CLUES – Clearing the Mindfield™

Jealousy – a nasty example of The Almond Effect®

Can you change?” I was once a jealous person. My father was an extremely jealous man, and used to wrongly accuse my mother of infidelity. He made vicious attacks on my mother, both physical and verbal. Though I swore I would never be like my father, I found that I did get jealous easily, and without justification.

One day, an outburst of jealousy nearly cost me the most precious relationship in my life. That was the turning point, the crisis that made me realise that I had to manage my fear of rejection, which was what my jealousy was really all about. My amygdala was reacting to a perceived, and absolutely baseless, threat that I might be left for another woman.

However, if I could learn to stall the instant emotional reaction, that would give the thinking part of my brain, the neo-cortex, time to click in. I would remember that there was nothing to be jealous about, and that my reaction was totally inappropriate, and hopefully I would then be able to keep my act together.

Easier said than done: Easier said than done of course, but I was determined. I started to really notice the situations when jealousy tugged at my heart. I concentrated on when this happened, and the physical feelings I experienced, and practised saying to myself: ‘You have nothing to be afraid of.’

It was a long road. It took more than six months of really hard work to learn not to react. I’m still a jealous person, but it no longer controls me, I’m in control of that feeling now, and it no longer threatens my relationship.

I’m telling you this because it may take time for you to be able to learn to control your Almond Effect®. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it hard to change your ‘usual’ reaction.

Just keep on practising, and ask yourself what else you could do to manage The Almond Effect ®? Give yourself a pat on the back for even trying, and a huge reward when you succeed.

My husband won’t hold my hand

The other evening my husband and I were going out to dinner. As we left our apartment, I reached for his hand. Can you imagine how I felt when he did not take mine and I realised: – oh no, he doesn’t want to hold my hand!

I thought that maybe he had taken Margaret Whitlam seriously – the wife of the former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recently said it was ‘girly’ for couples who have been together for over 20 years to hold hands in public!

But I knew that couldn’t be the case so was there another explanation?

There was. Mark said: “When you’ve just put hand cream on and I hold your hand, it reminds me of the 13 years I worked in a service station – even though it was a really long time ago.”

Yes. Even though Mark hasn’t worked at a service station for 30 years, the feel of hand cream on my hands reminds him of his own oily hands from ‘checking under the bonnet’ of his customers’ cars. And of the perpetually oily rag that he carried in the back pocket of his overalls for wiping the dip stick after he checked the oil level in the engines.

How car technology has changed. I confess to never having looked under the bonnet of my car! But even after so many years, my hand cream reminded Mark of days when he could never seem to get his hands clean.

So there it was – The Almond Effect® in full flight! Fortunately, Mark knew exactly what memories his amygdala was stirring and we solved the problem by waiting for the hand cream to dry. We then held hands as usual so no harm done.

Ever done irrational things based on old emotion memories? And are you risk averse or risk seeking? Listen here for some answers.

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

When I was growing up and my mother wanted to “point out the error of my ways”, I remember that she often prefaced her no doubt well-intentioned words of advice with: “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Depending on how much I wanted to hear her “words of wisdom”, especially if I disagreed with her or was embarrassed because I had been caught out in some way, I must have often looked away because the other phrase I remember was: “Don’t you turn away when I’m speaking to you!”

Why is it that, in our culture at least, we want people to look at us when we are making a point? When I am presenting to a meeting or to a workshop, I know that my amygdalae, our ‘fear factory’, are quick to generate a feeling of apprehension that I may have lost someone’s interest if I see them looking out the window, or staring at their fingernails or into space.

But is there another explanation?

Gaze aversion

According to a paper published in the September issue of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, when young children avert their gaze from the face of someone questioning them, they become better at solving challenging problems.

Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland said that taking our gaze away from the human face was very important when trying to concentrate.

In her study Dr Doherty-Sneddon found that, when looking away, five-year-olds answered 72% of questions well. But when children had not been instructed to look away when thinking, they answered just 50% correctly. “Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding,” Dr Doherty-Sneddon told the BBC News website:

“We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. “So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that’s mentally demanding, it’s unhelpful to look at faces.”

The eyes have it or is it the amygdala?

And that brings us to the amygdala. As adults, this almond shaped structure in our brain is necessary not just for experiencing emotions like fear, but also for quickly recognizing the presence of these emotions in others. From simply looking at a face our amygdalae immediately make an assessment that someone is angry or frustrated.

However as we know from The Almond Effect®, this fast assessment might not be correct but we often react to it before we’ve taken the time to think about what someone is really feeling and expressing and modifying our actions accordingly.

It all begins when we are babies. According to some research, babies, up until around 9 months, stare at everyone including strangers as part of the natural development of the amygdala. Then for another period in babies’ growth, as the amygdala further develops, looking at strangers can bring on floods of tears and anxiety. This apparently is all part of the process of forming enduring attachments.

