Understanding the amygdala hijack
Emotion is an instinctive or intuitive feeling thought to have evolved as a way for humans to communicate before the development of modern language as a way to guide us socially. Our basic emotions — fear, sorrow, disgust, anger and joy — link with social emotions such as shame, guilt and pride to shape our behaviour and provide a record of the way in which our experiences, culture, personality, community and peers “teach” us how to respond to specific situations. Emotion is entwined with mood, temperament, disposition and motivation and can be defined as either positive or negative, depending on the behaviour it elicits.
Emotional triggering is, at its heart, a survival response and the brain creates powerful associations between things that hurt you and whatever was going on when this hurt occurred.
In neuropsychological terms, it’s the limbic system — of which the amygdala is a part — that controls your emotional responses and the behaviours that stem from these emotions. Consisting of two almond-sized nuclei located behind the eyes and optical nerves, the amygdala operates beyond conscious awareness, tapping into emotional memory at a very high speed. This quick processing means your emotional responses cause other more rational parts of the brain to freeze, so that you react, rather than respond, to whatever is happening around you. This reactive, rather than responsive, process generates words and behaviours that can and do lead to regret, the destruction of relationships, the loss of careers as well as the potential for anxiety and aggression.
In addition, this quick processing can lead to confusion and an inattention to what has actually happened. For instance, anger can be a key indicator of stress and/or fear. While you might see someone exhibit behaviours that suggest they are angry, what they may actually be feeling is frightened. This occurs because emotional responses are often hierarchical so that the initial or primary emotion — in this case fear — can generate a secondary emotion — anger — that fuels the behaviour you see in others or enact yourself. So while anger has triggered a specific behaviour, anger is not the original emotion activated by the amygdala and the stimulus it received.
To properly address and manage the real emotion behind an outburst, it is important to be able to accurately identify it.
In his work on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman calls these kinds of reactive responses the “amygdala hijack”. During this process the amygdala effectively takes command and control of the brain leading you to say and do things that can cause harm to yourself and others. According to Goleman, an amygdala hijack has three parts: a strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and a post-episode realisation if the reaction was inappropriate. This strong response is generated automatically because this brain system evolved at a very early stage of human development.
Learning to control and calm your own feelings of agitation or distress so you don’t create your own amygdala hijack or buy into another person’s emotional turmoil is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.
While the threats of today are generally not, in everyday life, the same as those experienced by your ancestors, the response of the amygdala is just the same, creating havoc with your chemistry and shutting down the neocortex as a range of hormones course through your veins. The shutting down of the neocortex circumvents your ability to make a reasoned response to a perceived threat, reducing you to mechanisms and habitual patterns that might include lashing out verbally or physically, avoiding dealing with situations that you find difficult or freezing so that you become a passive recipient of distressing moments.
While the range of emotions that you feel help you to determine what is right and wrong in your life, when you can’t control the behaviours that stem from these emotions, they become problematic. Being able to recognise and manage emotions is a basic tenant of emotional intelligence, yet many of us struggle to find the awareness needed to begin the process of harnessing and productively directing these emotions. It is crucial for contentment, good mental health and fulfilling relationships that you are not only able to harness your emotional responses, but can accurately identify what it is you are truly feeling.
So, what can you do? How do you protect yourself and others from an amygdala hijack? The first step is recognising physiological cues, acknowledging your triggers, identifying and naming emotions, becoming aware of habitual responses and applying conscious effort to moderate your responses when and where required.
Emotion and the body
When a threat is perceived, the amygdala generates an alarm, releasing a torrent of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol flood the system, immediately preparing you for the fight, flight or freeze response. When this profoundly instinctive function takes over, an amygdala hijack can occur, initiating physiological responses such as an increased heart rate or clammy palms, shallow or rapid breathing, a clenched jaw, tensed muscles and/or a flushed face. These are all sensations designed to move you to instinctive action.
At the same time, the amygdala immediately shuts down the neural pathway to the prefrontal or neocortex, which can cause feelings of disorientation in a heated conversation and a reduction in complex decision-making skills, including perspective taking. This narrowing of your view means that you become egocentric, concerned with your own safety or the safety of a loved one above all else.
Additionally, your memory will become untrustworthy leading you to find only those feelings and experiences that support your fight, leaving logic, reality and rationality to the side. Indeed, research suggests that during these highly emotive moments, your memory reshuffles itself to provide immediate access to memories that are most relevant to the situation, reaffirming your response and even allowing you to justify it.
