6th June, 2023

How to Avoid Amygdala Hijack Part 2

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

Life can seem full of threats and stresses we face daily. As high-stress professionals, these types of situations are a part of daily life. All of this can place a great mental load on our brains and trigger our amygdala to not always respond in the best way.

That’s why it’s important to learn how we can reduce these threats and manage our stress. The question now is how can we do this?

Picking up where we left off, this quick dip episode dives into the last four factors of the SCARF Model. We learn more about tips and techniques that can help minimise threats and improves our response. Reward yourself and develop habits that can help you feel certain, in control, and supported even amidst all the stress.

Learn how to better manage your stress and respond to difficult situations. Avoid an amygdala hijack when you listen to this episode!

Show links

Reasons to listen

  • Find out what ‘C,’ ‘A,’ ‘R’ and ‘F’ stands for in the SCARF Model.
  • Discover how being friends with everyone can lead to less stress and a better work life.
  • Listen and learn how you can apply the SCARF Model in your work and personal life.

Episode highlights


What ‘C’ Stands For in SCARF


The ‘A’ in SCARF Model


The Power You Hold


The ‘R’ Stands For…


Everyone is a Friend


The ‘F’ in SCARF


Applying the SCARF Model


Avoiding Amygdala Hijack With Help

Episode transcript

Dr. Rachel Morris: Welcome to part two of How to ‘Avoid the Amygdala Hijack’ where we’re looking at the SCARF model. This is a model which was created by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Our brains are hardwired to detect threats and keep us safe. And there are some things which are certain to trigger our amygdala, to put a straight into a fight flight or freeze stress zone. And once we’re there, it’s very difficult to think straight, be empathetic and make good decisions.

Now, the SCARF model articulates the things that make us feel threatened. And also the things that make us feel a sense of reward, which we actively seek out. In part one, we looked at status, the S of the scarf model, and in this episode, we’re looking at the last four letters starting with the C.

So the C in the scarf model is about certainty. Turns out that our brains like recurring patterns, it’s much easier for them, because I mean, we get so much information coming into our brain all at once our brain has to make shortcuts, it has to know what a cup or a knife feels like when you pick it up. Because if suddenly, it turns into a blob of jelly, that’s going to be really, really difficult.

It needs to know what this bottle feels like when I pick it up. Because if it suddenly started slithering away, I would think there’s a problem with this pattern. So having uncertainty about how something’s going to turn out, puts a lot of mental load on us. And if there is an error in the pattern, then it’s like a big flashing warning light at us.

So maybe someone’s lying or acting a bit oddly, we were going to be focusing on that, because our brain does not like uncertainty. Likewise, if we don’t know what’s expected of us, if our role isn’t very clear, if we’re not sure what to do to get things right, that’s going to be really, really stressful, we’re not going to like it, our threat response is going to be triggered.

And today there is a lot of uncertainty around at the moment in health care, like funding, like vaccination programs, like what’s gonna happen next, like are we going to be able to recruit and cover our work, all those sorts of things. But if you can do whatever you can, to take little steps, break projects down into the next step, and communicate those so that people know as much as possible. And so you are sure about what’s going to happen next, you might not be sure about what’s going to be happening in six months time but actually, you’ve got the next couple of months planned out, that will really, really help you.

So getting plans, getting strategies, and breaking stuff down is very helpful when you’re dealing with uncertainty. And there are some other things that you can do personally, if you find yourself triggered by uncertainty. So one of the things is actually seeking clarity. If you’re not entirely sure what someone means, or someone expects, it’s just, ‘Can I just check that with you, so I know that I’ve got it right?’ Side note, my family will always really laugh at that line in the Lego movie where the guy says, ‘I think I’ve got that. But just so that I can make sure, can you just go through it all again?’

And we often use that line because so often we just nod, nod, nod, and we don’t really know what’s going on. And we don’t seek clarity, or we don’t really know what our role is. And we don’t, right, our own job description. And then check it out with the person or we don’t double check what the instructions are. Maybe because we think that will reflect badly on us. Maybe that’s a status thing, I don’t know. But the more you can get clarity about what’s expected about what’s needed, but your plans, your goals, you’ll feel so much better.

