Creating a Culture of Care: Amygdala Hijack

Creating a Culture of Care: Amygdala Hijack

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Anxiety stinks! It can make my heart race, create a lingering, awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, and sometimes my body even begins shaking.  My breathing also sometimes becomes so labored making it feel as though I can’t catch my breath.

And unfortunately, my anxiety has been hard to reign in over the past few months. Between the racial injustices, the COVID pandemic, and the usual stress of life, it has knocked me off my feet lately more often than I’d like to admit.

These feelings of anxiety often come when our amygdala is hijacked by stress.

The amygdala is a part of our brain that helps regulate emotion. It gives meaning to our emotions and memories and helps our brain remember how we felt and responded to those emotions and memories at the time they occurred.

I experienced an amygdala hijack last week when I had to drive through an area of town I associate with a traumatic experience in my life. Simply driving through the area can stir up negative feelings and create a ton of anxiety for me. As I approached the area, I felt my heart begin to race and my breathing became labored as my brain was triggered. It came on very quickly and had the potential to knock me down because the feelings felt so strong.

In an attempt to reign myself back in, I asked myself if I was legitimately in any danger or if this was my brain responding habitually to past events. Luckily it was the latter. There was no immediate threat or stressful person, place, or thing anywhere I could see. There was no legitimate reason for my anxiety levels to rise and create these feelings.

Once I identified this was a habitual response and not a reaction to true fear, I was able to talk myself down off the ledge before spiraling into some really awful and negative thoughts.

It wasn’t easy by any stretch. But it was also far better than the alternative of pulling over to the side of the road and feeling out of control. I had a choice in that moment to attempt to take back control of my thoughts and emotions or to dive head-first into the abyss of anxiety and poo that was sending me an invitation.  And, believe me, I’ve picked the abyss of poo many, many times. It took me a long time to realize it’s a place I have the choice of whether or not I want to visit.

When you experience an amygdala hijack, determining if you are truly in danger in the moment or if your body and mind are simply reacting out of habit from previous stress-related events is critical. But I also know it’s not always possible. Sometimes our brains just don’t work in the way we want and need them to in order to function. It’s simply too hard to really clear your head enough to have that internal dialogue and determine the legitimacy of whatever feelings are popping up for you. So, it can be helpful to have some tools in your back pocket as more of a quick fix when needed, like boxed breathing.

Boxed breathing starts by imagining the four sides of a box. As you travel along the top line of the box, take a deep inhale. Then hold that inhale as you travel down the right-hand side of the box. As you travel along the bottom line, exhale your breath continuing to hold it as you travel up the left-hand side of the box.  Make your breaths long and intentional.

Inhale the good stuff and exhale the bad stuff!

Much like a fire extinguisher, intentional, deep breathing can help put out the flames of the anxiety fire on our amygdala. Deep, intentional breathing helps calm your system and regain control of your heartbeat and body. It can help you take the control back of your anxious feelings if you’re unable to mentally walk yourself through the actual stress that may or may not be present.

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 Stevie Cromer is the Cultural and Enrichment Manager for LUNA Language Services. Stevie regularly provides engaging content to LUNA’s team to encourage a culture of care within our own LUNA family. For more suggestions and resources about how you might build a culture of care throughout your organization, please reach out to Stevie at