Emotional Hijacking, Mindfulness & Emotional Intelligence.
Lying inside an MRI machine recently I felt completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t allowed to move and it felt like my heart was going to hammer its way out of my chest; the rhythmic “thud, thud, thud” seemed to be matching the “bang, bang, bang” emanating from the machine sending my anxiety levels through the roof. I was only too aware that my racing pulse, the nausea I was feeling and my shallow breathing were the beginnings of a panic attack that I wasn’t going to be able to control. And just as that thought popped into my head the word ‘control’ took my mind else-where, I began to calm down and found myself being able to breathe again. But why did the idea of ‘control’ cause such a big change in my mindset? It wasn’t like I went from having no control to having total control; after all I still needed to get through the rest of the MRI scan. What changed was that it triggered something in my brain that reminded me that I can cope with situations like the one I was in by staying present and being ‘Mindful’.
The next 30 minutes waiting for the ordeal to finally end provided me with some real quality time with my thoughts and feelings so I could think about what had happened in those first few seconds. I wasn’t nervous before I went into the machine, I’ve had plenty of MRI's before but what was different this time was the fear I was feeling. I knew that if the results weren’t what I wanted that I would have to make some significant changes in my life and that was scary. Add to that the possibility of needing another surgery, the time it would take to recover, the extra time I would need to take off work, the financial concerns that would accompany that, the changes to my lifestyle that I would have to make to compensate, holiday plans that I might have to change, family events I’d have to miss – the list could have gone on forever and the longer it got the more terrified I became. What I realised afterwards was that I’d been a victim of my own emotional hijacking. The rational, thinking part of my brain had been overpowered by my emotions and what started out as a simple, painless procedure had been blown completely out of proportion – the panic attack I started to have wasn’t because I was in the machine but because I was panicking about the future.
And that is why Mindfulness helped. It helped me to refocus my attention on the “here and now” and brought me back into the present. As I concentrated on my breathing again I allowed myself to notice what I was feeling, both physically and emotionally, and how those feelings were linked to what I’d been thinking. By being mindful of my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and making the connections between each of them I was able to accept that it was ok for me to be experiencing the situation in the way that I was and with that acceptance came a feeling of calmness that made the rest of the scan more manageable. I was worrying about the future and at that precise moment I had no control over what would or wouldn’t happen, so the stress and worrying were unnecessary ‘baggage’ for me to deal with. Rather than allowing the emotional hijacking to continue accepting what was happening enabled me to send that unnecessary emotional baggage packing so that I was able to ground myself back in the present.
What this experience made clear to me is that our emotions don’t have to overwhelm us. Many of us will experience emotional hijacking throughout our lives and I believe that practising mindfulness is a fantastic way of regaining emotional balance. However, before we can be mindful we need to work on developing our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence doesn’t just mean being emotionally aware, it means being able to use our emotions to guide us, to be able to apply them to our everyday experiences and being able to manage and regulate them when we need to. Emotional intelligence also allows us to use our emotions when we interact with others, making it possible to cheer them up or calm them down without being negatively affected by their emotions ourselves.
Emotions are complex but they are also part of what makes us human. They are there to be felt and experienced and what we need to remember is that they are constantly shifting. No emotional state is terminal, by changing how we think we can also change the way we feel.
Remember emotions are free flowing and if we can stay self aware, mindful and resilient we can put an end to emotional hijacking when it threatens to take over.