Research Paper By Stephanie Uribe
(Wellness Coach, SOUTH AFRICA)
When human beings encounter a threat of any kind we immediately go into flight, fright, or flight mode. In fact, these reactions are controlled by what we call the “animal brain” or the amygdala. It is the “primitive” side of our brain that helps us to survive when we are in danger as well as has helped human beings survive from generation to generation before our modern life. The amygdala helps our bodies to have immediate reactions to a threat with our nervous system to be efficient and quick. In fact, it doesn’t take too much energy for our brain to utilize it as it is often an automatic reaction that protects us from any threat. With that said, as the world has modernized, our threats are no longer wild animals coming to attack us (or not frequently at least), but they are modern-day threats like an angry boss or spouse, financial stress, a looming deadline, self-doubt, or even fear of the future. These modern-day threats trigger our amygdala to hijack our brain and react protectively forming habits or behaviors that we don’t even realize are merely a product of our brain protecting us and helping us to survive.
Take a threat modern-day threat (like public speaking) that one learns from a young to fear, fight, or avoid, and multiple that threat reaction by 5, 10, 15, 20 years. At first, the amygdala has the body react in one way to the isolated threat, but if the individual reacts the same way every time a similar threat comes their way, then over time, the reaction drills a pathway through our brain called a neural pathway. A neural pathway according to Wikipedia “is the connection formed by axons that project from neurons to make synapses onto neurons in another location, to enable a signal to be sent from one region of the nervous system to another.” More easily stated, your neural pathways are in your brain and they connect different responses you as a human being has to stimuli so it tells your body what to do in a specific situation. Your responses are an emotion, feeling, or behavior you react with when encountering that same stimuli time and time again. The first time you encounter this stimulus or threat, your brain needs to work hard to create a path to know how you might respond, but if you repeat this same response with the same stimulus over and over again over years then eventually, your brain creates a very deeply grooved road that is easy for your brain to know what to do or in other words, it creates what we might know as a habit or habitual behavior.
Now thinking of this applied to coaching. When a client comes to a coach looking for support to accomplish a goal, the client comes to the coach with a lot of deeply grooved neural pathways. If the client for example is hoping to get a new job in an entirely new field (let’s say theater) but has been told from an early age that they were really good at math and not singing. This individual might have big doubts about making a switch from an accountant to a theater actor. In fact, the client tells you that any time they have tried something new in life, they have been questioned by parents and family about their choice. Over time, the client began to doubt his or her ability to try new things and as a result, has been working the same job for 20 years including the same routine and hobbies. For some reason, now in their 40s, the client experiences a lot of doubt that they can do anything new and make a change, as a result, the client just never does anything about it and freezes. Somewhere along the way, the client’s brain learned that new is not “safe” and that routine is “safe.” Newness is the threat or stimulus for the client where their amygdala has hijacked their responses and created a neural pathway that has taught them to instead of taking action to do nothing. The result? An individual that feels stuck and frustrated that they can never seem to take that leap of faith into something new and they don’t understand why.
Now if a coach were to deconstruct what was is happening in the client, the coach could realize that the client has developed a deep neural pathway with a freeze response to the threat of something new and also created a story of doubt. If I try something new, I won’t get support from others and who knows if I can actually do it? As the client doubts, his or her brain sends messaging to their body to instead that it is safer not to try at all. At this point, many years later, the response to the new threat and the story of doubt is a habit the client has learned and has prevented them from accomplishing their goal to establish themselves in a new career.
Coaching can help the client to deconstruct the story being told to themselves by raising awareness and mindfulness in the client regarding the circumstances. It is human nature to create excuses or play the victim card of his/her reality. In other words, it is easier to create a story around why one does not take action or is stuck in his or her current reality and that story is often one of excuses or victimhood. It isn’t so uncommon to think that the obstacle that needs to be overcome, is a monstrously high wall impossible to jump over. Instead, the coach can illuminate to the client the idea that his or her behavior is simply a survival habit created by his or her amygdala that has resulted in deeply grooved neural pathways and nothing more than that. There is no story, there is just a human response. This reality can take the control away from the story of doubt and threat of newness and recreate a story of empowerment and perspective-shifting. The client can utilize his or her prefrontal cortex or the “thinking” part of the brain to determine a new response to the stimulus. With time and effort, the client can continuously recognize the impulse reaction from the amygdala, honor it, and thank it for doing its job. Next, they can then decide to utilize a new response instead and re-shape his or her neuropathways over time to create a new deeply grooved road and therefore habit or behavior that aligns with the person they hope to become.
