Beat the Hijackers

In installment five of this blog series we learned the most important tool for keeping the brain safe from hijackers.


In this installment, we will learn four more strategies for beating the hijackers. All of these strategies will be much easier if you have been spending sometime practicing the breathing exercises discussed in installment five of the blog series. For managers and change leaders these strategies can be added into communication patterns and the vocabulary of change. Examples will be given below.

Strategies for Beating the Hijackers

Name the Feeling or Thought:

As a child Belinda would often have nightmares. She would run into her parents’ bedroom weeping inconsolably. Her parents would ask, what’s wrong ? What was in your dream that bothered you?

“I don’t know” she would sob.

“What did it look like?” Mom would ask.

“Umm, a big squirrel! It tried to attack me!”

“Are you afraid of being attacked by a squirrel?” Dad would ask.

“Of course not!” Belinda would say as she marched strongly back to bed.

As an adult, when Belinda was at work, she would often feel stressed by situations or interactions with people. But the tools her parents gave her worked well. Belinda would ask herself “are you really afraid that if you make an error on this report you will get fired?” When the answer was no, the stress was reduced. When Belinda asked herself if she was afraid of her boss Pierre, her answer was again no. She was then able to speak comfortably with him.

Putting a name on the emotion being felt – in all of these cases fear, AND naming the subject causing the emotion are great ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Managers and change leaders can also use this skill. Instead of vaguely alluding to the elephant in the room, call out the emotion and the reason for its existence. At a higher level this strategy can be used to reduce the stress of arguments as well. Next time you are arguing stop to think, is this argument about something tangible, or something emotional. It is likely emotional. That emotion can be defused simply by stopping, and saying to the person with whom you are arguing;

“When I hear you say X, it makes me feel Y, which is a feeling I really don’t like to feel.” Naming your feelings to someone with whom you are arguing takes a lot of strength. Maybe you are not there yet. But start by naming the feelings and the cause of those feelings to yourself. It will reduce your stress and keep a brain hijacker at bay. For mangers and change leaders using this skill means opening yourself to those around you. Honestly telling those who you are leading that something is off- putting can be seen by some as a sign of weakness, but showing vulnerability, and working through it publicly, is the ultimate sign of strength.

Take a Break

Brilliant ideas come to people all the time; often in the shower, or in dreams, or when exercising. Why is that? It turns out there is multiple cognitive stages to brilliant ideas. They are:

Stage 1: Preparation which involves trying to learn. The brain uses attention, reasoning and planning to gather information which is used for later use.

Stage 2: Incubation is the process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at various points in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time. Incubation effects, particularly those that occur during sleep, are associated with the mechanisms whereby people’s experiences are consolidated into memory. This consolidation can result in enhanced performance with tasks and/or associative learnings that occur as overlapping neural networks that fire in the brain’s memory management process.

Stage 3: Illumination is the name for the moment when unconscienced recombination from Stage 2 automatically and subconsciously collide, then reach the threshold of consciousness. Associations between problems and pieces and parts of knowledge are joined together to make a new summation of knowledge.

Taking a break during times of change related stress works in a similar fashion. The stimulation to the brain is removed. This allows cortisol to give way to the prefrontal cortex for logically analyzing the situation or scenario. Taking a quick five minute break from a stressful situation especially when combined with one of the breathing exercises is a great way to calm down, beat the hijacker and start thinking again. For managers and leaders of change this technique can be highly effective:

  • First state compelling reasons for the change so that people can become aware.
  • Let that awareness marinate for a time, so the mind of colleagues can begin to envision a desirable future with the change in place.
  • Then begin to describe the nuts and bolts of how the change will be executed.

All too often managers will try to make a change happen by saying, in effect, we will now do X in the Y way. This autocratic approach may work with easy tasks in certain environments but will fall short when implementing complex changes among professionals.

Get in Touch with Yourself:

There is a story that Jack Nicolas (world famous, multi-time golf champion) in times of stress and anxiety on the golf course would wiggle his pinky toe insidethis shoe. The contact of the toe with the shoe and presumable other toes calmed him greatly. The Mayo Clinic describes reflexology as the application of pressure to areas on the feet, hands, and ears. While the science behind reflexology is not proven or understood, there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest reflexology could be a way to alleviate stress.