While trying to avoid your own hijack is important, so is avoiding tapping into someone else’s. Called emotional contagion, it is not uncommon that when facing someone else in the throes of an amygdala hijack you can be easily drawn into the tornado of emotion being directed at you. Yet, experience tells us that conversation descending into a screaming match because both parties are emotionally triggered never ends well. As such it is important to learn how not to let someone else’s amygdala hijack become your own so you can control the situation and hopefully defuse it.
The amygdala draws on emotional memory as much as it does instinct, so that past experiences and the expectations you have based on the past will determine when you will react and how intense your reaction to specific moments will be. Unfortunately it is easy to use your triggers as an excuse for poor behavior, yet this does little to help you evolve personally or develop your private and professional relationships.
Instead, keep in mind that your triggers explain, rather than excuse, the things that you do and say in the heat of the moment. As already discussed, emotional triggering is, at its heart, a survival response and the brain creates powerful associations between things that hurt you and whatever was going on when this hurt occurred. Sometimes these connections are rational, but other times — as with phobias — they can be extreme.
Becoming aware of your triggers gives you control over your emotional responses so they can be appropriate and even moderated if they are not useful or productive. Awareness creates responsibility to recognise your triggering situations so you can change your unconscious reactions, leading you towards wiser thoughts and actions.
One of the most common responses we have to our reactions and over-reactions is to blame the situation, event or other person. Yet your emotional responses are purely your own. Any number of people will respond to the same catalyst differently, depending on their perception of it. Essentially, it is your beliefs or feelings about the event that generate your personal response. Beliefs about a situation are just one way that emotional triggers can influence your behaviour. As previously mentioned, sometimes emotional triggers can lead to positive behavior, however they are most often associated with negative behaviour.
When you are unaware of your emotional triggers, these negative behaviours can seem automatic and out of your control but through awareness you can begin to monitor your most extreme emotional responses, to realise which moments are most difficult for you. It is important in becoming aware that you remember a trigger is an experience that draws you back into the past and causes old feelings and behaviours to arise. These can be situational or social but inevitably tap into past hurts, humiliations, fears and biases.
To begin the process of awareness, take note of the situations you are in when your responses are excessive or destructive. Include the people who were there and what was happening, paying particular attention to the moment when you could feel your tension and emotion begin to rise. With attention and practice, you may begin to see a pattern that will better enable you to identify the cause of your reactions. While it is important to understand the external stimuli that push your emotional buttons it is also important to understand that emotions are intrinsically linked to your thoughts.
Your thoughts and expectations, automatic judgments and prejudices about situations and people profoundly influence your feelings and behaviour. In many instances these thoughts, expectations, judgments and prejudices are inaccurate, unhelpful or no longer relevant. As such, when you become aware of them, you are in a better position to challenge them and ultimately change or at least moderate them.
Learning to pause
During the process of awareness as you explore and discover your emotional triggers, you will also find that you have created an opportunity to intervene in the space between the triggering event and your response. This space allows you to create a more desirable situation by giving you time to rethink your habitual responses. Learning to control and calm your own feelings of agitation or distress so you don’t create your own amygdala hijack or buy into another person’s emotional turmoil is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence represents the ability you have to recognise your own and other people’s emotions, discern between different emotions and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour and manage or adjust emotions to better manage situations and meet personal and professional goals. According to Goleman, there are five main elements of emotional intelligence that need to be harnessed for personal and professional success. These include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. When talking about emotional triggers, the focus is on self-awareness and self-regulation.
Self-awareness refers to knowledge about how you feel at any given time of the day, understanding how your emotions and your actions can affect the people around you, having a clear sense of your strengths and weaknesses as well as behaving in ways that reflect your values. Self-regulation is about using the information gleaned through self-awareness to regulate and adjust your words and actions to avoid making rushed or emotional decisions, stereotyping others or compromising your values. Self-regulation is about staying in control to ensure the best outcomes for yourself and others.
Self-regulation occurs in that space you created with self-awareness that exists between emotion and reaction. It is sometimes referred to as activating your PAUSE button. Your mental pause button provides space within which you can emotionally disengage from the moment, giving yourself time to decide on the best response or whether to even offer one.
While it is important to note that there are no “bad” emotions, danger lies in how these emotions manifest themselves when triggered. Your pause button lessens this danger, through awareness and practice, by giving you space to employ strategies that can help you to reappraise the situation, challenge your thoughts and expectations and control or change potential outcomes.
Activating your pause button
Tune into your body: recognise the signs you’re becoming upset or angry including muscle tension, heart rate and breathing.
Breathe: take a few deep breaths to give you time to think and your body to calm.
Acknowledge the emotion: name it and you’ll find that the feeling is easier to control. If you don’t recognise your feelings, you can’t challenge them or manage them.
Reframe the situation: reappraising a situation and turning it around can depersonalise the moment, diffusing emotional reactions.
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