Now, the A of the scarf model is all around autonomy. And we know that control is such a big issue in stress. And in the article about the SCARF model, David Rock quotes a paper which shows that the degree of stress that somebody experiences about a certain thing that has happened is directly proportional to the amount of control they have over the situation.

So if something is inescapable, if it’s been forced on you, and you can’t do anything about it, you can’t escape, you’ll get very stressed. If something is seen as escapable, then you won’t get so stressed about it. And yeah, I think about how stressed we can get when we feel a rota has been forced on us and we’ve been forced to do some extra work. Yes, maybe we’ve had a day with the children when we’ve been very, very busy. But we’re more in control over what we do, we might have been even busier. But it’s much less stressful because we know we’ve had more choice in that.

So it’s when we feel our choice has been taken away. So if you are experiencing uncontrollable inescapable stresses that can be highly destructive, and really, really trigger your threat response. And so this is why it’s so important to think about the zone of power to think about, ‘What am I in control of in this situation?’

In any situation that does seem uncontrollable or out of your control there will be choices there. And as soon as you start to focus on what your choices are, the stress levels will come down even if the choices aren’t particularly palatable because you’re feeling in control, your stress levels will reduce and this is exactly why we see people leaving highly-paid very impressive careers and going to do something where they have much more control of themselves. Control is much more valuable to us than monetary rewards.

So how can we minimise this threat response? Well, firstly, do zone of power. Whenever you feel stuck, work out what is in your control. If you’re talking to other people, if you’re leading a team, try not to micromanage them, try and give them as much control as possible if necessary, give them a few options and see which ones you want to do.

We all know with toddlers, it’s much better to say right, are you going to eat a piece of broccoli or some peas, rather than forcing them to eat the broccoli, for example, and you can increase your sense of reward around control, which your amygdala brings us towards by actually using some power language, saying, ‘I am choosing to do this, so that’ rather than thinking ‘I have to do this’, or ‘I ought to do this’, it’s, I am genuinely choosing, because of these consequences.

‘I’m choosing to stay behind at work today to keep that patient safe’, or ‘I’m choosing to leave on time, because I want to pick up my child from nursery’ for example, or ‘I am choosing to leave on time, because I have a big project that I need to work on later’. Or ‘I am choosing to leave on time because that fitness class I signed up to is incredibly important for my physical and mental health’. So if you can organise your own workflows, take control over your hours, all those sorts of things, it will be much better, you’ll feel much more in control.

So we’ve done status, certainty, autonomy, the R stands for yes, you’ve guessed it, relatedness. Now, the need for safe human contacts and connections is a basic human driver. And our brains very, very quickly sift people into Friend or Foe categories. This happens really quickly. And David Rock talks about the fact that actually our thinking circuits, when we think about people who are in our friend categories are the same as our own thoughts. Whereas when someone’s in a foe category, we use different circuits.

So no wonder we’re responding very, very differently to different people, depending on how we’ve categorised them. And I don’t know about you, but I’m really, really bad at categorising people, at reading people and reading whether they are really friend or foe. And you know what, half the time, they’re probably neither, or I’ve miscategorised, or made assumptions about somebody’s behaviour, because thinking someone is a foe or a competitor, decreases our empathy towards them. And we will start to make all sorts of assumptions and become very defensive.

Now the main hormone involved in this is, of course, oxytocin. And they’ve shown that people who have a shot of oxytocin respond much, much better to people in a group and much, much more collaborative.

And so very simple ways of increasing oxytocin, such as shaking somebody’s hand, giving someone a hug, or — perhaps don’t try that at work — making some small talk, making some connections finding out about their family will increase the trust, will increase the oxytocin, will increase collaboration and reduce the threat that you feel because you’ll be badging that person as a friend, not as a foe. And we know that trust, psychological safety massively increases performance in teams, so you can decrease your threats, at work and at home.

And in social situations, just by doing whatever you can to get to know that person. You can also increase your reward seeking behaviour when it comes to relatedness by improving your social connections at work. Knowing that you have friends at work, and people that you can connect with who really get you will make your working environment feel much safer, feel much less threatening and much more rewarding.

But how many of us actually take the time to try and build up those relationships at work? We’re so busy, aren’t we, we just put our heads down. And we just work as hard as possible. So one really quick thing you can do is to take a break, which will improve your performance anyway and go for a coffee with someone and make that regular and put some effort into it.