Eventually, with a fully developed normal brain including matured amygdalae we use the visual information we gain from looking at others to trigger our actions.

Poor eye contact

So what could this mean if we experience poor eye contact from our staff, our customers, our family, our audience?

Dr Doherty-Sneddon also made this point: “We always find that gaze aversion peaks when children and adults are thinking about things,” she said. “We’ve also always found that there’s an increase in gaze aversion as material gets harder. It does seem that both children and adults avert their gaze in order to try and control cognitive load.”

So next time someone isn’t looking at you when you have an important thing to say – be kind hearted! Stop yourself from assessing their reaction as disinterest, avoidance, lying or guilt. Instead believe that they are simply allowing their brain more time for cognitive processing. Then they might just come up with a better answer!

Have you ever seen people at work react to something in a totally illogical way?

OK, I know that’s a dumb question but it is rhetorical!

It is interesting to look at this in connection with our emotional memories. The role that emotional memory plays in our everyday interactions and reactions is profound. Not only do our emotional memories cause us to react to perceptions of physical threat but also to certain people and events as well.

The emotional memory function is part of our brain’s emotional centre, the limbic system. As you know, that is also where the amygdala is, the part of the brain that is responsible for our instant emotional responses, our ‘wasn’t thinking’ reactions.

We subconsciously use our emotional memories to help us recognise threats to our survival. I sometimes think of these memories as stored in our brain’s ‘database of nasty things’. Emotional memories are made up of experiences, events, thoughts and feelings shaped and defined throughout our lives. When we form these memories in our childhood, we often do so with limited and inaccurate perception and then these distorted memories may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.

When a situation or a person triggers an emotional memory of a threat, our brain goes into overdrive to protect us. Often this reaction is outdated, over the top and not even related to the present circumstances. It’s what I call The Almond Effect ®.

Her new boss reminded her of her brother

Take this work scenario: Kylie had just been promoted. She had done such a great job in her time with the company that she was asked to train and manage a group of new staff. This meant a move in offices and a new manager. Kylie had heard great things about her new boss and was eager to impress.

Kylie arrived at the new office and was greeted by her new manager. At first, she was a little unsure of what to make of him. She was instantly intimidated which was unusual for Kylie, she even felt a little scared. She found it hard to communicate and was lost for words several times in their first meeting.

This was her emotional memory connecting the past to the present. Her new boss reminded Kylie of her eldest brother who throughout her childhood was dominating and physically abusive.

Kylie was petrified of her brother and those feelings flooded her brain when she met her new manager. This kind of emotional response is the brain’s way of recognising and reacting to a perceived threat. The problem is that this threat though real once is not relevant to the present situation.

Sadly, after a few weeks, Kylie left the office emotionally shaken and convinced she could not work for her manager. She turned down the promotion and went back to her old job. The Almond Effect ® had taken its toll and it wasn’t until sometime afterwards that Kylie realised what had happened. Even then, knowing how her brain had sabotaged her, Kylie said she would still feel uncomfortable if she had to work for the new manager in the future.

Don’t let past memories sabotage the present

Can you relate to Kylie’s experience? I can. I recently worked for a client and I thought it quite odd that I found it difficult to make ‘small talk’ face to face with him. It was really weird because we had been exchanging emails and having phone conversations quite successfully for many months before we actually met.

I couldn’t work it out so I simply reminded myself that sometimes you have to work with a person who for no obvious reason you don’t really connect with on a personal level, but that’s life and you get on with the work, professionally.

It was only when we were having coffee one day and the client moved in a particular way that I ‘saw’ the image of a person from my childhood. The penny dropped and the reasons for my feelings became clear. He reminded me of someone who also had caused me great distress when I was much younger.

When I shared this in a workshop one day, one of the participants also had an ‘ah ha’ moment and said: “I hadn’t even thought of it before. I hate the fact that because of the recent re-structure, I had to change workstations and now I don’t have a window. And in a CLM (career limiting move), I kicked up a real fuss. I’ve just realised that when I was at school…” and then she told us about an emotional memory to do with sitting by a window, that she realised must have been subconsciously at work, in theory to protect her but in fact causing great unhappiness.

Fascinating isn’t it? Think about situations or people who might be irritating you. I wonder if they are triggering an emotional memory buried deep in your limbic system? It might also be happening in your relationships outside of work.

Now you know, let it go

Becoming aware of what you are remembering and the feelings associated with that memory is the big first step to take back control over The Almond Effect ®. Take time to revisit the memory and ask yourself whether it is appropriate that the memory still controls you. It’s unlikely so take time to tell your limbic system, thanks but no thanks for the future. Retrain your amygdala that this situation or person is no longer a threat. Get your logical, rational thinking brain working.