So how does one do this?
One very powerful tool a coach can utilize with a client and help teach is the ability to heighten self-awareness around the stimulus. The coach can support the client in exploring what the signs are when he or she is entering into the flight-fright-fight mode with the stimulus when the amygdala begins to hijack. How can they spot the signs of an amygdala hijack? What are the emotions they feel or what does their body do when they are about to respond to the stimulus in the way that they typically do? An amygdala hijack is due to the effects of the flight-fright-fight stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are released by your body, specifically the adrenal glands, to help prepare you to survive the threat. According to Healthline, cortisol is a steroid hormone that has an impact on different functions of your body, mainly to stimulate your body into action fast. Some symptoms you might notice are a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, or even goosebumps. With that said, sometimes the threat is consistent and your body gets used to being in this heightened state. You might not even realize you are in this mode or you might grow used to being in this state.
Bringing self-awareness about the amygdala hijack can provide a client the start of a roadmap that he or she might need to be able to utilize to begin to react differently. After there is some exploration around the signs of an amygdala reaction or an understanding of how or when the stimulus might come up for a client, then the client can practice breathing techniques to slow the brain down. Taking 3 to 5 full breaths in and out slowly and easily can support the client with emotional regulation and slow down the overactive amygdala. By taking a moment to breathe and bring awareness to what is happening in the client’s body, he or she can take the control back away from the amygdala and utilize their prefrontal cortex to choose the next action or reaction. With breathing, the client can then practice reasoning utilizing his prefrontal cortex to think through the situation he or she finds themselves in. They can then determine possible scenarios they could choose from, and then determine a logical and more rational response to the stimulus to begin to change their habit/behavior.
Another way that a coach can support a client to overcome an amygdala hijack is through the practice of mindfulness. This is helping the client to be aware of how he or she is feeling, thinking, or being in the present moment. This might include how the body feels or what thoughts are coming across the mind. Mindfulness should come without judgment as the feelings or thoughts, as well as the natural response to these particular stimuli, are just that. Feelings, thoughts, reactions that are not good or bad nor are they a permanent state of being. They can come and go just as quickly as they came. Practicing mindfulness can help the client bring about even more awareness to when the stimulus is happening or when it might happen. If the coach can support the client to incorporate mindfulness in his or her every day, they can bring about heightened awareness about themselves when walking, driving, at work, or even in conversations with family. It is simply taking the time to focus on the moment and what is going on inside of him or herself. Meditation is also a great technique that can be practiced if the client is open to it. It’s a tool that allows for great mindfulness. Mindfulness has also been known to bring about a reduction in stress and any stress hormones released (e.g., especially with the amygdala hijack) and in the long term if practiced at least 3 times a week it can lead to increased folds in the pre-frontal cortex, which allows us to think flexibly and creatively as well as supports our responses to any threatening stimuli when our amygdala is triggered.
In fact, mindfulness can help an individual to notice his or her mindset at the moment. For example, a client might be fearful of failure and therefore will avoid any new challenges. Just like the client we talked about earlier. The story of doubt is also a story of fear. Forbes contributor Tara Swart mentioned that mindfulness can help someone realize he or she is in this fear mindset and they can make a shift towards more of a growth mindset that “sees new everyday problems as opportunities to be seized and embraced as part of a wider learning experience.” Making this shift can allow for the amygdala hijack to slow down and or prevent it from ever happening at all due to the fact the stimulus is viewed with a new perspective and therefore the body does not see a threat but instead an opportunity.
