We all have done it at one time or another. I have done it many more times than I care to admit. I am talking about letting yourself get emotionally hijacked. Out of the blue, someone makes a callous comment that just gets under your skin and will not get out of your head or you get caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic when you are already running late for an important appointment or despite your meticulous planning, the first flight on your trip gets delayed which, like dominoes, messes up your connecting flight, your arrival, your transportation and your dinner plans.
Your heart starts pounding, you start sweating, and can feel yourself getting that “aack!” feeling. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, calls this “getting hooked.” In the article How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked, she says:
The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated ‘attachment,’ but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.
There is a biological reason for this hooked feeling. The amygdala, a primitive part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response, is just kicking in and doing its job. However, in this day, we are highly unlikely to encounter a life or death situation, and it does not need to be so vigilant.
Mother nature was kind enough to program the amygdala to ensure our survival. Babies come into the world with certain innate fears: snakes, spiders, heights, darkness, sudden loud noises, and closed-in spaces. Over our lives, we add many more fears which we learn from the people in our lives and our experiences.
Through repeated, habitual responses and behaviors, the pathways in the brain which keep the amygdala hyper aware are reinforced to produce fear and anxiety. (Mine used to be on red alert all the time.) When very anxious, with the amygdala fully engaged, this emotional response can even bypass the “thinking brain” causing rational thinking to be very difficult if not impossible.
OK, so you get hooked. What now?
What you do next determines how the rest of the story goes and whether you allow yourself to get hijacked or not. A person can react unconsciously and habitually to that hooked feeling with agitation, anger, and anxiety, which I will tell you from personal experience can make a situation go from bad to worse very quickly. This practice also further reinforces the fear and anxiety pathways in the brain giving the amygdala the equivalent of a high-five.
Alternatively, a person can choose to acknowledge and accept that they are hooked. Feel the uneasy feelings. Breathe. Then, recognize that the situation to be just another ordinary occurrence in everyday life. Come fully into the present moment. Recognize that you are not the first person this has ever happened to and that things are and can still be OK.
The situation, then, becomes a tool with which to work for your growth and learning. This choice etches and reinforces the anti-anxiety pathways in the brain and calms the amygdala. I guarantee you that it will also make the experience much more pleasant…maybe even enjoyable. It could happen. It does not change the circumstances one bit, but it does change the way you experience them.
For example, just the other day, I got an email from my ex-husband that politely demanded, based on a legal premise, that I do something which involved reviewing and revising my taxes for the past seven years. Not a small undertaking at all to say the least. Instead of going into orbit, as I would have done a few years ago, I told myself that I was not going to let this hijack my mood or my day. I was going to use the situation as a learning experience for being aware and consciously choosing my response and behavior. So, I sent an inquiring message to my lawyer and proceeded to go about my morning as usual. No sooner than I had decided this, within the hour, I got a reply from my lawyer (a remarkable feat in itself!) telling me that the legal basis for doing this which had been cited wasn’t correct.
Whenever you let something hook and hijack you, it’s a nonproductive use of your time and energy and reinforces the stress pathways in your brain creating stress conditions in your body. By being present and aware and choosing to react consciously and calmly you can change your brain and life for the better.
image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/msakr/