Think of any moment in your life when you were worried, anxious, frustrated or angry about something and suddenly found that you couldn’t think straight. You may even have found that your mind went completely blank. Perhaps it happened in an exam, or during a presentation or when you were speaking to someone you’d hoped to impress.
This frustrating experience of going blank when you least want to, is called emotional hi-jacking. We call it that because your brain has been hi-jacked by your emotions, shutting down your ability to think.
It may seem odd that our ability to think can be shut down in this way, but it’s simply the result of the way our brains work. The inability to think when you’re stressed or upset, is just biology. So what exactly is the process that causes this?
In simplified terms, there is a part of our brain called the amygdala (we actually have 2 of them on either side of our brain). Among other things, the amygdala is responsible for controlling our feelings of fear, which it produces when we are in danger. It can help to think about it as the brain’s security officer – scanning the environment and our own internal thoughts and systems for signs that we are under threat. When it picks up the presence of risk, it triggers what we call the fight, flight, freeze response. This sends blood pumping to our muscles, heightens our senses and prepares us to run away or defend ourselves (Le Doux, 1996 ).
As part of this response, it shuts down the parts of our brain that we use for our complex thinking. This is a sensible evolutionary response. Complex thinking takes time and interferes with automatic responses. In a dangerous situation, this delay could be the difference between surviving and not.
However, our perception of threat is not always accurate or helpful. An exam isn’t really a threat to you – and it really doesn’t help if your ability to think complex thoughts and remember what you’ve learned gets shut down.
You may also have this experience when working on your PGR project. If you are feeling stressed, your ability to focus, think clearly, link new learning to old learning, problem solve, be creative and remember will be impaired. You may also find that you become more rigid in your thinking – everything will either be perfect or awful, nuance will disappear. We call this black and white thinking and it’s a sure sign that you are being emotionally hi-jacked.
Thankfully, we also know how to end an emotional hi-jack and get your brain functioning again. The key is to reduce the emotional arousal, relax and then refocus on what you need to do.
The easiest way to do this is by changing your breathing (if breathing exercises don’t work for you, try one of the alternatives below). You can find a breathing exercise here – 7/11 breathing.
Other Ways to Reset your System
- Sit comfortably in a chair and focus on the feel of your back against the back of the chair and your feet planted on the floor. Then, starting at your ankles, slowly work your way up your body, tensing up each muscle and then allowing it to relax. Notice how as you move up your body, you become more relaxed overall.
- Take a break from your desk and go outside. If possible, find some greenery and take a moment to focus your attention on some aspect of nature. You may observe a bird or squirrel – pay close attention to what they are doing and why. The colours of their coats. Notice as much detail as you can. Or you may wish to focus on a tree or bush- noticing the details of the leaves or branches or the pattern on its trunk. Spending time engaged with nature in this way gives your wellbeing a powerful boost and can help you return to calm.
- Take a walk at a brisk pace. Exercise can help reduce stress and there is a mountain of literature about writers, artists and researchers who made break throughs while walking.