Amygdala Hijack and Feedback

I have asked this question to participants in feedback skills workshops multiple times over: when somebody walks up to you and says “Hey, do you have a minute? I have some feedback to share,” how do you feel? And the most common answer I have received is nervous. Why? Why nervous?

The answer lies in an amygdala hijack.

Amygdala is a tiny structure in the brain but it plays a central role in regards to emotions. It is well connected to various parts of the brain and receives visual, auditory, somatosensory, and olfactory information among other inputs. It sort of assesses all stimuli and communicates with other areas to produce required emotional responses.

What has this got to do with people feeling nervous during a feedback conversation? The autonomous nervous system generates physical responses that are peculiar to a phobic situation: dilating of pupils, faster heart beats, hyperventilating, feeling nauseated, losing appetite, dilating of vessels supplying blood to muscles, etc. The thalamus gets this information and sends it to the sensory cortex and to the amygdala for processing. The sensory cortex route is the accurate route but it’s slow. The transit via amygdala is quick and dirty because as the amygdala gets this sensory information, it quickly assesses it for emotional content and decides the appropriate action, sending signals to appropriate body parts to act accordingly.  

How does the amygdala process fear? It contains various nuclei that generate different kinds of responses to fear. When we experience freezing in the face of fear, it’s the central nucleus at play. When we decide that flight is the right response, it’s the basal nucleus making us do it. Signals from the amygdala are used by the hypothalamus to trigger hormonal changes that lead to responses like increased heart rate and muscle contraction in order to get the body ready for fight when required.

Therefore, the amygdala is essentially managing our responses to fear. But that doesn’t answer why we fear feedback. Right?

The amygdala stores good and bad memories, particularly experiences that are emotionally traumatic. It is also hardwired to fear certain stimuli such as low flying birds, spiders and snakes. At work, how many times are we threatened by these hardwired stimuli? Rarely unless you are working outdoors, particularly in natural environments. What are the counterparts of spiders and snakes in the workplace? Feedback! Getting developmental feedback particularly can make you feel unsafe because it might make you feel rejected in a sense. Social rejection is processed in the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. That means the brain doesn’t distinguish between physical and social pain. A pain stimulus will generate fear response in the body – quickened heart rate, sweating, etc. The amygdala processes that as unsafe and gets the body ready for the hardwired responses – fight, flight, freeze. That’s why the amygdala is the “quick and dirty” route.

We really need to respond to developmental feedback as a growth opportunity. The question this begs it if the amygdala can rewire some of these responses. Good news is that it can learn to reduce its reaction to a stimulus! For example, when the hippocampus generates oxytocin, a pleasure inducing hormone, it slows down the activity in the amygdala. That’s why we say, feedback is a gift. When somebody approaches you with feedback, get ready to accept that as a gift. Receiving a gift makes us feel happy. If we retrain amygdala to assess receiving developmental feedback as a happy moment, it will relax and let the prefrontal cortex manage the situation, which will be a more logical, thoughtful response.

Therefore, next time, when somebody approaches you and says “Hey, I have some feedback for you,” smile broadly and say “Thank you!”


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