So pay attention to your connections and do everything you can for your brain to get somebody into that friend category, as opposed to the foe category. When I was growing up, there was a student called Steve who used to come into our house to have a shower. And Steve’s philosophy on life was, ‘If you assume everybody’s going to like you, they probably will’.

I think what Steve was doing was automatically putting everybody into a friend category, which meant that he responded much better towards them and he was much more empathetic towards someone. And then what happened? They saw him as a friend, and of course they liked him. It’s the very definition of a self fulfilling prophecy.

And finally, the F of the SCARF model is about fairness. Now, people who see unfairness, experience and emotion a little bit like disgust in their brain, people hate unfairness and this is pretty universal. In fact, people value fairness so much that they will value something that increases the feeling of fairness more than they would value a monetary reward.

And if you see other people as being unfair, then your empathy will diminish for them. And you’ll actually enjoy seeing them punished, bizarrely. So seeing anything as unfair is a massive threat. And it’s a massive trigger for us. And of course, this is quite difficult to control for ourselves, isn’t it because often whether something’s fair or not, is way outside of our control.

But sometimes just changing the way that we’re looking at things, really understanding what’s going on, and why the unfairness is happening can be helpful, being really transparent in our own behaviour, about why we’re doing things and communicating stuff with other people so that they can see the reasons and the logic behind things and being clear about expectations and objectives. So you’re not being unfair in the way that you’re treating people all can really help increase the fairness and, and move you towards things as your amygdala looks for that reward.

So I’ve been talking about David Rock’s SCARF model, which describes five factors that cause either a threat response, or a reward response in our brains. And our brains are hardwired to minimise threat, and seek out rewards. So status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. So make sure that you think about that.

Whenever you yourself feel threatened, you feel that you’ve been hijacked by your amygdala in your stress zone. When you’re analysing what’s going on. Try and label it. Work out actually what’s going on here, which one of these has been threatened. And if you notice, one of your colleagues is reacting badly. See if you can label it there and act as a wise ally and maybe help them label it too without obviously telling them what to do. If you can reappraise it, it will be helpful.

So if you find you’ve lost a certain role, maybe because the fundings gone, or someone else has replaced you, rather than focusing on the status that you’ve lost, or that someone might be better than you, focus on the freedom that you gain from not having that role, and the opportunity of being able to do something else. Focusing on for example, ‘I’m choosing to do this, so that’ will help with stuff like autonomy, when you feel that you’re not in control of things.

And when you’re in those awkward social situations at work rather than resenting it and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so overwhelmed. I’ve got so much to do’ reappraise that and say, ‘Actually, this is really good, because we are creating relationships. I’m creating this friend connection with people, so we’re going to have more empathy with each other, and we’re going to perform much, much better’.

And finally, consider some coaching, or some mentoring, that will really help minimise some of those threats and increase the rewards. You’ll have somebody that can help you identify your strengths when you’re doing stuff well. That will help with status. You’ll have somebody who can help you plan, set goals, which will help with certainty. You’ll have someone that can reflect to you about what you might be in control of about things that you could do differently that you’ve never even thought of before. You’ll have an unconditional supporter, in a coach or a mentor or a buddy at work. Other people can also support you in seeking out fairness, seeing situations from other people’s perspective and having those insights about things that are happening.

So next time you find yourself triggered, use a scarf model, have a look and see what’s going on. And recognise there might be other things at play that you hadn’t thought of. If you can’t, name what’s going on. And if you can reappraise and reframe it, that will be really, really helpful. And if you want to get some coaching, some mentoring, then look around, see what’s available locally, because many, many NHS organisations are providing free coaching and mentoring these days, believe me, it is the most transformational thing that I have ever been through myself.

So seek it out, make the most of those opportunities. And if you want help with any of this, you want some one to one coaching, or you want to understand a little bit more about how you and your team can think differently. take more control, then, do book a call with us to talk about how we can help you do that. We’ve also put a download of the zone of power resources that we have in the show notes. If you want to check out how you can take more control over things that you can control, then you can check it out there.

So next time you think about wanting to increase or improve your performance, your effectiveness, rather than going straight up, ‘I need more training’. How about you think about, ‘How can I decrease my threat and increase my reward in this situation? And how can that work for my team as well?’