The Concept of Amygdala Hijack in Emotional Intelligence
Have you ever lost control of your emotions and did something in the heat of the moment that you later regretted? Perhaps you’ve “lost it” or blown up at someone—your partner or child, work colleague, or perhaps the driver of another car—to such a degree that later, you realized was uncalled for.
If your answer is yes, then you’ve probably been hijacked by your amygdala.
The term “amygdala hijacking” was first used by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” to refer to an immediate and intense emotional reaction that’s out of proportion to the situation. In other words, it’s when someone “loses it” or seriously overreacts to something or someone.
Goleman’s term aims to recognize that we have an ancient structure in our brain, the amygdala, that is designed to respond swiftly to a threat.
While the amygdala is intended to protect us from danger, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature.
When you see, hear, touch, or taste something, that sensory information first heads to the thalamus, which acts as your brain’s relay station. The thalamus then relays that information to the neocortex (the “thinking brain”). From there, it is sent to the amygdala (the “emotional brain”) which produces the appropriate emotional response.
However, when faced with a threatening situation, the thalamus sends sensory information to both the amygdala and the neocortex. If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split-second decision to initiate the fight-or-flight response before the neocortex has time to overrule it.
This cascade of events triggers the release of stress hormones, including the hormones epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.
These hormones prepare your body to flee or flight by increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure, and boosting your energy levels, among other things.
While many of the threats we face today are symbolic, evolutionarily, our brains evolved to deal with physical threats to our survival that require a quick response. As a result, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight or flight, even though there is no actual physical threat with which we must contend.
Mental Health and the Amygdala
Chronic stress and certain mental health conditions can also play a role in the functioning of fear circuitry in the brain, which can result in greater chances of amygdala hijacking.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, show greater amygdala activation and therefore, increased emotional responding including fear and anxiety responses.
People with other anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder (SAD) and panic disorder may also respond more strongly in their amygdala.
Even without a diagnosis of PTSD or anxiety 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 the inhibition of fear, such as the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.
All of this means that chronic stress can trigger more frequent amygdala hijacks and even subsequent problems with short-term memory, which is why it is important to work on understanding and taking charge of your emotional reactions. One way to do this is through preventative work.
Learning coping mechanisms and planning ahead can positively influence how you will respond in times of stress and help avoid an amygdala-induced overreaction.
The best way to prevent an amygdala hijack is to increase your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence describes your ability to understand and manage your emotions and use this information positively to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, and defuse conflict.
A person who is emotionally intelligent has strong connections between the emotional centre of the brain and the executive (thinking) centre.
Emotionally intelligent people know how to de-escalate their own emotions by becoming engaged, focused, and attentive to their thoughts and feelings.
Although some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, like many skill sets, emotional intelligence can be cultivated. One way is by practising mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. According to a 2014 study, mindfulness meditation can help improve your emotional intelligence in three major ways:
- Improves your ability to comprehend your own emotions
- Helps you learn how to recognize the emotions of others
- Strengthens your ability to control your emotions
By practising 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 to the mindful aspect of your mind. If you still find yourself having trouble with this concept, try keeping notes throughout the day about situations that cause you to feel strong emotions.
Another key to preventing amygdala hijacking is being aware of your stressors and identifying when acute, everyday stress has turned into chronic stress. If you find yourself constantly in a state of stress, employing stress management techniques can help.
Effective stress management should include fast-acting stress relievers (like breathing exercises) for immediate relief in stressful situations as well as healthy habits that reduce overall stress (like exercise, meditation, and journaling).
Though very effective in preventing amygdala hijacks, it can take time to learn and incorporate mindfulness and stress management into your daily routine. If despite your best efforts at prevention, you find yourself in the middle of a hijack, there are a number of things you can do to quickly get your unwanted emotions under control:
- Name it. Notice when you’ve been triggered and identify what’s triggering you. Notice changes in your tone, tightness in your chest or stomach, clenching in your jaw or hands, etc. In these moments, say to yourself, “I’m feeling triggered right now.”
- Remember the 6-second rule. It takes the chemicals that are released during the amygdala hijacking about 6 seconds to dissipate. Using this time to focus on something pleasant will prevent your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction
- Breathe. Become aware of your breath and slow it down. When you slow down your breathing and make it rhythmic, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is your best response. This type of deep breathing calms down your nervous system and allows you to make thoughtful decisions in stressful times.
- 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 present.
- 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.
While preventing an overreaction in the first place or diffusing it at the moment may be the ultimate goal, it’s OK to slip up. If you do find yourself in the aftermath of a full-blown amygdala hijack, take some time to acknowledge your actions and review what happened.
Spending some time thinking about your reactions—especially when they aren’t a reflection of your best self—can help to shift you toward a mindful way of viewing your experience. Over time, this practice will help to develop your emotional intelligence as well.
An amygdala hijack can be frightening because of the sense of loss of control and can leave you feeling guilty and regretful. But, with practice, it is possible to avoid letting your emotional response get the better of you.
If practising mindfulness and employing stress management techniques aren’t cutting it or you could use some extra support, set up an appointment with a mental health professional. Together, you can work to better understand and manage your emotions.