The Almond Effect® and Me

It is said that you teach what you most need to learn! Although we usually focus on a business aspect of The Almond Effect® and the neuroscience that impacts us at work, I wanted to share with you my very real and first hand experience of The Almond Effect® over the holidays in a non-work setting. We’ll return to the business applications next time.

Swimming for a cure for cancer

In November 2006 I decided to start training for my first ever ocean race, the Cole Classic, which was held at Manly Beach in Australia on Feb 4 2007. I joined a squad that swims to raise money to fund research scientists searching for a breakthrough cure for cancer (Cantoo) I’d been crazy enough to sign up for the 2 km event.

As well as training on my own, the squad trained together on Thursday nights at the pool and Saturday mornings in the ocean.

Now as many of you know, especially if you have been in my change and leadership workshops, I am a passionate scuba diver. I love the ocean and everything, yes every living thing that is in it. Sure, when you see a shark up close the adrenaline starts to flow, but it’s a mini Almond Effect because very quickly the warning that my amygdala is sending out is replaced by a feeling of sheer awe and appreciation of the creature.

So little did I believe that one Saturday morning in training I would experience The Almond Effect® big time! The sea was very rough, the surf was up and there was a powerful current sweeping people in the sea several hundred metres away from where they entered the water.

And that is what happened to me. As instructed to do by the coaches, we ran into the water, jumped over the small waves, porpoised our way to get beyond the breaking surf and the next time I looked up I was a very long way from where I expected and intended to be. And my amygdala took over. My heart started to race, I couldn’t swim and I completely forgot everything that we had been coached to do if we felt tired or got into difficulty. I was experiencing The Almond Effect full on!

One of the coaches was on a surfboard and paddled over to see if I was OK. By the time she got to me I had settled down a bit but when she asked me if I wanted to ride to the beach on her surfboard, I was up and on it in a flash!

I reviewed with the coaches what I should have done (just laid on my back and put my hand up for help and waited calmly) then I carried on with the training session. The coaches moved us to another part of the beach where the current wasn’t so strong. However I was a lot more cautious than I had ever been before each time we went back into the water.

It should have ended there

Now here is the part that is really surprising me. After that Saturday and after going over and over what you need to do when the conditions are rough, I was really looking forward to the following Saturday’s session. But when I woke up on the next Saturday, I began shaking, my tummy was turning back flips, I had the runs and I was really nervous.

The memory of the previous Saturday had lodged in my hippocampus and when I woke up, my brain said: Saturday, ocean, danger, flight/fight, adrenaline surge. A new pattern had formed. And simply waking up on Saturday kicked off the memory of the previous Saturday and my amygdala started firing even before I got out of bed!

And no matter how much I reasoned with myself, told myself what was happening in my brain, reassured my brain of all the logical and rational things about how safe I was whatever the conditions (I’d proved that hadn’t I?), it was only after I had got into the water and started swimming that my amygdala slowly went back from high activity to simply high alert.

And this happened every Saturday we trained though it got easier as I practiced the STAR.


Stop – Think – Act – Rewire

S: When you catch yourself getting worked up or feel an unhelpful emotion coming on, like fear, anger, frustration, STOP. Stop yourself from immediately reacting. Take a deep breath. Count to 10 – whatever it takes.

T: Then THINK about what is really going on. What are the consequences/ outcomes you really want to come from this situation?

A: Then ACT – do whatever you have decided is the best thing to do for the outcomes you would want outside the heat of the moment.

R: Finally reflect and review what went on. Where did the reaction come from? What caused it? How can you learn to manage that reaction in future? In other words, how can you REWIRE your amygdala?

Stop – Think – Act – Rewire. Little did I think I’d be practicing what I preach with so much intensity and regularity but fortunately it is working.

Physical fear and psychological fear

What this experience reinforces for me is that our amygdala does not know the difference between physical threat and psychological threats. It just perceives a threat and goes into action to ensure our survival. And the physical manifestations can be just the same whether it is in the office, at home or in the sea.

What this experience also reinforces for me is the power of the mind to store away a memory so quickly yet so powerfully that it takes not just one thought to erase it or deal with it but continued and committed determination and practice to understand what you’re feeling, where it is coming from and to take the steps to manage it (STAR).

Renewed determination

So I started 2007 with a renewed determination to do all that I can to help people understand where their fears come from and how to manage them.

The timely reminder to me of the physical impact of The Almond Effect and how debilitating it can be if it goes on for long refuelled my desire to work with managers and other employees to understand the consequences of the patterns they set up at work or the patterns that people bring with them created in other places and at other times.