Amygdala Hijack: What It Is and How to Deal With It

Have you ever lost control of yourself and ended up doing something that you still regret today? The amygdala is the part of your brain that interferes with your behavior at times, causing you to display over-exaggerated reactions.
Amygdala Hijack: What It Is and How to Deal With It

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 10 October, 2022

We’ve all experienced outbursts, loss of control, overreactions, or emotional explosions at some time or another. After all, we’re only human, and letting ourselves be carried away by our intense emotions is completely normal. However, it often makes us feel bad because there can be few more invalidating experiences than not having control over ourselves.

Those who most often exhibit this type of behavior that’s dominated by fear, anger, or anguish are usually patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumas are the kinds of life experiences that affect a key structure in the brain, known as the amygdala. In fact, any highly stressful event can make it hyperactive.

This region, in addition to regulating other processes, is responsible for receiving danger signals, processing them, and triggering a series of reactions that facilitate our survival and self-protection. Consequently, going through a period of high anguish, threats, and fear tends to alter it. We constantly feel threatened and our emotional patterns are disproportionate.

This reaction has a name. iI’s known as an amygdala hijack, a concept introduced by Daniel Goleman in 1995, in his now classic book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. We’re going to delve a little deeper into this concept.

Traumas don’t injure the brain, but they do alter it. One of the consequences is that behavior is ‘kidnapped’ by primitive areas such as the amygdala or the hippocampus, which are key to our survival.

Illuminated child's brain symbolizing the abduction of the amygdala
The main function of the amygdala is to allow us to react to dangerous situations.

The amygdala hijack

An amygdala hijack is an intense emotional response to a stressful situation. It involves reactions mediated by the loss of control of our emotions. To understand this type of experience, we need to know about the functions of this small region of the brain.

The amygdala is essential for our survival. It protects us from everyday dangers. It processes our environment, registers and remembers dangers, and sends signals to our brains to act. Its objective is that we act, either escaping from danger or facing it. However, the problem is that our reaction patterns aren’t always helpful in the modern world we live in.

In our evolutionary past, the amygdala made it easier for us to act in the face of real danger. Nowadays, it’s more aware of unimportant events and fears that aren’t always real. In fact, today, our threats are almost always emotional and mediated by stress and anxiety.

In situations of anguish, the amygdala prevents us from carrying out logical reasoning of the situation. The intense release of adrenaline and cortisol causes us to react quickly, excessively, and uncontrollably. In other words, we’re hijacked by our most intense emotions.

When the cerebral amygdala detects a danger, it acts in less than a second. It barely gives the neocortex any time to stop this reaction or to carry out a more rational analysis of the situation. This means we become subject to our most intense and adverse emotions.

Man in psychotherapy treating his amygdala hijack
Amygdala hijacking is common in anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress. Therapy is essential in these cases.

Who’s more susceptible to an amygdala hijack and what can they do?

As we mentioned earlier, we’ve all overreacted at some time in our lives. However, if we analyzed the context of those reactions, we’d realize that we felt stressed and overwhelmed for a reason. In fact, those of us who are most susceptible to amygdala hijacking are usually suffering from anxiety disorders.

Research conducted by San Diego State University (USA) claims that patients suffering from social anxiety or panic disorder have more hyperactive amygdalas. Likewise, those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, frequently suffer amygdala hijack.

When the brain undergoes a traumatic experience, it suffers alterations in the more primitive areas such as the amygdala and the hippocampus. Consequently, the individual remains in a state of permanent alert, and their mind continuously processes and sees threats. So what can you do if you find yourself in this kind of situation?

Notice what’s happening in your body and name the emotions you experience

An amygdala hijack begins with bodily changes. For instance, tachycardia, sweating, and pressure in the chest and stomach. Firstly, you need to detect these changes. Then, you must clarify what emotions you’re feeling and name them. Telling yourself something like “I’m feeling fearful and anxious. I’m going to sit down and try to regulate what I’m feeling” will help you.

The six-second chemical rule

Cortisol and epinephrine take about six seconds to reduce their impact on your body. Therefore, as soon as you detect changes in your body, and feel the almost instinctive desire to react, give yourself some time. Breathe deeply for several minutes (at least) to dissipate tension and calm your mind.

Time out: give yourself a break

Being gripped by your most intense emotions is exhausting and disturbing. It’s not a pleasant experience. Therefore, every time you feel ambushed by an amygdala hijack, give yourself a few hours of rest. You can either walk, lie down, or talk to someone close to you about what’s happened to you.

The importance of psychological therapy

Hyperactivation in the amygdala is a reaction to an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. As we mentioned earlier, this type of reaction appears in phobias, traumas, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.

In these cases, psychological therapy is a priority. In fact, it’s only in this way that your original problem, the one that’s triggering your poorly adjusted emotional reactions, can be treated. Happily, with therapy, you can learn tools and strategies to improve your emotional regulation and regain control of your life.

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