Understanding and Managing Amygdala Hijack
Have you ever felt so suddenly overwhelmed by emotion that you reacted in an irrational or aggressive way? This experience is often referred to as “amygdala hijack”. Amygdala hijack involves a strong emotional reaction from the brain’s amygdala that overrides logical thinking and self-control. However, by understanding what’s happening in these moments, we can better manage “hijacked” emotions and respond constructively rather than impulsively. This guide will provide an in-depth look at the amygdala, amygdala hijack, what triggers it, and science-based techniques to control reactions when emotions get hijacked. By learning these tools, we can strengthen emotional intelligence and foster healthier, happier relationships.
The Role of the Amygdala
Research suggests that awareness of mortality-related stimuli has neural correlates in the right amygdala and left anterior cingulate cortexNeurocognitive hacking, A new capability in cyber conflict? Cambridge University Press: 16 April 2020
The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe. It plays a key role in processing emotions, emotional memories, and reactions to perceived threats. Here’s an overview of the amygdala’s main functions:
- Detecting Threats: The amygdala acts as an early warning system, constantly scanning for potential threats. This includes threats from the environment as well as social threats. When a potential threat is detected, the amygdala triggers the classic “fight, flight or freeze” stress response.
- Generating Emotions: The amygdala assigns emotion to experiences and perceptions. It determines if stimuli provoke fear, anger, pleasure or other feelings based on past emotional memories and learnings.
- Storing Emotional Memories: The amygdala activates when recalling emotional memories and learning emotional associations. Painful past experiences get imprinted deeply within the amygdala.
- Controlling Aggression: The amygdala modulates aggression levels and violent behaviors. High amygdala reactivity is linked to increased aggression.
- Reading Faces for Emotion: A key amygdala function is reading facial expressions and gaze to discern the emotional states of others. This helps us rapidly perceive social threats.
Overall, the amygdala generates rapid, primal emotional reactions to everything we encounter. It acts faster than the thinking frontal cortex.
What is Amygdala Hijack?
Amygdala hijack describes sudden emotional reactions where the amygdala “hijacks” logical thinking parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex. During hijack, the amygdala becomes hyperstimulated, overriding cognition with uncontrolled emotion.
Here are key characteristics of amygdala hijack:
- Intense Emotion: Hijack causes surging emotions – often anger, rage, fear or distress. The amygdala reacts strongly, but not necessarily proportionately, to the trigger.
- Impaired Thinking: During hijack, the prefrontal cortex goes “offline” unable to focus, think rationally, or self-regulate emotions via logic. intense amygdala activation suppresses cognitive control.
- Reactive Behavior: When hijacked, people act impulsively and aggressively without considering consequences. Screaming, hitting, throwing objects, or verbal attacks may occur in the heat of the moment.
- Physiological Changes: Amygdala hijack triggers rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, flushing, sweating, shaking, and other signs of extreme stress. The hypothalamus activates the endocrine system’s stress response.
- Lasting Minutes: Hijack incidents tend to be transient, lasting a few minutes until the amygdala cools down and logic resumes control. But effects of the outburst can endure.
Though normally brief, amygdala hijack episodes can damage relationships, careers, and self-image due to uncontrolled reactions.
Common Triggers of Amygdala Hijack
Many different situations or stressors can overload the amygdala’s capacity to respond calmly, triggering hijack. Common hijack triggers include:
- Conflict: Unresolved relationship conflicts, arguments with loved ones, work disagreements, fighting, or social tensions often trigger hijacks, provoking angry outbursts.
- Negative Feedback: Criticism or perceived failure, humiliation, or rejection activates the amygdala’s self-preservation fear reactions. Even constructive feedback can hurt and incite hijack.
- Past Trauma: Past emotional trauma is deeply imprinted within the amygdala. Present stimuli vaguely reminiscent of painful experiences may elicit sudden hijack reactions like panic attacks.
- Violated Expectations: When outcomes differ drastically from expectations, like a demotion at work or an abrupt breakup, it can stun the amygdala into disproportionate responses like weeping or destroying property.
- Impulsiveness: Individuals with innate amygdala excitability and poor prefrontal inhibition like those with ADHD or bipolar disorder are especially prone to hijacking. Substance use also lowers inhibitions.
Triggers stack if multiple occur in quick succession, overwhelming the amygdala’s capacity to stay calm. By identifying our personal triggers, we gain insight into hijack patterns.
Managing Amygdala Hijack
While inevitable at times, amygdala hijacking can become problematic if unchecked. Here are science-based techniques to limit hijack frequency and intensity:
- Mindfulness Practice: Meditation strengthens connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex to improve emotional control. Over time, it desensitizes the amygdala. Stopping and taking mindful breaths when triggered can calm rising emotions.
- Cognitive Reframing: Intentionally re-interpreting situations from a more rational perspective engages the thinking brain and cools hijack emotions. Reframing criticisms or disappointments in a self-protective way helps prevent emotional escalation.
- Lifestyle Regulation: Managing sleep, diet, exercise, and substance use promotes baseline amygdala and prefrontal health so both function optimally when challenged. Good self-care lessens reactivity.
- Exposure Therapy: Controlled, gradual exposure to past trauma memories and hijack triggers can help desensitize the amygdala through extinction learning. This is often guided by therapists.
- Relaxation Exercises: Soothing activities like progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing, yoga, or music, activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm amygdala reactions and anxiety.
With regular practice of these techniques, individuals can re-train automatic patterns to respond thoughtfully rather than emotionally when faced with life’s inevitable stressors and upsets.
Amygdala hijack involves intense emotional reactions from the brain’s threat detection center that override logical thinking, often prompting impulsive behaviors. Common triggers range from interpersonal conflicts to past trauma memories to instances where expectations are profoundly violated. Though hijacking is temporary, repeated episodes can damage relationships and wellbeing. The good news is we can purposefully “un-hijack” the amygdala through mindfulness, cognitive skills, lifestyle regulation, re-processing trauma, and relaxation techniques – allowing logic and wisdom to prevail over knee-jerk reactions. With deeper insight into what drives our emotions, we gain the power to respond thoughtfully to life’s ups and downs.
- “Amygdala Hijack: How It Works, Signs, & How To Cope,” SimplyPsychology.org
- “Reliance on emotion promotes belief in fake news,” National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, December 2020