October 14, 2021

In the last edition of The Wire, we talked about “brain freeze.” We said that when we face abnormally profound emotional spikes we may experience an “amygdala hijack,” a phenomenon where our brain shifts so significantly towards its emotional processing centre that we go “blank” in our frontal cortex (the logical centre). We considered two significant reasons why this happens:

  • Conscious/subconscious fear that one of the unique, individualised pillars of our self-esteem is at risk, and
  • A reminder (trigger) of past emotional trauma.

In this edition, I’d like to share a few thoughts of action steps we can take to mitigate brain freeze both before and when brain freeze hits.

1.  Know why brain freeze happens

First, as odd as it may sound, being aware of what’s happening to you in the middle of a brain freeze is surprisingly empowering. When we lack such understanding, we may be hit with the double impact of the causative emotion that provoked the brain freeze as well as by the resulting emotions we feel from experiencing the brain freeze itself.

This is akin to those who struggle to take tests. Coming to a question for which they’ve forgotten the answer, many experience a partial/complete amygdala hijack as a result of the emotion they feel about the potential of negative consequence. But because they now are “unable to think,” they “freak out” even more. The secondary emotion of “freaking out” adds greater emotion to the mix, escalating the brain freeze further.

When we’re in the middle of an amygdala hijack, the name of the game is to de-escalate emotional volume or intensity. If we can understand the neuroscience behind brain freeze, it becomes easier to avoid worsening the situation with additional emotions. Every little bit helps. So, the first step in dealing with brain freeze is to simply be aware of why it happens and to use that knowledge to resist the urge to pour additional emotion into the ecosystem.

2. Know why your brain freeze happens

The next step of addressing brain freeze is to use your own historical data to identify the types of situations which trigger brain freeze for you.

This is important on two accounts.

First, it will help you prepare for potential brain freeze situations in advance.

Second, just as having a greater understanding of the neuroscience behind brain freeze helps us resist adding more emotions into the mix, prior self-awareness of your root causes (triggers) may offer the same benefit. Knowing the “why” behind your unique freeze algorithm not only helps you to be prepared, it empowers you with a greater sense of control because you have a better idea of what is happening. And that, in turn, aids in limiting a secondary emotional response. As we’ve said, by avoiding further escalation of our emotions as a result of the brain freeze, we can address the emotion(s) which caused it.

3.  Consciously dial the emotions down

We know that amygdala hijacks happen because of emotional spikes. So, the key is to find a way to dial the emotions down.

What works for each individual varies, but the core principle is that we need to find a way to reduce the intensity of our emotions to regain access to our frontal cortex as quickly as possible.

In my coaching conversations with executive leaders struggling with brain freeze, I’ve seen a variety of strategies work for different people, but here are a few to help you get started:

  • Take a deep breath with the conscious intent of calming down.
  • If you have clarity on why the emotions are spiking (see #2 above), you may be able to quickly “talk yourself down” with a quick internal conversation such as, “Mike, you’re having a brain freeze because you tend to get triggered in very high stakes meetings. Calm down. You can do this.”
  • I’ve seen the age-old adage of “counting to 10” work well for several clients simply because it provides a few seconds (time) for the emotions to dissipate.
  • If you’re working in team, there are additional options. If/when brain freeze hits, if you can quickly pass the conversation over to a teammate (e.g., “I think Tom is best equipped to answer that question.”), you can buy yourself the time you need to pull yourself together.

Have you ever experienced brain freeze?

If you think back to that/those case(s), what do you think triggered it/them?

Looking forward, what strategies would you like to try as an experiment to manage “brain freeze” in the future?

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