Secular Buddhism and Self-compassion
Coaches can help the client to simplify their reality by taking the power away from the story created by the client and creating the space for the client to get away from the busyness of everyday life that keeps us from being focused and creative. It is the story that the client tells him or herself that holds them captive to their realities. In Buddhism, the story is just a “story of reality” instead of “a reality.”What this means is that there are in fact many realities and perspectives that can be seen, but often individuals get caught up in one and claim it as truth. Buddhism teaches that there really are no truths other than scientific facts like there is gravity and water can turn to ice. As a result, when someone shares a story that is his or her “truth,” the coach can help the client expand his or her perspectives to see other potential truths. More importantly, coaching can serve as accountability to a client as well as provide the client with tools to increase mindfulness around the next time he or she jumps into a story. Utilizing mindfulness techniques like mentioned before, the client can recognize the next time they jump into the story, recognize, how his or her body is feeling in the moment, or what emotions they are experiencing. In addition, recognizing the control the story has over one’s reality and behaviors can contribute to greater freedom as soon as the individual accepts that it is just one story and embraces the idea of many other realities they can be living.
Buddhism also teaches that nothing is permanent so although someone is experiencing a hardship, a hurdle, or a strong emotion right now that doesn’t mean they have to control their reactions or how they behave. Once individuals realize that the situation is fleeting, they can gain control of any situation by embracing the moment as it is and then choosing a different reality. In other words, as soon as a client realizes his or her amygdala reactions aren’t permanent nor are they personal, the individual can learn to accept them, live with them, but not choose to let their reactions, behaviors, or habits be controlled by them.
Part of accepting every part of you including the ability for your amygdala to hijack your brain takes a lot of self-compassion. We often just want it to go away or not have to deal with the issue. We also blame ourselves or have shame for a bodily response that is quite powerful and hard to control without practice. With having self-compassion and reducing the criticism one has towards his or herself, one can embrace their natural reactions more easily and understand these reactions are human and normal but do not have to be what controls their decisions and behaviors at the end of the day. Ways to practice self-compassion can be found all over the internet, but some shared by Noah Rasheta in his Secular Buddhism podcast are highlighted below and can be utilized by the coach:
- Imagine you are someone else. What do you say to yourself that you would never say to someone else? If you can imagine you are someone else in this situation, it can help create some distance of yourself from the story and can allow you to see other perspectives angles and have some more gentleness towards yourself regarding the situation. The more critical you are, the harder it will be to have an open mind towards what is happening and the easier it for the amygdala to hijack your brain. When we love ourselves, we can really learn to love others as well.
- “Look deeply at suffering.” Meaning, understand that we all have hardships and struggles and the more you learn that we all experience similar experiences, the easier it is to see your hardships and struggles as less powerful. In fact, when we think we are the only ones with hardship and we aren’t supposed to it, we get it wrong. The sooner you can avoid the trap that thinks we should be a certain way we can open our minds to new truths and perspectives. We can also not fear the amygdala hijack and instead learn to embrace it by choosing a different reaction or response. This also allows you to break out of the victim cycle of “poor me” and instead take control of your life by realizing there is more you can do about it and at the same time you can let go of what you cannot influence or control.
- Create mindfulness and awareness around your feelings and thoughts, but don’t cling to them. As mentioned earlier, know that nothing is permanent and feelings/emotions even the amygdala hijack come and go. In fact, going back to the client example, failure is also just a concept. No one is a failure, but instead, people just fail from time to time. That doesn’t define them or make them who they are, instead, people are in a continual state of being. If you can create space, like in a coach session, to accept any suffering or “negative” feelings, then you can sit with the feelings and be ok with the feelings by having self-compassion. The more you do this, the more you control any amygdala hijack that might come your way.
All in all, coaching is a powerful tool to allow clients to heighten their awareness around the modern threats that keep them from accomplishing their goals and when their amygdala hijacks their brain. Coaching can help clients to understand they do have control of how their brain reacts and that they can reshape their neural pathways over time by forming new habits and responses to threatening stimuli. Breathing, mindfulness, Secular Buddhist concepts, and self-compassion are all tools a coach can utilize and teach the client to overcome the stories they tell about themselves and reshape their narratives. These tools can allow a client to find true acceptance of self and who they are including the emotions, reactions, and thoughts they might have at any given time and in turn, empower them to choose their own narratives. Changing our neural pathways takes time and re-shaping our habits can take 2 months to become an automatic habit. Coaching is the starting point and a great way to provide accountability during these critical habit-changing moments. Change is hard, but nothing worth doing is easy.