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Bringing Your Executive Brain Back Online

Since the development of fMRI scanning and the establishment of the fields of Cognitive Neuroscience and Interpersonal Neurobiology, we have been learning more about how the brain works and how this impacts our interactions with ourselves and others – for better or for worse – in both a personal and an organisational setting.

When we are caught off guard or feel angered or threatened, we can go into what is sometimes termed ‘Amygdala Hijack’.

The brain shifts neural resources into those areas that deal with our ‘fight, flee, freeze, faint or appease’ response, leaving our ‘executive brain’ (the pre-frontal cortex) where we do our best thinking, ‘understaffed’. We may be lost for words or feel confused and unable to think properly. In short, we may feel out of control and unable to respond to the situation as well as we would like. This response can take around 20 minutes to dissipate (far too long if we’re in the middle of an important conversation), and the cortisol  (stress hormone) released will remain in our blood stream for up to 26 hours.

I have created the following 4-step process to deal with Amygdala Hijack, based on scientific evidence on how we can move neural resources back into the upper portion of our brain. This can be used in to halt the hijack and bring the executive brain back online in just 60 seconds. It is one of a number of tools we use to enhance what we call the ‘Interactional Intelligence’ of individuals and organisations.

1. Take 3 deep, slow breaths, expanding your stomach as you do so, thereby engaging your parasympathetic nervous system. This automatically dampens down the stress response from the sympathetic nervous system and reduces the amount of adrenaline and cortisol being discharged into your body and brain.

2. Name the emotion you are feeling.  The process of naming the emotion will return some neural resources to your pre-frontal cortex, so that you can start to work on the issue you are facing.

3. Identify where you are experiencing the emotion in your body without judgement.  When we resist emotions and sensations they tend to persist. When we notice and accept them without criticism or judgement, they dissipate much more quickly.

4. Ask yourself how you would handle this situation if you were being your ‘best self’; when you are dealing with things well, what qualities do you engage, and how can you use these right now in this moment?

We recommend that leaders and managers become adept at managing their own threat responses, and at recognising when it’s  happening in those they are leading; many of the serious issues we encounter within organisations could be avoided in the first place, with the application of this simple tool at an individual and interpersonal level.

Pivotal Moment

Pivotal Moment specialises in the ‘Interactional Intelligence’ of leaders and organisations; this lies at the heart of the strength of our relationships and communication with ourselves, our colleagues, partners, stakeholders and customers. It is, therefore, the key determinant in how well any individual and organisation will perform.  Grounded in cutting edge neuroscience, Pivotal’s interventions are transformative for performance and culture, positively and measurably impacting any individual or organisation’s ability to carry out its mission.

Pivotal Moment provides significant numbers of pro-bono and ‘scholarship’ coaching programmes each year to young entrepreneurs and start-ups not yet able to fund high quality performance development support, to help them grow themselves, their teams and their businesses. More on the company can be found at:

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