An amygdala hijack is an emotional response to stress. But to better understand what an amygdala hijack is, you’ll need to understand a bit about how the brain functions. You’ll also need to understand two specific parts of the brain: the amygdala and the frontal lobes.

Amygdala

The amygdala is a cluster of almond-shaped cells located near the base of the brain. Everyone has two of these cell groups, one in each hemisphere (or side) of the brain.

The amygdalae help define and regulate emotions. They also preserve memories and attach those memories to specific emotions (such as happy, sad, joyous). These are called emotional remembrances.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is a group of complex, interconnected structures within the brain that are responsible for a person’s emotional and behavioral responses.

Fight or flight

The amygdala also activates the fight-or-flight response.

This response can help people in immediate physical danger react quickly for their safety and security. For example, the fight-or-flight response helped early humans respond to threats to avoid being injured or killed.

The amygdala activates this fight-or-flight response without any initiative from you. When that part of your brain senses danger, it signals your brain to pump stress hormones, preparing your body to either fight for survival or to flee to safety.

Today, that fight-or-flight response is more likely to be triggered by emotions such as stress, fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.

Frontal lobes

To understand what an amygdala hijack is, you need to know about a second part of the brain: the frontal lobes. These two, large areas are located at the front of your brain.

The front lobes are part of the brain’s cerebral cortex. This area of the brain regulates voluntary actions like reasoning, thinking, movement, decision-making, and planning. It is more rational than the amygdala.

The front lobes allow you to evaluate your emotions and then use your experiences and judgement to consciously respond. These reactions are not automatic, like the ones generated by the amygdala.

In the event of a physical threat, the amygdala may jump to the fight-or-flight response, but the front lobes process the information you’re receiving to help you determine if the danger is real. If the danger isn’t immediate, the frontal lobes help you decide what to do in response to the stress.

For mild or moderate threats, the frontal lobes can often override your amygdala so you can approach the situation rationally. But in the case of strong threats, the amygdala may trigger the fight-or-flight response.

For early humans, the fight-or-flight response was vital. The threat of physical harm was very real.

Today, however, you’re more likely to experience psychological threats, such as the pressures and stress of modern life, work, and relationships. These emotions, too, can trigger the amygdala’s fight-or-flight response.

Anger, aggression, fear, and stress are all common emotional triggers. They can cause sudden, illogical, and even irrational reactions.

In his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” psychologist Daniel Goleman named this emotional overreaction to stress “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala hijack occurs when your amygdala responds to stress and disables your frontal lobes. That activates the fight-or-flight response and disables rational, reasoned responses. In other words, the amygdala “hijacks” control of your brain and your responses.

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Goleman was also responsible for popularizing the concept of emotional intelligence (EI). He explained how EI can help people manage their emotions and guide their behavior and thinking. Where amygdala hijack is natural and immediate, EI can help you regain control.

EI can also help you recognize the emotions of other people so that you can understand and influence them. However, Goleman’s idea of EI emphasizes that individuals must first be aware of their own emotions and the feelings of people around them before they can use it for others.

The symptoms of an amygdala hijack are caused by the body’s chemical response to stress. When you experience stress, your brain releases two kinds of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both of these hormones, which are released by the adrenal glands, prepare your body to fight or to flee.

Together, these stress hormones do a number of things to your body in response to stress. They:

  • increase blood flow to muscles, so you have more strength and speed to fight or flee
  • expand your airways so you can take in and use more oxygen
  • increase blood sugar to provide you immediate energy
  • dilate pupils to improve your vision for faster responses

When these hormones are released, you may experience:

An amygdala hijack may lead to inappropriate or irrational behavior. After an amygdala hijack, you may experience other symptoms like embarrassment and regret.

An amygdala hijack is an automatic response. Your body takes action without any conscious input from you.

However, that does not mean you will be unable to stop or prevent an amygdala hijack. It just takes a conscious effort to deactivate your amygdala and activate your frontal lobes, the part of your brain responsible for rational, logical thinking.

When you feel threatened or significantly stressed, acknowledge how your body feels and what it is doing. This is your body’s flight-or-fight response. Take stock of your emotions and physical symptoms, if any. (In the beginning, this evaluation may have to occur after an episode, as stopping a hijack in the moment may be difficult.

Then, when you feel this response again, acknowledge it, and work to regain control. Remind yourself this is an automatic response, but not the most logical one.

When you have calmed down or feel less stressed, you can activate your frontal cortex. Begin by thinking about what activated the response, and how you felt. Then, consider responses you can and should have. These will be more thoughtful and rational responses. If you still feel emotional in the moment, give yourself more time.

During the height of a fight-or-flight response, breathing can be a powerful tool. Think about the speed of your breath, and work to slow it down. Find a calm, natural rhythm. Focus on how your body feels as you inhale and exhale.

After the response has passed, review what happened. Consider the triggers that led to the fight-or-flight response. When you recognize warning signs and triggers, you may be able to more easily handle the stress that leads to the response in the first place.

The best way to prevent an amygdala hijack is to understand what things trigger the reaction so you can avoid them. Alternatively, you can use practices like mindfulness to help you better control your body’s responses when you feel the reaction.

Emotional, mental, and even physical stress can trigger the amygdala’s fight-or-flight response. When you begin to feel the symptoms of an amygdala hijack, pause. Take note of what you’re feeling and what led you to this moment. Recognize any bodily changes you’re experiencing.

Also, consider what triggered these feelings. Most people’s triggers will fall into the same general categories (stress, anger, aggression), but each person’s triggers will be unique to them.

These are the beginning steps of a practice called mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you be more present and engaged in your responses and choices.

Through mindfulness, you can take stock of things like how you’re feeling and what’s stimulating you. You can learn to respond rationally and logically. This is another way of saying you can take control away from your amygdala and hand it back to your frontal cortex.

Mindfulness takes practice. It’s easy to wander with your thoughts when you first try to focus on your body and feelings. But as with so many things, practice makes it easier.

Plus, it’s important to practice these techniques regularly, not just when you’re in a highly emotional state.

One way to help focus your mind during mindfulness practice is to actively control your breathing. Focus on inhaling and exhaling. Concentrate on how the air makes you feel in the moment, and notice how your body moves in response to the air.

While you may find other ways to prevent an amygdala hijack, these two are the primary ways. Learning to avoid triggers can stop your amygdala from having a chance to overrule your emotional control. Mindfulness can help you slow and reverse the emotional responses.

Techniques to stop an amygdala hijack
  • Reasoning. Once you have calmed your emotional response, you can use reasoning and logic to think through your situation. This way, you have options for how you will respond, and you can pick the one that best suits the situation, not one that fulfills an emotional reaction.
  • Mindfulness. Use meditation or controlled breathing to focus your body’s energy. This will help you respond to a threat or stress in a peaceful way. It will help you stop an amygdala hijack so you can retain control.

The amygdala’s fight-or-flight response was useful to early humans. They regularly experienced real, immediate physical threats. Today, that’s not the case.

The modern world is full of stress, but it’s often caused by reactions to events, like natural disasters and strife, or even work, traffic, and arguments with family. The amygdala still responds to this stress as if it were a physical threat.

However, you can prevent this amygdala hijack. You can gain control over your brain’s irrational emotional reactions.

You can do this by slowing down, taking deep breaths, and refocusing your thoughts. These steps allow your brain’s frontal lobes to take over for the irrational amygdala. When this happens, you have control over your responses, and you won’t be left feeling regret or embarrassment at your behavior.