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Dealing with Emotional Hijacking During Crisis

“Emotional hijacking” occurs when stress builds in our daily lives which is happening in record numbers. Fortunately, there are ways to handle, and yes, even prevent it.

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Emotional Hijacking

“Denial of our emotions isn’t the only danger we face when we rely too heavily on our left brain. We can also become too literal, leaving us without a sense of perspective, where we miss the meaning that comes from putting things in context (a specialty of the right brain).”

– Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry ,UCLA School of Medicine 

An article published in 2016 in the Harvard Business Review cited the influence of emotions on employee performance, and ultimately, its effect on a company’s bottom line.   More than four years later – in the midst of a global pandemic – we experience and witness just how emotions impact our ability to be effective leaders at home and at work.   

Where I live, we are currently experiencing a regression from what we thought was success in defeating Covid-19 to a daily increase in the number of cases and changing restrictions. This complete turnaround is taking an emotional toll on the country and its residents. 

 “Emotional hijacking” occurs when stress builds in our daily lives and unfortunately, we are faced with a few hard, unpleasant facts as a result. Sadly, around the world we are seeing:

  • A measurable increase in violence and domestic abuse since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • An increase in drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other, more socially acceptable addictions, as people try to numb their feelings
  • Lack of social interaction, economic hardship and general unease triggering fear, worry and panic, and at minimum, a sense of instability.

On a more positive note, we are seeing people: 

  • Generously giving of themselves and their resources
  • Connecting to one another around the world with social media and the internet
  • Using this time to advance themselves both personally and professionally with all kinds of free online courses  Emerging as incredible leaders in their communities, companies, and at home

To support these positive trends and encourage more leaders to step forward, I am going to share a few tips on how to deal with “emotional hijacking,” especially as it relates to leadership.  Ask yourself what you can do on a personal level so that your company, community, family, or even you yourself can use your emotions effectively?  

Why is this important?   When it comes to leadership, we tend to focus on official titles and job status.  But the truth is,  each of us is already a leader.  You may not recognize it, but you are certainly the leader of your own life. I strongly believe this is where great leadership begins. 

To continue being a  great leader,  you have to consistently step outside of your comfort zone, and the ability to overcome emotional hijacking is definitely outside of one’s comfort zone! 

What is emotional hijacking?

Emotional hijacking is a term coined by Daniel Goleman, as part of his theory of emotional intelligence.  It describes a person’s inability to function rationally when the amygdala, the brain’s emotional processor, overpowers or bypasses normal reasoning.  This process can last for as little as a nanosecond, and sadly, as long as an entire lifetime. 

Emotional hijacking occurs when I want to lose weight and I know that I need to, but my emotions tell me it’s too hard, so I eat cake. It can happen when your spouse comes home (you worked all day cleaning the house and making a nice dinner and are looking for some acknowledgment), and asks “what’s for dinner” and you start yelling at him/her.  It is also what happens when your child acts up in the supermarket and you start to cry; or when your boss gives you negative feedback and you start an argument. 

 In general terms, emotional hijacking happens when:

  1. You react rather than respond
  2. You  lose the big picture
  3. Your emotions interfere with your ability to make solid decisions.

How do I deal with it in the moment?

Dealing with emotional hijacking is challenging when we’re talking about losing control of our rational abilities.  There are a few things we can do to deal with it in the moment. Emotional hijacking is almost always accompanied by physical sensations in the body. I might feel tightness in my chest, change in body temperature, dizziness, or butterflies in my stomach. As an experienced leader, you’ll be able to notice these sensations and understand that you’re being hijacked and that you need to buy yourself some time before you respond.  A skilled leader will be able to excuse themselves to get a glass of water, or feel their emotion, and put it aside to process later. They may be able to use quick “release” tools, such as conscious breathing or forgiveness, and continue with the conversation. 

 When we are really triggered and our fight-or-flight-or-freeze reflex is activated, we will most likely make very emotional decisions. During these Covid-19 times,  our fight-flight-or-freeze reflex is activated easily, hence people make unwise decisions such as not wearing a mask and ignoring other safety precautions (“Nobody is telling me what to do!”) What do I do after it happens?

Dealing with the aftermath of emotional hijacking is often difficult. We can make it easier on ourselves by admitting that it happened and being willing to clean up the subsequent mess. I usually recommend taking a moment to analyze and understand the cause and the process in order to gain clarity, altitude, and completion.  

I use a simple six-step method for this.

  1. Admit it.  Yes, it happened – I got triggered.  This is the first hurdle.   
  2. Explore it.  What happened?  Be specific. 
  3. Identify it.  Name the emotions you were feeling.  If you can’t, guess.
  4. Own it.  Take responsibility for your feelings.  Don’t blame the other person.  You created the emotions.  
  5. Direct it.  Decide what you want to focus on.
  6. Resolve it.   Analyze your reaction and create an action plan to avoid further recurrences. Strategize. If this is serious you may want to work with a coach.

How do we prevent it?

Preventing emotional hijacking is the most powerful step to take as a leader. You must be willing to be open and vulnerable and look at beliefs that limit you, as well as areas where you still carry some hurt.  Conventional leadership theories often avoid mentioning the connection between emotional hijacking and hurts of the past. But research shows that emotions are biochemical chain reactions that are deeply embedded in our consciousness and are patterned around events that happened early in our childhood. If I grow up believing that I am not smart or incapable of taking on big challenges, it will be easy for me to get triggered when somebody calls me stupid, incapable, or weak. It’s similar to  Pavlov’s famous experiment conditioning his dogs to salivate. As human beings, we’ve conditioned ourselves to have certain responses. Some work for us and others are very ineffective.

In my 20+ years as a Neuro Emotional coach helping people rewire their beliefs and emotional patterning, I have personally seen hundreds of clients experience a difference when they neutralized old beliefs and replaced them with positive new beliefs.  

Especially now, during these corona times, it is extremely important to take care of ourselves, slow down and get more rest, so that we are less susceptible to being triggered.  Countless articles and platforms talk about our need for sleep, a healthy diet, abstaining from the news, mindfulness, meditation or prayer, and as much positive self-talk as possible. I strongly encourage and recommend all of these things.  The tips and techniques I described above are all helpful, but our best coping strategy is always proper self-care. 

This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel.

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