Amygdala hijack is an emotional stress response, but it may also help you understand why we do the things we do. Amygdala hijack occurs in three stages: perception of a threat, malfunctioning and irrational behavior, and memory and learning after the incident.
The Amygdala is one part of the Limbic System that determines our emotions. The Amygdala has been called “a network of nuclei that consolidate information about emotionally significant events” (Cahill). The Amygdala plays a role in processing memory, making decisions, and determining how we feel about certain situations.
The Frontal Lobe is responsible for some rather complicated functions such as decision making, planning actions, and evaluating consequences. This part of your brain processes a person’s emotional state and ability to associate meaning with an event.
Stages of Amygdala Hijack
The Amygdala hijack occurs in three stages: perception of a threat, malfunctioning and irrational behavior, and memory and learning after the incident. In Amygdala hijacks, our thinking becomes clouded as we make decisions from the Amygdala’s perspective rather than from a more rational perspective.
In Stage One, Amygdala functions cause you to perceive a situation as dangerous when it is not. It becomes this way because there is no reasoning process going on that would allow you to logically determine if a situation should be considered safe or dangerous. Instead, everything gets evaluated by the Amygdala based on Fight-or-Flight responses, which were developed when humans were faced with natural dangers, such as a lion.
In Stage Two, the Amygdala hijack causes you to experience strong emotions that take over your thinking process. The Amygdala becomes the single most influential part of the brain at this point because it is in full control and has stopped all reasoning functions from being used. This condition is known as an Amygdala Exhaustion State.
At this stage, the Amygdala function may cause one to lash out irrationally or say things they would never normally say. In the Amygdala Exhaustion States, there is no concern for consequences or what will happen next because the Amygdala only wants to ensure survival in any way possible before an incident occurs. Your judgment becomes completely clouded.
Stage Three occurs after the Amygdala hijack is over, and you are left with memories of the incident. Now, you can rationally process what happened because your Amygdala has given up control to restore reasoning capabilities. The Amygdala has now allowed for the Prefrontal Cortexes, which govern planning and considering consequences, to return to normal function. This stage may lead you into post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which events from prior Amygdala hijack mix together so that one cannot tell them apart anymore (Cahill).
With time, however, this condition too shall pass, but it does not diminish the effects of Amygdala hijack on a person’s behavior or emotional state. Amygdala hijacks can be pervasive, and one may suffer from Amygdala hijack in many different areas, such as love life or career (Cahill).
Mental Health and the Amygdala
The Amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the brain that plays an important role in processing emotions such as fear and anxiety. Amygdala Hijack refers to a situation where someone’s Amygdala becomes more active than their Prefrontal Cortex (where logic and reason reside), resulting in a person making irrational decisions based on intense emotional reactions instead of logically assessing the actual risk factors present.
Amygdala hijack can occur when a perceived threat causes one’s Amygdala to take over before one’s Prefrontal Cortex has had time to assess the situation fully. Amygdala hijacking may result in “initial automatic appraisals followed by slower, more explicit completing.”
The Amygdala reacts so quickly among primates because it is a vital device for survival, and the Amygdala “hijacks” conscious thought to ensure survival by directing an individual to take quick action – through fear.
Here are some situations that may cause Amygdala Hijacking:
- In-person physical threats or attacks
Amygdala hijack is more likely when one thinks they are physically threatened or attacked, as Amygdala responses can help us avoid being hurt. For example, if someone were walking down the street and saw a car speeding at them, it would be adaptive for their Amygdalas to go off so they could flee from harm immediately rather than waste time thinking about whether or not they were actually in danger. Furthermore, oxytocin production increases during Amygdala hijack, which is associated with feelings of trust and the formation of close personal relationships. Therefore, amygdala hijacking may be a factor in strengthening interpersonal ties between individuals with a history of Amygdala hijacking.
- When one feels they are being personally attacked
Amygdala hijack is more likely when one feels they are being personally attacked or threatened, especially if this perception has been reinforced over time. Amygdala responses can help us avoid being hurt by helping us to protect ourselves from danger through fear/flight/freeze responses, each unique to an individual’s past experiences and culture.
- Personal violations such as assault or mugging
In these instances, an Amygdala hijack can cause displacement aggression, where someone will lash out at a person or thing that is perceived to be less of a threat to the individual. Therefore, amygdala hijacking can cause one to lash out in fear instead of fleeing, which may have personal consequences for the Amygdala hijacked person.
- Interpersonal conflict
When someone feels another person is personally attacking them, Amygdala hijacking might happen, leading them to fight back in self-defense rather than flee or follow some other route of escape like non-hijacked individuals likely would do. Amygdala hijacking could result in more extreme behaviors such as sexual assault and murder – especially when combined with alcohol consumption. Amygdala hijack has been linked to increased rates of rape the influence of alcohol and drugs.
- Our “fight or flight” response to authority figures
An Amygdala hijack may happen when someone feels that the rules of society are being threatened by an “authority figure” such as a boss, policeman, teacher, etc. Amygdala hijacking might cause one to lash out at society’s rules instead of obeying them through acts of civil disobedience. Amygdala hijacking can also cause one to act on their anger toward authority figures in more extreme ways such as assault and murder, depending on the individual’s history of experiencing Amygdala hijackings and cultural norms concerning violence.
- Witnessing a violent crime
Amygdala hijacking may occur after witnessing violence, which is especially traumatizing because Amygdala hijack can be associated with feelings of helplessness. Amygdala hijacking may cause one to lash out after witnessing violence in ways that mirror the violence they witnessed, especially when combined with alcohol or drug consumption and a history of Amygdala hijacking. Amygdala hijack has been linked to increased rates of rape in witnesses of violent crimes, especially when combined with alcohol and drugs.
