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  • Catherine Hodgson


His words hit me like cold water. I remained still. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t even answer. It was as if my brain shut down. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. My hands started to sweat. I crawled inside my shell and hid.

Fight or Flight

Only a few days later, after the incident in which I was verbally attacked by a colleague in a meeting, did I understand what physically happened to me. A person whom I had trusted, had questioned everything I stood for and did it in such a way that I felt attacked. I experienced an amygdala hijack! That is when your body goes into a flight or fight response to a sudden threat. Cortisol levels are raised in your body which can cause your brain to “shut down” so that you cannot even seem to think (your reptilian brain takes over while your executive brain shuts down). This cortisol can stay in your body for up to 26 hours if you do not deal with it immediately. My default amygdala hijack response is to retreat - I crawl into my shell and shut down. On that day when my colleague verbally attacked me, my cortisol level spiked and I stayed in an amygdala hijack for a full 24 hours. It was not a pleasant space to be in as I felt helpless and vulnerable.

Bullies don’t only reside in the playground, they haunt our working environment as well! I thought I had learnt how to control my response to a bully until it happened again, to that extent, a year later. I was humiliated by a peer of mine when introduced to someone in public. I was so taken by surprise that instead of reacting and standing up to that person, I

retreated into my shell again and went home licking my wounds. “How could someone have such control over me?” I thought. It was only a week later while discussing the situation in a peer coaching group that I realized that I could decide how I wanted to react. I had the power to choose....I had the power to put boundaries in place.

When was the last time someone triggered you?

Did you retreat into your shell or did you lash out? Or maybe you gave in and tried to appease them? What was your initial response? Fight, flight or appease? We are triggered to various degrees by certain people in our lives all the time. Usually it’s by those we know well. Family especially are good at triggering us as they know exactly which buttons to press to get a reaction. Or it may be a colleague who is jealous of you or what you have done. Someone who is out to undermine you to make themselves feel or look better. By doing this they tend to get a dopamine kick as it feels good to be addicted to being right or to have power over someone else.

But why do we let them do it and get away with it? Usually because we don’t want to cause a scene, or maybe we are afraid of what the other person can do to us. So we often just keep quiet and let them trigger us until it becomes a pattern. We can, however, identify who triggers us or what can trigger us and break that pattern. We can then prepare for it before we are triggered. We can choose our reaction and prevent ourselves going into an amygdala hijack. If we are aware of the signs, such as a faster heartbeat, clammy hands, dry mouth, a feeling like you have been punched in the stomach, or any other such response, we can recognise that we are going into an amygdala hijack and counter that response. We can deflect the attack using humour, theatrics, walking away or standing up to it. We can also breathe deeply to regulate our heartbeat and rid ourselves of going into protect mode. Deep slow breathing in and even a slower exhale, repeated at least ten times, can help to decrease our heartbeat and send a message to our brain that we do not need to go into a fight or flight response anymore. Remember that our response is our choice.

Empowering yourself

So what did I do about the person who humiliated me in public? I reached out to him to speak about it, to let him know it was not acceptable, but he avoided me. Did I pursue it? No, I let it go. However, I decided that it was the last time he would do that to me and get away with it. I have chosen to not let it happen again and thought about the way I will react the next time he tries to trigger me. It’s my decision now, not his. I’ve empowered myself to stand up for myself, to take control, rather than hide in my shell. I know it won’t be easy, but I’ve realized that I can decide how I react. Not only to him, but to any bully.

The power to choose

We are so genetically wired to respond to threats in a fight or flight fashion. It’s hard to get away from our genes. However, we have an executive brain, our pre-frontal cortex, which is designed for reasoning as well as rational, strategic and innovative thinking. If we are aware of our default response to people who trigger us, we can override our initial response of fight, flight or appease. It’s just being highly aware of it, acknowledging who and what triggers us and then choosing a different response to it.

We have the power to choose....


1. Identify who or what triggers you – recognise what happens to your body.

2. Prepare for being triggered by certain people and break the pattern.

3. Empower yourself by choosing your reaction.

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