Different functions are performed by different parts of your brain. To understand amygdala hijack, you need to know about two of these parts.
The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain. This is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (emotional memories).
The amygdala is considered to be part of the brain’s limbic system. It’s key to how you process strong emotions like fear and pleasure.
Fight or flight
Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being killed or injured by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight- or-flight response evolved. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows you to react quickly without thinking.
When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away.
This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.
The frontal lobes are the two large areas at the front of your brain. They’re part of the cerebral cortex, which is a newer, rational, and more advanced brain system. This is where thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning happen.
The frontal lobes allow you to process and think about your emotions. You can then manage these emotions and determine a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from your frontal lobes is consciously controlled by you.
When you sense danger is present, your amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, your frontal lobes are processing the information to determine if danger really is present and the most logical response to it.
When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes override the amygdala, and you respond in the most rational, appropriate way. However, when the threat is strong, the amygdala acts quickly. It may overpower the frontal lobes, automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response was appropriate for early humans because of threats of physical harm. Today, there are far fewer physical threats, but there are a lot of psychological threats caused by the pressures and stresses of modern life.
When stress makes you feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated. It often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreaction to the situation. You may even regret your reaction later.
A psychologist named Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to stress “amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”
It happens when a situation causes your amygdala to hijack control of your response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.
Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala.
Goleman also popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) and its use to help manage your emotions and guide your behavior and thinking. EI refers to recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions and recognizing, understanding, and influencing those of other people.
You can improve your EI with regular practice of controlling your emotions and staying calm when they overwhelm you. To do this, you must first be aware of your emotions and the feelings of others.
The symptoms of amygdala hijack are due to the effects of the two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both hormones are released from your adrenal glands to prepare your body to flee or fight.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that affects many of your body’s functions, including preparing it for the fight-or-flight response. The main job of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is to stimulant your body systems so they’re ready to respond to a threat.
Stress hormones, primarily adrenaline, do a number of things you may not notice, including:
- relax your airways, opening them up so you can take in more oxygen
- increase the blood flow to your muscles for maximum speed and strength
- increase your blood sugar for more energy
- dilate your pupils to enhance your vision
Symptoms you may notice include:
- rapid heartbeat
- sweaty palms
- goosebumps on your skin
After amygdala hijack, you may feel regret or embarrassment because your behavior may have been inappropriate or irrational.
Symptoms of amygdala hijack can be eased or stopped by consciously activating your frontal cortex, the rational, logical part of your brain. This may take some practice and persistence.
The first step is to acknowledge that you feel threatened or stressed and that your fight-or-flight response has been activated. Become aware of how your emotions and body react to significant stress. Reviewing an episode after it’s over can help.
When you notice the fight-or-flight response has been activated, your goal is to calm down and take control. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is an automatic response, not necessarily the best or most logical one.
When you’re calm, consciously engage your frontal lobes by thinking about the situation and finding a thoughtful, rational solution.
Become aware of your triggers and warning signs, and notice when they’re present. A good way to stay calm is to pay attention to your breathing.
Breathe slowly and evenly. Think about the speed and rhythm of your breaths, and focus on what’s going on in your body as you inhale and exhale.
The first step in preventing an amygdala attack is to identify what triggers it. When you feel the symptoms of amygdala hijack starting, try to pause for a moment to notice what triggered it.
Anything that causes emotional, physical, or mental stress can be a trigger. There are general categories of stressors that affect everyone to some degree, but specific triggers will be different for everyone.
It’s also helpful to identify other things that trigger the onset of amygdala hijack for you. When you feel threatened or afraid, pause and look for behaviors, bodily changes, or warning signs that are happening at the same time.
A good way to do this is with mindfulness. This refers to staying in the present and being aware of what you’re feeling and thinking, your bodily sensations, and stimuli from your environment.
Don’t try to judge or label the situation as good or bad. Focus only on the current moment, not future tasks or past problems.
Mindfulness takes practice, but it can be done at almost any time. When you’re waiting in the car or going for a walk, take time to focus on what you’re thinking and feeling and what’s happening around you.
At first, your mind will quickly start to wander. With more practice, though, it’ll be easier to stay in the moment.
Another way to stay present is to focus on your breathing. Focus on the air moving in and out of your nose and how it changes between inhaling and exhaling. Notice which parts of your body move when you take a breath.
There are two main ways to prevent amygdala hijack. Using these techniques, you can stop the shutdown of your frontal lobes, override the automatic response of your amygdala, and consciously control your response.
techniques to stop amygdala hijack
- Reasoning. This means you use your frontal lobes to think the situation through, review the possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond.
- Meditation. By relaxing your body and mind through meditation or deep breathing, you can change your brain’s focus from responding to a threat or stress to inner peace and calmness.
Practice these techniques when you’re not experiencing an amygdala hijack so you can use them the next time you’re in a stressful situation.
The modern world is full of stress. We often feel this psychological stress when we see things on the news or social media, such as dangerous events and natural disasters.
Your amygdala can respond to this stress as if it’s a physical threat to you. It can take control of your brain and trigger your fight-or-flight response.
You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by breathing, slowing down, and trying to focus your thoughts. This allows your frontal cortex to regain control. You can then choose the most reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation.
Practicing these techniques regularly can help prepare you for stressful situations.