- Experiencing trauma
Amygdala hijacking is more likely for individuals who have experienced a traumatic event such as war or sexual assault due to the perceived threat they felt at the time. Amygdala hijacking might cause someone to lash out violently rather than flee, freeze up from the shock, or cry from sadness depending on their past Amygdala hijacking experiences and their cultural norms regarding how they should behave. Amygdala hijacking has been linked to increased rates of rape in veterans returning from war and those who have suffered sexual assault. Amygdala hijacking more likely after a traumatic event is also more likely for those with a history of Amygdala hijackings or anxiety disorders such as SAD, PTSD, and panic disorder.
- Alcohol consumption
We know that Amygdala hijacking can be influenced by alcohol consumption because we know Amygdala activity differs between sober and intoxicated individuals. Therefore, amygdala hijacking might occur more often when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs due to their effect on the Amygdala response (in most cases, Amygdala hijacking is caused by Amygdala hyperactivity). Amygdala hijacking has been linked to increased rates of rape in intoxicated individuals.
Prevention of Amygdala hijack
A better way to handle Amygdala Hijacks is to know how they work and prevent them from happening. Amygdala Hijacks are not the end of the world, and Amygdala Hijack Prevention is possible through emotional intelligence.
Amygdala Hijacks is a process that starts in the Amygdala and ends up affecting your behavior. You can take Amygdala Hijack Prevention through emotional intelligence to delay the Amygdala from being activated, delay the Amygdala from taking control of your behavior, or eliminate Amygdalae.
To be prepared for Amygdala hijacks, you should increase your emotional intelligence by knowing how to identify them as they happen. Knowing what is happening helps you figure out why it is happening, giving you more power to control what happens next. The more Emotional Intelligence (EQ) you have, the less likely it will relapse into another Amygdala hijack because you’ve learned how to manage stress during an Amygdala hijack episode.
People who are capable of Amygdala hijack prevention use their Amygdala as a warning sign to let them know that they’re entering into a stressful situation. They then take time out and defuse their Amygdala before it starts reacting. If Amygdala Hijacks can be prevented, then so can Amygdala hijack relapses and emotional meltdowns!
Coping Amygdala hijack
We’ve all been there. Amygdala hijacks are an up-close and personal interaction with the most primitive, visceral aspect of our brains that can be both sobering and scary when it happens without warning or restraint.
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 so you can learn from these experiences.
Identify Amygdala Hijack Symptoms
Check yourself for possible symptoms that might indicate an amygdalae takeover is occurring:
- increased heart rate
- clenched teeth
- tight muscles throughout your body
- the feeling of being overwhelmed or out of control
- increased mental chatter, especially involving self-criticism, judgment, and blame
Once you’ve identified an issue, try not to get swept away by the intensity of the emotions. Align yourself with your highest values to motivate moving forward in a productive manner that reflects your true self.
Numb Out Amygdala Hijack Emotions for Self-Compassion
When experiencing difficult emotions like fear, anger, and shame, it can be hard to think clearly about what’s important to us. These feelings can make it more challenging to recall our core values and remind ourselves why we do the things we do every day.
Emotion is often experienced as an immediate response (often called the Amygdala Hijack) that can be difficult to stop or turn off once it’s turned on. The Amygdala Hijack is a powerful motivating force that can cause us to react without first considering all of the options available to us, which may not be as extreme as we feel they are at the time.
Get Support from Amygdala Hijack Trusted Friends
Depending upon your current circumstances, you might benefit from talking with a trusted friend or colleague about what happened during your Amygdala Hijack. In some cases, simply sharing your feelings and actions with someone else who cares about you can provide almost immediate relief from those negative emotions you’ve felt since it happened.
In other situations, establishing an action plan for doing something different next time might be the best approach. If you feel this course of action is warranted, it can be very helpful to ask a friend or colleague to help you develop an appropriate plan for doing things differently in the future.
Don’t Be Too Hard on Amygdala Hijack Self
If you find yourself getting sucked back into a full amygdala hijack again, remember that Amygdala Hijacks are your brain’s way of telling you that there’s been a change in plans from what your primitive brain has been trying to get you to do up until now. Instead of giving in and acting out based upon old habits and emotional impulses, try taking deep breaths and focusing internally on sharing your feelings with yourself in ways that don’t hurt you and others around you.
You might also try writing down any Amygdala Hijack incidents that concern you on a piece of paper or your computer to quickly remind yourself of the possible triggers for these types of reactions. Making a note of Amygdala Hijack situations like this can help you recognize what has been happening and provide information about preventing such problems from occurring again in the future.
Boost Amygdalae During Amygdala Hijacks with Self-Compassion
Be as gentle and understanding with yourself during Amygdala Hijacks as you possibly can by accepting where you are right now and doing your best to soothe those negative emotions until they subside. If it’s helpful, consider putting words to your Amygdala Hijack feelings to communicate them to others.
With practice, Amygdala Hijack events will occur less often, and when they do happen, they won’t be quite as difficult for you to manage. Amygdala Hijacks must not become a habit or pattern of behavior for you since the Amygdala’s job is primarily about survival which means it doesn’t always make great decisions based upon what’s best for you in your current circumstances.
Be forgiving with yourself during Amygdala Hijacks until self-compassion has become part of your coping skills toolbox. Your Amygdalae are usually pretty good at their jobs, but there are also times when they get distracted by things like past fears, past failures, and past losses. Amygdala Hijacks can be a sign that we need to find ways to get our Amygdalae out of “Past Loss” mode and back into the present moment where they’re more focused on the available threats right now.