Did I Leave the Oven Turned On?
The most primitive part of our brain — the amygdala — is the primary organ involved in triggering our anxiety. It is responsible for our immediate, automatic reaction in situations with perceived danger.
Sometimes when we leave home we begin to wonder: “Did I turn off the oven before I left or not?” We may sit in our car at a stoplight down the street and think: “Should I turn around and go back to double check?” We consider if we have time to go back and still make our important appointment. Finally, we must make a choice: “Go on or go back?” What we decide to do at the stoplight depends to a great extent on the nature of our thinking. For example:
- “When I was 11 years old, the house next door caught on fire.” (Not good!)
- “I recall standing at the oven just before I walked out the door”. (Good!)
- “There was a fire truck that just whizzed past me 60 seconds ago.” (Not good!)
- “I will only be gone for 20 minutes if I go on.” (Good!)
- “I did leave the oven on twice in the last few months.” (Not good!)
In the absence of more information, our level of anxiety is easily formed by our worst-case memories and an imagination of worst-possible outcomes. Left unchecked, our anxiety can escalate dramatically, and we may conclude that a catastrophe is not only possible but probable. Then, driven by unchecked anxiety, we may run the stoplight, swerve into a driveway, spin the car around and race home in a panic.
Under significant stress we can easily catastrophize a situation and overreact rather than thoughtfully consider the reality and a range of appropriate options. When our amygdala overrides our capacity for thoughtfulness, we become victims of what is called an “amygdala hijack”. Our brain’s capacity for careful (and appropriate!) consideration of the options available to us can be compromised…just a little, or even massively and overwhelmingly.
The key to avoiding the dreaded amygdala hijack is to cultivate one of the “Three RL Imperatives” of the Resilient Leadership model: Stay Calm. We can do this by engaging in a regular discipline of calming practices such as “Getting on the Balcony” and “6-Second Centering” suggested in our book, Resilient Leadership 2.0. When those behaviors become second nature to us through repeated practice, the odds shift significantly in the direction of a more thoughtful, less reactive response when anxiety threatens to take over in the face of perceived threats.