September 29, 2021

When I was a kid, we used to play a game called “Freeze Tag.” Whoever was declared “It” would run around making every effort to “Tag” or make physical contact with the rest of us. If we were touched, we had to “freeze” in place until the “It” person “froze” all of us or until an unfrozen friend managed to touch us (without getting caught) and set us free from being “frozen.”

In our professional and personal lives, we play a form of “Freeze Tag” as well. But this one is not as much fun.

We have psychological or emotional triggers which “freeze” us in our mental or emotional tracks until our emotions eventually pass and we are released from being frozen. The contexts for our “freezes” tend to vary from person to person. For some, we freeze when we have to present to extremely senior people. For others, it’s the personality type (e.g., aggressive) of the audience. And yet for others, it’s the number of people in the room.

Many times, these triggers are polychromatic. We do not freeze when singular variables present themselves in isolation, but we find ourselves “touched” when a specific array hits us all at the same time. For example, a person might be fine with extremely senior people, but when they face an extremely senior person (variable 1) who is highly aggressive (variable 2) and who has greater subject matter knowledge than they do (variable 3), they become unravelled and “freeze.” The possibilities are endless. I coached one leader who only froze when he faced senior leaders (variable 1) of a specific ethnicity (variable 2) who spoke either with an American or British accent (variable 3).

What in the world is going on when we freeze?

At a high level, we know from the field of emotional intelligence that whenever we face extraordinary spikes in emotion, the logical part of our brain (frontal cortex) can be “hijacked” by the emotional part of our brain (amygdala) creating what some call an “amygdala hijack.” In general, whenever we experience moderate to high levels of emotion, we progressively transition from functioning more rationally towards functionally more emotionally. Sometimes, the emotional impetus is so great that it seems like the logical part of our brain goes completely blank. I call these moments “brain freeze.”

What types of things cause that level of emotional spike? There are at least two to start.

The first place these extraordinary emotions come from traces back to the unique origins of our individualised confidence. In my book Confidence at the Core, I explain how the roots of confidence are highly individualistic. When we face a trigger context that drills to the very centre(s) from which we derive our confidence, it’s like an emotional root canal! So, when we perceive (consciously or subconsciously) that our self-esteem itself is at risk, it can cause such an extreme flood of emotion that we experience a brain freeze-inducing hijack.

The second place such exceptionally strong emotions originate is trauma from our past. Think of your trauma (whether remembered or not) as a wound that, while partially healed, is still sensitive. It makes sense, then, that when these wounds are “touched” by situations, personalities, or contexts that remind us of the things which originally hurt us, those wounds can be subconsciously triggered. Many times, without our permission, we find ourselves frozen “for no good reason” because we are unable to connect the dots between our present context and the trauma from our past which is being triggered.

Have you ever experienced a “brain freeze?”

If so, what do you think could have been or could be your specific trigger(s)?

Stay tuned for the next instalment of The Wire to learn more about what to do when brain freeze hits.

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