One final word – sometimes that ‘gut feel’ or intuition that you can’t put your finger on, may be coming from an emotional memory. If no amount of logical self-talk gets you past your concerns, they may be real. So talk to someone else and seek assistance to work out where the concerns are coming from. Then you’ll take the appropriate action for the situation.

Do Your People Love or Hate Their Jobs? How Long Will They Stay?

When the alarm buzzes to get you up for work, what’s your reaction? Do you open your eyes to a world of endless possibilities or do you hit the snooze button and contemplate calling in sick? What do you think your employees do?

The people you work with, your work environment and your own emotional intelligence will influence what we do. If our work place is filled with anxiety, anger and fear then we are unlikely to wake up full of enthusiasm. We’ll more likely hit ‘snooze’ than leap out of bed ready to take on the world.

On the other hand, what if people at our workplace, especially managers, respect and understand of the role of emotions and conduct themselves in tune with the concepts of emotional intelligence (EI)? It is a statement of the obvious but managing people is essentially about understanding and managing emotions: our own, our employees and our colleagues. That’s EI. If EI is missing, especially in managers, then the price is likely to be high – dwindling commitment, productivity, profits and high staff turnover.

Lousy managers are often victims of The Almond Effect ®

Managers or leaders with low EI and a low capacity to manage their reactions are often at the mercy of The Almond Effect ®. This is when our emotional centre, the amygdala, reacts to everyday situations as though our lives absolutely depended on it. Maybe it is more aptly described as over-reacting. From an organizational perspective, this can be immensely damaging.

For example, you probably know someone like, let’s call him, Rick. He is a manager who likes things done his way. He is results focussed and has little time for alternative approaches to his way of doing things. He has the final say on decisions to do with his team and he doesn’t like being challenged. Does this conjure up a picture of anyone for you?

During one meeting, a member of his team offered her opinion on how things could be run more efficiently within the team. Rick didn’t like the idea simply because it went against his own. He shot down the idea but then the rest of the team agreed with her. Rick felt backed into a corner and became angry and upset. He refused to hear any more on the topic.

Are you surprised that Rick’s team is often reduced due to mysterious sick days? And what do you think the chances are in future for creative and innovative input from the team?

Cruelly, our reaction often brings on the very thing we are afraid of

I think Rick’s heavy-handed reaction to his team likely stems from his emotional memories. As a member of a competitive family, he always had to fight to get his ideas accepted. It was the same at the school he went to. And when his ideas weren’t taken up, he always felt miserable, left out and missing out on the accolades.

Rick noticed in his previous roles that his teams were not particularly innovative but he didn’t think it was to do with him. It was because they were so busy! His current team soon realised that every time his ideas were questioned or challenged, he became over sensitive and reacted aggressively. So they now simply keep their mouths shut.

Why do people refuse to listen to other ideas?

Rick has a deep-seated fear of not being respected and major doubts about his self worth and the value of his input. His amygdala interprets this as a threat to his job and so to his survival. In an ironic twist, his fear translates into aggression that brings about the very reaction he is afraid of: lack of respect, no new ideas to get runs on the board and his job on the line. His aggressive behaviour is the result of his brain’s survival instinct kicking in and manifests as being closed to the team’s input.

In the workplace, aggression is a potent and paralysing emotion that can render even the most rational person inept. It is often an irrational reaction triggered by your emotional memory. But the price is high.

If you are having difficulties retaining employees, check the emotional pulse of the organisation, starting with managers and team leaders.

Sabotaging Ourselves Through the Fear of Failure

“She was so scared of failing she was determined she wouldn’t succeed.”

In this issue of CLUES I want to tell you the story of Tracy. Tracy landed her dream job working for a start up company. She was to be part of team to launch a new and exciting product. Although apprehensive, Tracey couldn’t wait to start. She was the most junior in the team of five but she specialized in an area in which the others were limited. Life was looking good.

Almost as soon as she started, Tracy felt intimidated by the others in the group. They were all very experienced and talented. Sensibly, Tracy made a conscious decision to just put her head down and work to the best of her ability.

However, almost from the start, she had trouble accepting feedback and guidance from her team leader. Even the smallest piece of advice or direction made her feel angry and insecure. In fact, she had a number of quite emotional altercations with her team leader. Not so sensibly, after each one, she sent an email to another team member complaining about the team leader.

Now the team leader was highly emotionally intelligent and so tried to support and reassure Tracy. This went on for some time but Tracy’s attitude and behaviour didn’t change. It wasn’t long before the team dynamic became tense and Tracy started to regularly call in sick.

