am I your boss or not.’ But often it’s, ‘am I better than you.’ We want to know our pecking order in the hierarchy, not just feeling important, or feeling better at something than somebody else can increase our feelings of status. There’s a lot of evidence that better health, better longevity is related to higher status.

Some research showed that when people were feeling less out of a group, when they felt that they had lower status, the bits of the brain that lit up were the bits of brain that actually felt physical pain. We can inadvertently trigger someone’s threat response by maybe giving them instructions, implying that we’re our highest status and telling them what to do. I always remember when I first qualified as a GP and one of my first jobs was as a salaried GP. I used to bang on the door, one of the partners who I had trained with, had been at the practice slightly longer than me, and I just wanted to check some stuff out. I would bang on the door. I’d say, ‘Hey, can I just run this past you, just to get a second opinion, check up on the right thing?’ The minute I finished telling him what was going on, he said, ‘Well, Rachel, this is what you need to do this, this and this.’

And you know what, it really pissed me off. Because I was just wanting to discuss things as a colleague, and the fact that he was telling me what to do and giving me advice made me feel small. Looking back now, my threat response was triggered. I probably didn’t really listen to him. I probably ignored everything that he said. One of the reasons why a coaching approach is so much more effective with your team, by the way, than just telling them what to do. We’re very, very sensitive to people giving us advice or telling us what to do. It can make you feel threatened and defensive.

Sometimes we just end up defending a position that we don’t even believe in just to sort of prove that we’re as good or better than the other person. David Rock describes that phrase as something, ‘can I just give you some feedback?,’ as equivalent to hearing some footsteps coming behind you in the dark and just reflecting on that. That is so true, isn’t it? When we think that someone’s going to tell us off our sense of status is threatened because it feels like they are better than us.

We can get over this a little bit by first of all, recognizing it. But secondly, actually learning stuff and improving ourselves. Because apparently, thinking that we are bettering ourselves uses the same neural networks thinking we’re better than other people. So developing ourselves will help us increase our status in our own minds, getting involved in stuff as well. And maybe changing what is important and what we’re measuring ourselves against. So rather than thinking we’ll only be better, if we get through all of that work, maybe we can get ourselves into thinking, ‘Actually, I’ll be better if my quality of work is better.’ Or maybe when I think about tennis, ‘I think, well, I’m getting better if I can get a higher percentage, or first servicing,’ or something like that, rather than always having to beat the other person.

Just be aware of that status thing. And I know that in health care, and as leaders and managers, often we are one of the most senior people in the room. Patients certainly feel the hierarchy and the status. If you’re in a meeting, and you’re the more senior leader, wait till everyone has gone first, and try and not contradict people and try and accept people’s offerings and use ‘Yes, and’ rather than telling them what to do.

Because as soon as you come in with your opinion, a threat response can be triggered, and the room can just shut down. So offer things as a reflection and acknowledge that many people have their own answers. So think about how you can minimize the threat from status for yourself and for other people. When you feel yourself triggered, ask yourself, ‘is there something in this I’m comparing myself to others? Is there something that other people are feeling? Are they feeling inferior to me, superior to me? What’s going on here? And what can I do to minimize the threat in this instance.’

It might just be holding yourself back from giving advice. Or it might even be acknowledging how you’re feeling, giving yourself a little bit of self compassion, and then looking at what’s really true in this situation. In further Quick Dip episodes, we’re going to look at the other aspects of the Scarf Model to identify the other things which might be triggering us or other people into that really tricky stress zone.