This topic reviews a phenomenon called Emotional or Amygdala Hijacking. This that moment when experiences such a strong emotional response to a situation that we feel out of control. It affects us and how we react to those around us. From the perspective of Emotional Intelligence it is important to understand what is going on and consider some strategies to deal with it.

Emotional Hijacking

At one time or another we have all been in that place when we respond to a situation with a rapid build-up of strong emotion, often fear, anger or panic. It’s as if we are under the control of strong influences over which we have no control. This is emotional hijacking and it has physiological origins due to the way the part of brain called the amygdala functions. The name amygdala is derived from the Greek for almond because the amygdala are almond shaped. There are two of them and they are relatively small in comparison to other regions of the brain.

Goleman refers to his process as the “Amygdala Hijack” and identifies three distinct steps:

  • The onset of sudden emotional reaction

  • A sense of being “taken over” by that emotion

  • Regret afterwards: “Why did I do that?”

The amygdala is the part of our brain that assesses threats and controls our “fight or flight” responses. It has access to memories of our emotional experiences and assesses situations to decide if we are under threat. If it decides that we are, then it rapidly triggers the various body functions to take appropriate action, pump adrenaline into our system and kicks-off our fight or our flight, whichever is best for our survival.

You have been there, everyone has, so you know that cool, rational thought doesn’t take place, at least for a while, because the amygdala over-rides our rational processes. Our rational processes are carried out in the cortex of our brain and they are relatively slow compared to the amygdala, and our responses are under our control. On the other hand the amygdala is fast and forces action, which is often uncontrollable and not always rational.  At this point the automatic action of the amygdala prevents you from being able to take considered and rational control of your responses. This means that you can say and do things, not meant but which hurt and offend.

The Hijack!

What is the process by which the amygdala hijacks you?

  1. Information from all the senses is sent to both the cortex and the amygdala.

  2. The cortex processes information rationally at normal pace, preparing to exert normal controls on your reaction. At the same time the amygdala rapidly compares our sensory information with our stored emotional memories of threat and danger; it’s much faster than our cortex. If there is a match the amygdala acts quickly.

  3. The amygdala floods the cortex with hormones, which block its processing and prevent it from having control. At the same time it fires off our emotional and physical fear responses e.g. strong sense of panic, flooding the body with adrenaline. This is the moment of the hijack.

  4. The result is an unthinking response which can be swift and extreme, and if fight is the response then it can be violent.

Your emotional hijack response is determined by the information about threats and fears that the amygdala has available to it and which have been accumulated over the years. This, if you like, is the database it uses to compare with your sensory input and make its decision to trigger fight or flight. There can also be a third type of response which is freeze.

So, you can be forced to freeze, fight or flee, dependent on your experiences collected over a lifetime. Imagine having been in some situation in the past which justifiably caused fear and now you are in a situation which somehow resembles it; how someone looks, something that’s said, a smell and so on. Your amygdala compares the current situation to that one in your memory and HIJACK!  Off you go in the heat of the moment, uncontrollably into the attack or the flight; or you freeze like a “rabbit in the head lights”.

The poor, harmless unfortunate who is with you has no clue as to what is going on, or why; hopefully you have not ruined a wonderful relationship.

Countering the Hijack

All is not lost because being forewarned is being forearmed, and if you can recognise what is going on there are things you can do.

  • When it happens to others use empathy and humour

If you are with someone who succumbs to an amygdala hijack deploy your empathy. Avoid responding to them as a threat, because the last thing you need is to be hijacked too, and use humour to neutralize the situation.  If you are the target of the response remember that you have done similar things to others in the past and if you get along with this person in general, joke a bit and understand that everyone makes mistakes.

  • When it happens to you hold it in for 6 seconds.

The hormones with which the amygdala floods the cortex take 6 seconds to dissipate. So when you sense it happening hold it together for 6 seconds and the reaction will begin to subside and the cortex can begin to resume control.

    • You can count six elephants. In English saying, “one elephant” takes about one second, so count six of them;

    • Slowly take six deep breaths;

    • Focus your thoughts on something pleasant or fun, or on things you want to do at the weekend, until the initial reaction to lose control subsides.
  • Identify the stimulus

Identifying what triggered the reaction can keep the cortex involved and help prevent the amygdala from taking over completely.

  • Train the amygdala

Remember, the amygdala operates on past information so by identifying the triggers you can teach the amygdala to respond differently in the future.

On the longer, a considered self-awareness is also important.  If we examine ourselves we can learn to understand who we are and why we react as we do. Then we have the possibility of reacting differently. As our amygdala builds up its knowledge of our reactions resulting from such reflections, it will develop a new understanding of threat. So we need not be controlled by those things we often refer to as “Hot Buttons”. This can help us in our progress through life as well as improving the way we react and respond to others.

  • Take a Moment: Recall the last time that you suffered an emotional hijack?
    • Try to work out why it happened?
    • Was it based on reality?
    • How should you have responded?
    • What can you do to improve your response next time?

Remember, your response might have been wholly appropriate if there was a genuine threat so this question is not intended to imply that any such response is wrong. It’s intended to help you begin to develop your self-awareness.