The days around Halloween are a good time to talk about fear and how it affects our behavior. Fear always limits our responses and shapes our risk aversion.
Fear management is, and always has been, a matter of survival. 30,000 years ago, humans were surrounded by many dangers. Risk-takers were less likely to survive. Cowards survived and passed on their genes.
That’s why we’re naturally designed to avoid risks that could ultimately put us in danger, whether real or perceived.
The amygdala hijacking
The action of fear in our brains deserves a few words. When we’re scared, our little friend the amygdala takes over. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, located near the base of the brain, and is involved in emotion, memory, and the fight-or-flight response.
When the amygdala interprets an external stimulus as potentially dangerous, it activates a process designed to protect us from external threats (the fight-or-flight response).
Although the amygdala works automatically, the frontal lobes allow people to process their emotions. The amygdala may activate the fight-or-flight response, but the frontal lobes process the information to determine whether the threat is real or not and what the logical response should be. At times, however, the amygdala overreacts, resulting in what is called amygdala hijacking, which prevents the frontal lobes from taking control and causing an inability to respond rationally to an issue.
Real or perceived threat
When it comes to fear, what we perceive doesn’t always match reality, and yet our amygdala takes over. Perceived threats are based on an individual’s interpretation of a situation, even when we lack concrete evidence. Therefore, our thoughts, beliefs, and prejudices can prevent us from seeing things clearly, which has a significant impact on our emotional well-being.
Recognizing perceived threats as such can help manage unnecessary stress, especially in decision-making processes. The ability to distinguish between perceived and real threats allows for a more nuanced assessment of risk. It enables individuals to consider context, assess the credibility of the perceived threat, and make more informed decisions about whether and how to respond. It also allows us to avoid overreactions and regulate our emotional response.
What are the implications for leadership? Because amygdala hijacking impairs decision-making, when leaders react impulsively to perceived threats, the quality of their decisions will be lower. In addition, persistent amygdala hijacking can undermine trust within a team, as team members may perceive their leader as emotionally unstable, making it difficult to rely on them.
What can be done? Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage emotions effectively. Therefore, developing emotional intelligence skills is key for leaders. When faced with a potential threat, someone with strong emotional regulation can prevent an exaggerated or inappropriate emotional response, reducing the likelihood of amygdala hijacking.
In summary, emotional skills serve as a buffer against amygdala hijacking, facilitating the decision-making process.
Now it’s time to enjoy Halloween fear … 🎃