I’m writing this week’s Wellness Wednesday on a flight from Portland to Minneapolis. As we were about to take off, I remembered a flight I took with my mother some years ago. It was a beautiful March day. As we headed down the runway, I looked at mom sitting next to me. Her eyes were closed, she had a tight grip on the arm rests, and I think she was praying. I watched her for two minutes as the plane smoothly took off. When she opened her eyes, I said, “Mom, how was that?”

She responded, “Sometimes airplanes crash.”

If you are heading down a runway thinking that sometimes airplanes crash, you’re going to be filled with worry, anxiety, and stress. Knowing that we were going to land in Dallas, take another flight to our final destination, and have two more flights on our return trip to Minnesota, I was concerned that my mother wouldn’t make it home.

After landing in Dallas and boarding our next flight, I said to mom, “Tell me about the time you and dad took the grandkids to Disney World.”

As she recalled this trip and shared the wonderful experience she, dad, and the kids had, the plane headed down the runway and took off. Once in the sky, I said, “Mom, how was that?”

“That was fine,” she said.

What my mother experienced during the first take off was amygdala hijacking, which occurs when our amygdala responds to stress and disables our frontal lobes. This activates the fight-or-flight response and disables rational, reasoned responses. In other words, the amygdala “hijacks” control of our brain and our responses.

I experienced amygdala hijacking while coaching a high school basketball team. When the referee didn’t call a foul on an opposing player that I thought he should have, my amygdala took over. I yelled at the ref, threw my jacket, and was given a technical foul.

We can prevent such hijacking and gain control over our brain’s irrational emotional reactions by slowing down, taking deep breaths, and refocusing our thoughts. (Thinking about taking the grandkids to Disney World rather than airplanes crashing.) These steps allow our brain’s frontal lobes to take over for the irrational amygdala. When this happens, we have control over our responses and won’t feel regret or embarrassment for our behavior. (Instead of screaming and throwing my jacket, I would have said to my assistant coach, “I think the referee missed that call.”)

Does our amygdala respond to reality or to our perception of reality? The two plane takeoffs were exactly alike, but the experiences mom had were completely different. Those differences had nothing to do with the airplane or the outside conditions we were experiencing. They had everything to do with mom’s thinking. How we perceive or think about situations and events produces the response in our bodies that we call stress.

Identify a time when you experienced amygdala hijacking. Did this occur because of reality or because of your perception of reality? Next time you are experiencing anxiety or stress, ask yourself if those feelings are coming from external reality or your thoughts or perception of external reality. Chances are the anxiety or stress stems from what’s going on between your ears. If so, take some deep breaths and refocus your thinking.

From our Top 20 team…Kevin Brennan, Willow Sweeney, and Tom Cody…who help keep my amygdala in check.

Paul Bernabei
Top 20 Training