Tracy fights herself

What was clearly happening was that Tracy, without reason, was afraid her ability did not match the other members of her team. Her fear manifested as aggression and reluctance to work within the group. Every time some one asked her to do something, she took it as a challenge or criticism about her work. She reacted emotionally because her amygdala (irrationally) perceived a threat. This is The Almond Effect ®. The brain (amygdala) preparing the body for battle, for fight or flight. Tracy was not sufficiently self-aware to understand that what was happening, that the team leader’s comments were not a ‘life-threatening’ situation. So she didn’t give her neo-cortex (thinking brain) time to tell the amygdala to ‘stand down’! The aggression, and ironically the defensiveness, got worse.

Tracy had no one to fight but herself. Not surprisingly, after several months of irrational emotional behaviour, nasty emails and not showing up for work, Tracy was asked to quit.

Catch your ‘almonds’ before they get scorched!

When Tracy was hired, it was for her unique abilities and there was no competition with the other members of the team. But her fear and insecurities were based on emotional memories long forgotten by her conscious mind. It could have been events from school, in the family, or at a previous job. Whatever history was stored in Tracy’s limbic system, caused her to throw away her dream job. Had she being thinking clearly she would have seen that her team mates were not out to get her. Tracy’s reaction could have been different if she had a better awareness of her own emotions and developed reaction management skills.

When it has hold of us, we don’t always realise that The Almond Effect ® is happening. It is easy to rationalize when you are not in the midst of an emotional reaction but during the neural storm, your brain is working against you. Neural static prevents your rational and highly developed neo-cortex from intervening. Understanding the neurochemical implications of The Almond Effect ® makes a significant difference to the way we work, live and play. Catching ourselves experiencing irrational fears and developing strategies to cope ensures we don’t continue to self-sabotage the way Tracy did.

What can you do about insecurities at work?

Does Tracy’s story resonate with you? Do you feel insecure when there is no need to? Are you afraid when there is nothing to be afraid of? Does any member of your team act like Tracy does? If so, face up to what is happening. Check out if your fears are justified. If they are, what are you going to do about it? If your fears are irrational, how are you going recognise when the fears kick in and then change your behaviour and attitude from insecure to confident? If you don’t tackle this head on then, like Tracy, our fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The Almond Effect ® and Love

“It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.”
Merovingian in The Matrix Revolutions

Have you heard the expression ‘crazy in love’? Perhaps you’ve felt it. It is love that ties our stomach in knots and keeps us awake at night. It is love that puts a smile on our face that lasts for days and it is love that focuses our mind so completely that the rest of our life seems to fade away including what we’re meant to be doing at work!

For this issue of CLUES, I am stepping away from an immediate workplace issue to look at how one aspect of The Almond Effect ® affects us in our day-to-day lives. I don’t think that we can separate the person we are at work from the person we are away from work. Good leaders and managers know this and use empathy and understanding to build strong work relationships that can address and deal with personal issues if they are impacting job performance.

Love makes the world go around and sometimes makes us sick

When we are in love, we feel a diverse range of emotions with great intensity. We may feel extreme anxiety, fear or insecurity. We may feel lust, happiness or joy. Chances are we will go through all of these emotions at some point. And physical reactions often accompany the intense feelings – rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, dry mouth, perspiration and nausea. It is our body’s reaction to what is going on in our brain.

Though we tend to associate the heart with love, these physical sensations are not caused by the heart but by the brain. When feelings of love are triggered in our brain, it initiates a reaction that grips our whole body. For example when our heart starts to race, it is caused by the autonomic nervous system centred in forebrain in the hypothalamus.

The amygdala in love and out of control

Another part of our brain, the amygdala can also react in love and play a major role in our responses.

For example, you’re at a party and someone shows interest in you. You are flattered and enjoy the attention. Your partner, normally a rational calm individual, lashes out in a jealous rage when you get home, slams doors, yells, throws things and says hurtful things like: “why did you lead them on?”

Now this reaction is a result of his or her survival instinct in overdrive. Their amygdala is responding to the perceived threat. The threat here is another person is interested in you. Your partner’s amygdala reacts irrationally, fears a break up, and sets off a chain reaction of aggressive emotions (flight/fight) leading to out of control behaviour. It’s The Almond Effect ®. Your partner needs to develop some emotional intelligence and Reaction Management skills but in the meantime you need to reassure him or her that there is no threat!

Love is a broad all encompassing term that defines the divergent emotions and reactions we have to another human being. People in love often behave in ways that are unusual and out of character. This can be a result of several reactions in the brain all associated with neural activity in and around the limbic system and the frontal lobe. The intense feelings associated with love, both emotional and physical, are often enough to drive a person to the extreme.

Maybe that’s what Merovingian had in mind when he said in The Matrix Revolutions, the idea of love and insanity had similar patterns. So now you know why people who are ‘in love’ may be acting a little crazy around you at work – be compassionate. They really are using their brains – just not perhaps the way you’d like them to.