Adherents of reflexology say that by pressing parts of one hand with the fingers of the other one soon experiences relief from intermittent stressors. Likewise, reflexology practitioners say pressure on and around the thumbs will help combat emotions like anxiety and worry. Pressure on the index fingers can help combat feelings of fear, and probing points around the pinky fingers will help to increase optimism and self-confidence, as well as reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. As mentioned above the science behind reflexology is not proven. But one could imagine that if the stressed individual is mindful enough of the stressor and goes through the logic of identifying that emotion, then takes some sort of physical action, those acts alone, even if they provide no further therapeutic action, would start the reduction of brain activity. Therefore, it would be a reasonable tool for keeping the brain safe from hijackers. For managers and change leaders this technique could be useful for self-relaxation so that internal stress is not as easily seen by colleagues and subordinates.

Nobody believes a stressed out change leader.

Imagery — Get in a Happy Place

The totality of our day to day experiences are interpreted based on or influenced by personal feelings, past experiences, tastes, or opinions. In other words, we create subjective representations of our experience. These experiences are often stored complete with sounds, smells, tastes, tactile feelings, images, and words. For example, you can close your eyes and:

  • Taste a delicious meal you have had in the past.
  • Hear (and shutter from ) the sounds of an annoying alarm clock.
  • Smell the odor of fresh baked bread, cookies or pie.
  • Feel the coolness of bedsheets as you slide into bed.

Controlling internal stress through imagery techniques can be thought of as a form of guided meditation. Most guided meditations have the goal to detach the mind from preoccupation or fixation. The purpose is to cultivate a relaxed detachment from which to watch, but not become fixated by the various sensations and thoughts streaming through the mind. Visualization for the purpose of stress reduction uses a similar method. It works to focus the mind on a pleasing past experience that will hopefully immediately and significantly reduce the stress caused by a current sensation.

Visualization techniques involve the systematic practice of creating a detailed mental image of an attractive and peaceful setting or environment (a happy place) where one can “go” to release stress. The aim of the systematic practice is to train the mind to easily go to the happy place where it can associate sensations of calm and relaxation with peaceful mental images. Then during times of stress the imagery can be brought forward to quickly bring the mind back to the physical sensations of calm and relaxation.

The previous technique, “Taking a Break” involved an element of distraction serving to redirect attention away from stressors. Visualization builds upon that, but goes a step further to distract away from the stressor. This achieves an alternative focus that is calming and relaxing. The technique is essentially a suggestion to the unconscious mind to act as though the peaceful and safe image is real thus relaxing the body and eliminating the brain hijackers.

The following steps are suggested:

  • Go to a distraction free room or place.
  • Close the eyes.
  • Take several deep abdominal breaths.
  • Focus the mind on the breathing to relax.
  • Then focus on the different sensory attributes present, the happy place, to make it more vivid in the mind. For example, if the happy place is in the woods, vividly imagine the light of the sun filtering through the leaves of the trees, feel the alternating heat and coolness of that sunlight on the skin, smell the bouquet of the living plants as it mingles with that of the decaying matter below the feet, hear the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, the sound of the breeze itself and nearby birds and animals. The more the senses are invoked the more vivid the image will become and the more real it will become in the mind.
  • While learning to get to the happy place remain within the visualization, exploring its various sensory aspects for five to ten minutes until relaxation sets in.
  • While relaxed, make an assurance that coming back to the happy place can occur easily and as often as desired or needed.
  • Open the eyes, take a breath and reenter the world.

After the mind gets to know the happy place in full detail through many visits, one can take “quick trips” to the happy place as needed to combat acute stress and trick the brain hijackers. For managers and change leaders this strategy will include adding colorful, peaceful imagery to the language used to describe change. When speaking about the change:

  • Set the stage for change in positive terms. Envision and describe a soothing end state that everyone can honestly see themselves engaged in.
  • Use the same imagery to build desire for the change.
  • Keep the image alive and build upon it; allowing people to work and behave in the newly changed environment.

We hope you have enjoyed this six-part blog series on “Tricks for Keeping the “NO!” Response from Hijacking the Brain”. Stressors are a part of every life. But with practice, applying the techniques described in parts five and six of this series can help to remediate stress and banish the brain hijackers. If the brain hijackers are making too many “no” responses as change occurs Expressworks can help.

This blog post is part of a six-part series:

  1. Have You Ever Heard…?
  2. A Little Neuroscience
  3. That Can’t Be Healthy
  4. Meet the Hijackers
  5. Beat the Hijackers
  6. Strategies for Beating the Hijackers