• What happens to my pension? Cottage? Business?
  • How am I going to get through this?
  • When will I stop feeling sad? Ashamed?
  • How will we split everything?
  • How will we tell the children?
  • What will everyone think?
  • What about the kids?
  • Does it have to be a big court battle?
  • Do we have to sell the house?
  • How am I going to pay the bills?
  • Categories

  • Amygdala Hijack or “I’m Too Angry to Think”

    Have you ever had a client become so angry they couldn’t

    think straight? Or so frightened they just ran away? Or maybe they were frozen
    with fear?

    You may be saying “Seen it? I’ve live it!”

    Me too. We’ve all been there. I remember being so angry the
    hair on my body stood on end and I just wanted to hit somebody. I was incapable of negotiating and just wanted to fight.

    This response is called the Amygdala Hijack. The Amygdala is a part of your brain that protects you when it senses you are under attack or you
    are threatened. It shifts you into “fight, flight or play dead” mode. In fact, it sends hormones to your “rational, thinking” part of the brain so that it
    becomes disconnected. It feels like you can’t think straight for good reason - because your brain won’t let you.

    The rational part of the brain used for making judgements, considering the consequences of decisions, building relationships and thinking rationally is called the Prefrontal Cortex. We need it to negotiate but when your client is suffering from an Amygdala Hijack, the Prefrontal Cortex is shut down.

    As a professional, you can help your client recover from an Amygdala Hijack by taking three steps:

    1) Name the threat. Ask if your client if they feel a threat to their sense of status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness
    or sense of fairness? For a good article explaining these threats go to

    2) Normalize the threat. Let your client know that the way they are feeling is normal.

    3) Diffuse the threat. Offer your client another perspective so that they can see that the threat is not nearly as
    dangerous as they first thought it to be.

    For example, if your client hears that their spouse wants
    full custody of the children with minimal access to your client, they may
    become angry and upset. They may be suffering an Amygdala Hijack. You might
    respond by saying “Are you feeling your status as a parent is threatened?”

    Remember you might have it wrong. Maybe they feel threatened
    by the uncertainty that this news introduces to their life. Maybe they feel
    their sense of autonomy is threatened by their spouse wanting to impose a resolution
    on them. All you can do is offer guesses why your client is feeling threatened
    until you get it right. You’ll know you have the right threat named when it
    resonates with your client.

    Step two is to normalize their feelings by saying something
    like “I totally understand why you are feeling upset and angry. Any of my
    clients hearing this news would be upset. It is totally normal.”

    The last step is to help diffuse the threat. You might say
    “Just because your spouse wants sole custody does not mean that that’s how this
    issue will be resolved. You will have a chance to put your position forward and
    we will discuss it. Together, we will find a resolution that works for both of
    you and is best for your children. We can work it out.”

    Amygdala Hijacks happen all the time. They may happen at
    four or five way meetings, when you are meeting with your client alone and
    especially when the clients are together without professionals present. Even
    you, the seasoned professional, might be triggered during the Collaborative
    Process and suffer an Amygdala Hijack. They are a fact of life especially when
    clients’ lives are turned upside down by divorce. Educating your client about
    the Amygdala Hijack will help them understand and control their responses to

    Using the three step process I described earlier will enable
    you to help support your client through a hijack. Give it try…before the fists
    start flying.

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