Have You Ever Felt that Your Emotions have been Hijacked? Beware: Amygdala Hijack

Amygdala hijackHijackings are a constant worry in our world. With planes crashing from ill intent it seems we are kept on edge. But the hijacks we may also want to be aware of on a deep, and personal level, are ones that we actually have some control over. These are the hijacking of our own amygdalas of our brains. Daniel Goleman, world-renown emotional intelligence expert coined the term, amygdala hijack in his book, “Emotional Intelligence”.

Why is amygdala hijack a concern? And how do we know we are being hijacked? Every time we experience a strong emotional reaction that comes on suddenly and afterwards feeling like our reaction was inappropriate, (if not destructive or embarrassing) we have been hijacked. This response is often one related to fear and is a response to perceived danger by a primitive part of our brain.

Hijack arises when our rational mind has been bypassed and doesn’t get a chance to respond to something, well….rationally. Instead the information comes in from our environment through our five senses and goes almost directly to the amygdala, where the information is matched to previous life experiences. If it matches up as a danger, we go into a Fight or Flight Response. This switches the “stress” side of our nervous system to the “ON” position and we will begin releasing the hormones necessary to ready our bodies to get out of danger by running or fighting.

How many times has this happened to you? The part where you actually run or fight. Probably not many times because we are not faced with true danger very often in our modern life. What is dangerous is the long term affects that the Fight or Flight reaction has on our bodies, but I’m getting off my point.

The amygdala comes from a part of our brain concerned with long term memory, behavior and emotion and turns on a millisecond before the rational brain gets the information.

So let’s get back to the part of the story where we notice that we are reacting with a strong emotional charge that comes on suddenly, before we do react in a regretful way. We can begin using our much newer, reasoning part of our brain and then inhibit the amygdala’s conditioned response when we feel it coming on. This takes some awareness and practice. But, we can do it along with some will power.

When someone else reacts with a hijacking, stay present and don’t react in kind. Don’t allow your self to fall into a hijack, and instead respond to the person once he/she has calmed down.

You might wonder if this has anything to do with food, or eating issues. Yes, it can. The associations we make with food and emotions can become amygdala hijacks as well. We can get pulled into reacting with food to soothe, or the opposite, rebel by not eating because of early memory associations. Understanding that automatic responses have been developed in our brain gives us the knowledge that we can instead choose not to go on automatic, by using our reasoning mind.

Interestingly, the amygdala hijacking also happens with positive situations. You know when something hits you in a funny way and you find yourself with “out-of- control” hysterical laughter, until you cry? That’s a hijack. Also we can feel enormous joy that is caused by the amygdala hijack. Again, all learned responses.

If you want a little help avoiding hijacks begin to become more aware of what you are feeling emotionally. You can also meditate. I recently found that meditating five to ten minutes a day boosts your willpower (including over hijacks). Also, a study done by Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that during an eight-week study of mindfulness meditation participants were able to quiet the activity in this part of the brain.

So, as you can see, we can avoid hijacks before they take over control and tools like meditation and self-awareness can help us to improve our ability to manage this learned response and stress overall.