Knowing a little bit about the brain and the mind helps us to put fears into perspective. When we realise what’s happening inside out heads, we can lower the red alert signals, and minimise the what-ifs and disaster movies that take over our thoughts.
There is a gate keeper in the brain called the thalamus. When we’re calm and all is well, the thalamus sends signals to the higher parts of the brain (frontal lobes), where decision-making, perception, language and analysis are located. Impulses are also sent to the emotional centres (the amygdala). An appropriate emotional response follows. Our thoughts can be processed, we can express them and we feel fine.
When we’re on a higher alert, the frontal lobes may decide that there isn’t really a threat or that we can cope with the situation. In that case, we feel a little nervous, but we can still think and ride relatively well.
Now to the highest state of alert and alarm. The thalamus decides that there’s no point in sending impulses to the higher thinking centres, we don’t need to ponder and cogitate on getting to safety – we need to escape – right now! This is a great response if there were a real life-threatening event, it would mean we would be acting on instincts; but if we’re riding, it blocks off any logic or well-thought-out strategies. Your memory is also cut off. So, if you were trying to recall a time when you did well in a similar situation, to boost your confidence, that option is now unavailable to you.
If you’ve ever felt this, you’ll know that your mind can’t process very much at all. If someone is relaying instructions to you, they seem distant and you can’t react to what they’re saying. Your response is slower to their advice and that’s because you’re about to go into a mode that is swamped with emotion and fight or flight.
The gatekeeping thalamus diverts the impulses to the emotional centres, the amygdala. These become totally flooded and the fear increases. This causes our brain to turn to the fight or flight response for much-needed help.
You’ll recognise this happening as a time when you can’t think and desperately want to get out of the situation. Remember though, although you may be going through a real threat to your safety, chances are that you’re going through an imagined one. The mind doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination. You can feel very scared, even terrified and in reality, nothing much is happening.
The whole process is known as ‘amygdala hijack’. The emotion centres, the amygdala, hijack rational thought, understanding and memories. In full-blown amygdala hijack, you may act completely out of character, you may go into a rage, snap at someone or break down in tears.
It’s very overwhelming. It’s also very speedy, it takes only 6 seconds to go from zero to hijack.
How do you get out of the amygdala hijack? Be more in the moment
- Movement is a super way to increase levels of feel-good neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. Circle your shoulders as you ride, move your pelvis forwards and back or any other movement you can use whilst mounted.
- Start to be aware of your breathing. Take deep breaths. You could do this in time to the horse’s footfall. In for 4 beats, out for 4 beats.
- Slow everything down. Bring your horse to a halt or walk if possible. To get your rational mind back in gear, tell yourself 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel.
How can you avoid amygdala hijack in the future?
By practising mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation or gratitude, you are increasing your emotional intelligence and self-managing the likelihood of the amygdala taking over. You can also look into your caffeine intake and reduce coffee, tea, energy drinks and even chocolate.
In summary, knowing what’s happening in your brain during an amygdala hijack and knowing one or two ways to deal with it will help you to recover more quickly and easily.
If you think you’re brain is being hijacked in this way, why not book a complimentary call to find out more? Click here.
You can also find free mindfulness, meditations and relaxation recordings here