How to Prevent Emotional Hijacking

Guilt Ridden Glasses

The emcee speaks your name. Your heart begins to pound, you break out in a cold sweat, and you can’t catch your breath. Even as you approach him, your brain is casting about for a means of escape from this horrible fate. You shake his hand and imagine that he winces from the clamminess of it. You try to speak, but your mouth is so dry that even if you could think of what to say, you couldn’t manage more than a croak.

If this is how you feel when you are called upon to speak in public, you are not alone. Research indicates that public speaking is the number one fear among adults.  Three out of four adults are terrified to speak in public. This fear holds them back in their careers and their personal life.

If you haven’t discovered Toastmasters yet, then you are missing the opportunity to face your fear in a safe and supportive environment where there is no such thing as failure. Toastmasters International makes the audacious claim that while they can’t get rid of your butterflies, they can help you teach them to fly in formation. They have done just that for over 4 million people using a proven structure and program to help people overcome their fear of speaking in public.

As much as I enjoy and appreciate the brilliance of the Toastmasters program, I’ve found that it is missing one critical piece of information. As a mentor, this is something I share with my protégés to help them get past the hurdle of their first Table Topic and their Ice Breaker.

 Why You Panic

Back in the days of cave men and saber tooth tigers, the human brain wasn’t very sophisticated. It couldn’t do calculus, remember phone numbers, innumerable Internet logins and passwords, or even plan a 5 to 7 minute speech. The cave man’s brain was highly adapted for one thing, and one thing only: survival. When the cave man saw a saber tooth tiger, instantaneously, a tiny little portion of the brain called the amygdala (pronounced ah-mig’-dah-lah) jumped into action. It ordered the body to pump out adrenalin, causing the heart to beat faster to get blood out to the muscles so that the cave man became stronger and faster so that he could survive the tiger attack.

Because the amygdala helped the cave man survive, it remained as the brain grew and evolved. Today, it’s rare that we face an extreme emergency that requires the amygdale to spring into action, but it does so nevertheless. You’ve probably heard it called the “fight or flight response.” Road rage is one example of an out-of-control amygdala response to modern stress (fight). Feeling panicked at the lectern is another (flight). Cognitive scientists have another phrase for it: “emotional hijacking.”

What happens in emotional hijacking is simple. At any given time during the day, our thoughts are controlling how we feel. Those thoughts are located in the frontal cortex, a part of the brain that wasn’t very well developed in our cave man ancestors. Then suddenly, a threatening or stressful situation pops up. The amygdala wakes up, pushes the logical cortex out of the picture, and takes over. It hijacks control of your brain and your body by ordering the pumping out of the chemicals that create the fight or flight reaction. Once you’ve been hijacked, it’s very difficult to get back under control. It’s much easier to prevent the hijacking in the first place.

 How to Prevent the Emotional Hijacking

Practice the following steps at home while you are preparing for any situation that will require you to speak in public.

 Step One: Remove the Shame

Emotional hijacking is a completely normal reaction. We all have amygdalas, and we all know that they overreact sometimes. There is nothing to be ashamed embarrassed about. Everyone in your audience has experienced emotional hijacking. They aren’t there to judge you. They are there to support you.

 Step Two: Breathe Slow

There is nothing mystical about the power that breathing has to prevent panic. As you control the rate of your breathing, it sends a subconscious message to the amygdala that there is no need to be stressed. Just breathe deep and slow until you feel any butterflies start to settle down.

Step Three: Use Self-Soothing Self-Talk

Talk to yourself exactly how you would talk to a panicked toddler. You wouldn’t use logical reasoning with a crying three year old. You would just reassure him quietly that he is safe and there is no need to be worried. Think of the amygdala as a panicked toddler. Reassure it that you are completely safe, and that you have everything under control. Keep breathing slowly as you do this.

Step Four: Visualize Success

All audiences want speakers to be successful, because they want to hear a good speech. Visualize yourself standing in front of your audience. They are smiling at you. Feel their support as you see yourself begin to deliver your speech. See how calm you look as you are talking. The speech is flowing smoothly. If you begin to feel anxious as you visualize this, breathe deeply and do some self-soothing self-talk. Then see yourself starting to speak again. Smile. You are in control.

Do this every day, and you will see a difference in your stress level the next time you are called upon to speak. In a speaking situation, should you feel the stirrings of an emotional hijacking, follow steps one through three again to regain control.


Liz Shaw is a Distinguished Toastmaster. Her home club is Twilite Toastmasters in Tempe, Arizona. Liz has been speaking in public since she was four years old. She experienced her first emotional hijacking at age 14 when asked to speak to a crowd of 250 people. She wishes she knew then what she knows now about that pesky amygdala. Visit Liz at The Writing Reader  or Facebook.

Picture by Evil Erin on Flickr