The term “amygdala hijack” was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman used the term to recognize that although we have evolved as humans, we retain an ancient structure in our brain that is designed to respond swiftly to a threat. While at one time this was designed to protect us, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature.
The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped masses of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe, that among other functions, is involved in the fear circuit in your brain. This structure is responsible for the fight-or-flight response that causes you to respond to threats.
The amygdala is also responsible for deciding what memories are stored and where they are stored. The level of emotion that is attached to a memory determines where it is stored in the brain.
While many of the threats we face today are symbolic, evolutionarily, our brains evolved to deal with physical threats to survival that we had to quickly respond to. However, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight, even though there is no actual physical threat with which we must contend.
When faced with a threatening situation, our thalamus, which receives incoming stimuli, sends signals to both the amygdala and the cortex.
If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split second decision and begins the fight-or-flight response before the cortex has time to overrule it.
This cascade of events triggers the release of adrenaline (epinephrine), which leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. You may experience a racing heart, shaking, sweating, and nausea as this happens.
In this way, the amygdala triggers a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that shuts off the cortex, making it hard for you to think clearly about the situation. As your brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, you find it increasingly hard to problem solve and concentrate. This whole process takes a toll, and you may not recover to your original level of functioning for several hours.
Link With Chronic Stress
Chronic stress also plays a role in the functioning of fear circuitry in the brain. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show greater amygdala activation and therefore, increased emotional responding including fear and anxiety responses. Those with other anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder (SAD) and panic disorder (PD) may also respond more strongly in their amygdala.
Even without a diagnosis of PTSD or another disorder, chronic stress can lead to an overactive fear and anxiety circuit in your brain, which also reduces the functioning of other areas of the brain that help with inhibition of fear, such as the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.
All this means that chronic stress can trigger more frequent amygdala hijacks and even subsequent problems with short-term memory.
This is why it is important to gain control of your emotional reactions. One way to do this is through prevention. Planning ahead as to how you will respond in times of stress can make a difference.
The best way to overcome amygdala hijack is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Managing the functioning of your amygdala is part of developing emotional intelligence, and it is something that fortunately may improve with age.
Emotional intelligence is the opposite of an amygdala hijack. A person who is emotionally intelligent has strong connections between the emotional center of his or her brain and the executive (thinking) center.
Emotionally intelligent people know how to de-escalate their own emotions as well as those of others by becoming engaged, focused, and attentive to their thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness plays a key role in emotional intelligence and refers to being aware of the present moment. One way to practice mindfulness, in general, is to choose something in your environment to focus on and try to notice all of its qualities. Rather than mindlesslessly zooming through your day, try to slow down and pay attention.
For example, the next time you go for a walk, notice sights, sounds, and smells. Look around and truly observe your surroundings. The next time you are in a conversation with someone, give that person your full attention and really listen to what he or she is saying.
By practicing mindfulness every day, you will develop this part of your brain and make it stronger. Then, when you find yourself in a stressful situation, it will be easier to switch on the mindful part of your mind. If you still find yourself having trouble with this concept, try keeping notes throughout the day of situations that cause you to feel strong emotions.
What if despite your best efforts at prevention, you still find yourself having experienced an amygdala hijack? You’ll know it has happened if you experienced a strong emotional reaction, that seemed to come out of nowhere, and that later you realized was inappropriate in relation to what happened.
It can take up to three to four hours to return to a normal state after an attack. However, there are things you can do to speed up that process and get control of your emotional state.
Name your emotions as you experience them. This helps to engage the thinking part of your brain and trigger mindfulness.
Take deep breaths from your abdomen. Breathing deeply will help to bring oxygen to the brain and slow you down.
Draw on mindfulness. Look around you and notice things in the environment. This will help you to move out of your head and back into the situation.
Take a timeout. If you are truly feeling out of control, excuse yourself from the situation you are in to get a hold of your emotions.
What to Do After
Another way to deal with amygdala hijack is to spend some time afterward examining what happened, and how you could have handled the situation differently.
Think of a time when you had a strong emotional reaction that you could not control, and ask yourself the following questions:
- What triggered your emotions? Was it a particular person or situation?
- What emotions did you feel? Were you angry, upset, or frightened?
- What bodily sensations were you experiencing? Did you have a racing heart or shaking hands?
- What were you thinking at the time? Did you have negative thoughts?
- How realistic were those thoughts? Were they realistic given the situation?
- Was there another way to view the situation that might have led to a better outcome?
Spending some time thinking about your reactions helps to shift you toward a mindful way of viewing your experience. Over time, this will help to develop your emotional intelligence as well. You may find that your thoughts in the situation contributed to a spiraling of your bodily symptoms and that choosing better thoughts would have reversed this process.
By Arlin Cuncic, Reviewed by a board-certified physician