A Coaching Power Tool By Georgina Bartels, Transition Coach, GHANA
Hijack vs. Headway Potential and Ability to Meet Goals
I have had many experiences where I have acted on the spur of the moment irrationally or been flooded with emotions whereupon hindsight, I wonder – “what exactly happened here?” “How could I do that? What could I have possibly been thinking?” Well in reality I was not thinking, I was overwhelmed with an emotional reaction. I was hijacked. Sometimes the decisions I take in those moments will have long-lasting implications and sometimes I do nothing at all-paralyzed by fear and the what-ifs. The situation and the feelings are not always fleeting. Some have lasted for months and years, the results of which I am living with today. With coaching, I have come to realize that living in this state is hijacking my dreams and potential, and the ability to meet goals that are important to me.
We have all had the experience of doing something in the heat of the moment that we regretted later. Our reaction flew out of the gate before we could catch it. It’s like our rational mind stopped and what came out not only surprised us but everyone else around – Dr Relly Nadler.
I see this happening to friends, family, and colleagues all around me. With coaching and being coached and exploring this aspect of life, I have come to realize that a flip in perspective in this regard is powerful in helping one live a fulfilled life.
Hijack vs. Headway Definitions
Hijack is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “to take control of or use something that does not belong to you for your advantage”. In human behavior, the term hijack is usually associated with the brain, specifically the amygdala. Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional hijacking” to describe situations in which the amygdala — the brain’s emotional processing center — takes over the normal reasoning process. This can occur during difficult interactions with others, stressful situations, unexpected occurrences, etc. When you are emotionally hijacked, you tend to have less perspective and poorer judgment, while making more errors. At the same time, you feel more certain you are right.
Every human being normally has two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes, and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body, Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It is responsible for detecting fear and preparing our bodies for emergency response.
The amygdalae define and regulate our emotions as humans. They also preserve memories and attach those memories to specific emotions (such as happy, sad, joyous). These are called emotional remembrances.
Whenever we perceive any threat, our amygdala sounds an alarm and releases hormones into the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. Another dimension to this has come up which is to freeze. So, the reactions are to fight, flee or freeze. In our world today, that response is more likely to be triggered by emotions such as stress, fear, anxiety, aggression, anger, pressures, and stress of modern life, work, and relationships. These are things that everyone experiences.
So, how does the hijack happen? It has been said that there are two minds one that thinks and one that feels. The research by Joseph Le Doux reported by Goleman (1995), states that “…the architecture of the brain gives the amygdala a privileged position as the emotional sentinel, able to hijack the brain.”
When stimuli come in from the eyes or ears, they go immediately to the thalamus and then to the amygdala before a signal reaches the neocortex. This survival mechanism lets us react to things before the rational brain has time to think things over. All this happens in milliseconds and the amygdala sometimes distorts what stimuli it is receiving. Our amygdala is always on the alert, scanning and sifting through the information coming at it to detect any threats, things that might hurt us, or things we should be afraid of. All these stimuli are interpreted by the amygdala and generate emotions. Some of these emotions, such as anxiety, anger, joy, or betrayal trip off the amygdala and impairs the prefrontal cortex’s working memory. The power of these emotions then overwhelms your rational thinking. It is this that prevents us from thinking “straight” or making rational decisions. There is a lot of data and research on why this happens and how oxygen, blood flow, and stimuli work in our amygdala and prefrontal cortex where rational thought and judgment sit. When the stimulus takes place and our fight, flight, or freeze responses are triggered we are usually thinking but with less capacity and brainpower.
With all the things happening in our world today, many of us are constantly walking around or functioning in a constant state of hijack brought upon by stress, fear, worry, and uncertainty.
Stress is a natural feeling of not being able to cope with specific demands and events. However, stress can become a chronic condition if a person does not take steps to manage it. These demands can come from work, relationships, financial pressures, and other situations, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person’s well-being can cause stress.
Stress can be good sometimes as it pushes you to achieve. Everyone has a stress threshold and the point at which stress becomes paralyzing. When this happens, it can cause both physical and mental well-being to be impacted. When we face a challenge or threat, we usually have a partly physical response. The fight or flight responses are triggered to ensure that the individual is kept safe. This is manifested as some of these physical reactions:
- increased blood pressure
The more stressors an individual is faced with the more likely s/he is likely to feel stressed and hijacked. This is especially when they feel they cannot cope.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s annual stress survey in 2018, average stress levels in the United States were 4.9 on a scale from 1 to 10. The survey found that the most common stressors were employment and money. How a person reacts to a difficult situation will determine the effects of stress on overall health. Some people can experience several stressors in a row or at once without this leading to a severe stress reaction. Others may have a stronger response to a single stressor.
