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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The key to mental detox: deactivate limbic hijack

OK, it’s a long one because it’s a theme I feel passionate about.

Most questions can be boiled down to: “I don’t know what to do” and “I’m scared”. According to Austin Kleon. I would add a third: “I’m overwhelmed”.

Feeling overwhelmed is extremely common in modern work (and life) culture. It’s bread and butter coaching.

While the phenomenon can be analysed on many different levels, in my experience, it comes down to one thing: an overly active mind in a fast world. And while we can’t slow down the world, we can protect our minds.

I meditate 2 hours a day. That’s my current meditation dosage. The more responsibility I take on, the greater the risk of getting inadvertently “busy” and involved in lots of projects, then becoming overwhelmed, confused and stressed. So I increase my meditation dosage in consultation with an expert.

“Meditate for an hour a day. If you don’t have time, meditate for two hours a day.” Zen proverb.

The reactive terrorist inside your head

One of the most important ways toxic work cultures can hold sway over you is by clouding your judgement. Your fears and immediate needs speak over your intuition and long term vision.

The ruthless competition, 21st century uncertainty and daily power drama start to activate ancient survival instincts that amplify hostility and trigger defence mechanisms like rescuing and taking on too much in a misguided effort to fix things and feel safe…

This was an important theme at the International Coach Federation annual conference yesterday. I attended a session on leadership in an uncertain world which focused on mindfulness and one of the closely related coaching frameworks (the Thinking Environment). The entire session was essentially meditation.

Prevent limbic hijack

OK, so conditions of stress drive the mammalian-reptilian part of your brain to hijack the human part.

Your mammalian-reptilian brain (midbrain) is older than your human brain (the neocortex). It governs powerful drives: survival, hunger, reproduction.

So in a neuron-to-neuron battle, it will win. It will beat the more recent functions of empathy and reasoning and will refuse to cooperate if it’s agitated by a perceived threat e.g. losing money, status or relationships.

Toxic work cultures often play on these perceived threats and incentivise the wrong things. You might feel like you have no choice but to play the game. You may also feel disempowered. Either way, defence mechanisms are triggered and this creates even more stress, confusion and overwhelm!

So how do you break out of this vicious cycle of reactivity?

Mindfulness meditation: the real magic pill?

Meditation is a mindfulness practice and a part of our human heritage. Discovered in the East and perfected over thousands of years, it helps us gain operational control of our bodies and minds.

It’s been shown to activate the executive functions of our human brain (the neocortex – the prefrontal cortex to be specific) among other things. It literally changes your brain.

It’s no coincidence top performers in all walks of life turn to it when they reach a limit. It unlocks new potential. It enables clarity. Few inventions have been so rigorously tried and tested over time.

Meditation has been dubbed the next public health revolution.

[Read on or watch the video]

A lot of people say to me: I tried meditating but I can’t. My response is: if you noticed that, then you’ve already meditated. Congratulations!

If you really can’t bear to sit still for a few moments and meditate, here are 4 other ways to help your human brain win over your mammalian-reptilian brain:

  • Breathe deeply at every chance: this will activate your parasympathetic system and balance out the sympathetic fight-or-flight response. It may give you a vital extra second before you send that damaging email…

  • Spend time in nature: taking a walk in the park (barefoot if possible as research has shown its effectiveness), noticing your surroundings will help bring you back to the present moment and remember that whatever it is, you can figure it out.

  • Exercise: there’s nothing like using your body to bring you back to the present moment and the fact that you’re not in the savannah being chased by a tiger. Exercise releases all sorts of endorphins that also help.

  • One thing at a time: give what you’re doing your full attention and complete it before you switch to something else. It’s been shown that multitasking wastes time because of the energy and attention wasted in context-switching. Switching off phone notifications may help greatly…

What does this all look like in real life?

Well, my client Dr M had found it difficult to extricate herself from a job that wasn’t right for her for a long time. She stayed loyal to it because of misplaced guilt… But we worked to deactivate the limbic hijack and she finally gave herself permission to slow down, take space and choose authentically - meditation was an important part of the process. She was able to expand her awareness of how she was making choices that didn’t serve her. The practical implication was that she was able to see her options more clearly and see the range of choices where she previously thought she had none.

She’s not the only one. In fact most of my clients deepen their mindfulness practice while we work together (either through meditation or other tools). Mindfulness is a scientifically demonstrated tool to see reality more clearly and make better decisions. While it can be a little rough opening our eyes (I never promise that finding your path is going to be a walk in the park), clients tend to report that they got more help than they expected and that they were able to move past areas they’d felt stuck for a long time.

Warning: When I prescribed drugs, I would always warn the patient about the side effects and make sure they knew how to use the drug properly. Two things are important with mindfulness meditation:

  1. While meditation is known to be safe if consumed in doses sold on the high street or in corporate programmes, deeper meditation should be undertaken with an independent qualified teacher.

  2. Meditation can have a “tranquilising” effect. You can start to feel calmer and become oblivious to the wider social realities affecting your situation. Think of the unhappy 50s housewife popping Valium. In fact, corporations have been criticised for using meditation and mindfulness programmes this way (another reason you need an independent qualified teacher). In other words, it can be used to individualise and psychologise what is a systemic problem i.e. a toxic work culture. Ultimately, meditation isn’t just about tranquillity and concentration, it opens your eyes to reality (= awakening). The problem is that some mindfulness programmes may focus on the former which makes you happier and more productive but also potentially more compliant with the work culture…

That being said, I’ve spent two decades training and working on how to help humans be healthy and happy. With little to no exaggeration, I would say that the best medicine I ever practised, especially in terms of prevention, is probably to take your meditation twice a day. Your mental health, your team and family will thank you for it.

If you don’t have time, here’s a 1 minute meditation I created 3 years ago for busy high achievers.

Have a great week,


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Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi is an international Executive Coach. If you're a deep thinking professional or leader and would like help growing your influence, affluence and leadership impact on your own terms and in your own time, let's have a conversation. I offer one-to-one coaching, group coaching and transformational workshops in person and online. To discuss your unique situation and vision email to receive an assessment questionnaire and book a time to speak. For more information visit We look forward to hearing from you.

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