Stressors and the reactions they generate, differ from person to person. What may be positive for me, might be hugely triggering for another person? For some people, just thinking about something triggering can cause stress.
There is no identifiable reason why one person may feel less stressed than another when facing the same stressor. Mental health conditions, such as depression, or a building sense of frustration, injustice, and anxiety can make some people feel stressed more easily than others.
Some experiences or stressors are:
- Getting a new job
- Having a difficult conversation
- Asking for a raise
- Letting go of objects with sentimental value
- Having a baby
- Going on vacation
- Getting a vaccine
- Dealing with uncertainty
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes two types of stress: acute and chronic. They also further categorize the stressors as:
- routine stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
- sudden stress or disruptive changes, such as a family bereavement or finding out about a job loss
- traumatic stress, which can occur due to extreme trauma because of a severe accident, an assault, an environmental disaster, or war
The reason why these events can cause a hijack or are stressful is that they typically involve a significant change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and a need for adaptation. The human brain generally resists change or anything that will take one out of their comfort zone. They also often require a person to take steps into the unknown. It is usually this fear of the unknown that triggers the hijack. The more you perceive stress or situations where you are triggered as negative, the bigger the impact on you. However, being more alert to the effects of stress may help a person manage it more effectively and cope better.
Many coaches are approached by clients with these kinds of issues. Unresolved feelings of stress caused by “hijack” can become both physical and mental health concerns and leave individuals feeling unfulfilled. To flip this perspective of being in a state of hijack, stress, and fear to a new enabling one requires some work. The new perspective is on making a “headway”.
Making a Headway:
Headway– is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as – to make progress or get closer to achieving something. When an individual gets into a state of hijack, their performance, rational thinking, and actions are impacted. The state of hijack can be for either a short time or continue in perpetuity until actions are taken to step out of it. To help flip the perspective, certain questions must be posed, and individuals guided out of that feeling and situation.
- What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- What do I want now?
- How will I achieve
- How am I getting in my way?
- What do I need to do differently now?
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Who or what will support me?
Making headway is a state of feeling empowered to guide and steer the ship of your life on a course that is desirable and fulfilling. In this state, it is easier to see and recognize possibilities, to manage and set aside triggers that cause a hijack. The significance of situations is not seen as overwhelming but categorized in a way that does not trigger a fight or flight response. In this perspective, one can see the positives in a situation that looks bad and focus on that with gratitude. In this perspective, one can see that reactions are fully within one’s control and it is these that will determine the outcome.
The Risk Of Hijack vs. Headway
Coaches will be faced constantly with clients that are in a state of hijack. The pace of the world now, coupled with technology, a pandemic, etc. makes all of us fully susceptible to the pressures of life and therefore the risk of a hijack. The world is constantly changing, and this creates a feeling of uncertainty. For a coach to guide the client to flip their perspective the coach could invite the client to explore these questions:
What Are You Thinking?
Identifying exactly what you are thinking, what your thoughts are about the situation causing you a hijack, and acknowledging that you are feeling stuck or afraid or about to do something irrational.
What are you feeling?
Putting a name to the emotions you are feeling. Fear, panic, anxiety, sadness, ruffled, indifferent. When the emotion is identified it is easier to deal with it.
What do you want now?
Declaring that you want something different, you want to see a change, you need better for yourself.
How will you achieve it?
Identifying the steps that are needed to be taken to get to the end goal.
How are you getting in your way?
What is your behavior, actions, thoughts, beliefs, or values that stand in your way and how do these impact the situation negatively?
What do you need to do differently now?
Moving away from what has not worked in the past, identifying what has worked in the past, and going to utilize it.
What is the worst that can happen?
Being aware of what the worst-case scenario is and what can be put in place as a safety net
Who or what will support you?
Identifying a support system and utilizing it.
Faces Hijack vs. Headway Inducing Stress
The world is full of uncertainty and everyone faces hijack-inducing stress at one point in their life or the other. We cannot do away with stress and we cannot do away with the body’s mechanisms for dealing with it. We can, however, manage our reactions such that we approach life with a measure of positivity and a feeling of possibilities. There will always be setbacks however persisting and moving forward will always be the best way.
It’s easier to have courage and trust the process when you feel you’re making headway. Mastery is not persistence when you see a light at the end of the tunnel. True mastery is persistence when you don’t yet see the light. – James Arthur Ray
Perfection may be an impossible goal, but habits help us to do better. Making headway toward a good habit, doing better than before, saves us from facing the end of another year with the mournful wish, once again, that we’d done things differently. – Gretchen Rubin
Making Headway Quotes
Responding to Difficult People
Calming Your Brain During Conflict
Harvard Business Review, “Breakthrough Ideas for Tomorrow's Business Agenda,”
Calming Your Brain During Conflict
Hijack How Your Brain Blocks Performance