With all the stressful events the last couple of years, it’s not only easy to lose control of our emotions – it’s part of who we are. So, how do you control an amygdala hijack? But first – what is it?
Most of us know the amygdala hijack as the fight-or-flight response. It was not only useful for early humans but humankind, as we know it, may not have survived without it. We no longer face daily physical threats. We don’t need to worry about being hunted as we gather food or being attacked in our sleep. However, stress of any kind, even psychological, can trigger an amygdala hijack. It should be no surprise that with the stresses and pressures we’ve all shared since 2020 our amygdala are in the drivers’ seat.
What is the Amygdala?
“The amygdala is a collection of nuclei found deep within the temporal lobe. The term amygdala comes from Latin and translates to “almond,” because one of the most prominent nuclei of the amygdala has an almond-like shape. Although we often refer to it in the singular, there are two amygdalae—one in each cerebral hemisphere.”– Know your brain amygdala
What is an Amygdala Hijack?
“It happens when a situation causes your amygdala to hijack control of your response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.
Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala.” — What is an amygdala hijack?
Several studies have concluded that during an Amygdala Hijack, people lose 15 – 20 points off their IQ. Have you ever reacted in anger and later asked yourself how you could do something so stupid? Yea, me too.
How to stop an Amygdala Hijack
Reason it out
Take emotion out of the equation. Do this by stimulating your frontal lobes. Think the situation through, review your possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- How am I getting in my own way?
- What do I want now?
- What do I need to do differently?
Take a walk
Get away from the stressful situation. Walk around the building. Give yourself time to calm down and think. “Once you identify triggers that have the potential to set off your emotional hijack, do anything in your power to address them so you are able to do more than just react. Take a microbreak and walk away from a tense situation by going for a walk, getting a drink, or just giving yourself a minute to calm down.” — Reduce Emotional Hijacking with Emotional Intelligence
Take deep breaths
The amygdala takes blood and oxygen away from the frontal lobes – the thinking part of the brain. Deep breathing can help oxygenate the frontal lobes. “Oxygenate. Slow down the conversation and breathe deeply. In emotional situations, your brain is working intensely and using up a lot of oxygen. Be deliberate in replacing it. Your mother probably never heard of neuroimaging, but somehow she knew that counting to ten was always a good thing.” — Four Ways to Defeat Hijacking
Count to 10
Or 20 or 100 – whatever it takes to bring calm and reason back to your brain. Do not speak or act before you count down to calm. If you chose to react immediately, you likely will continue and recycle the hijack.
“Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body, and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.” — Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor — My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey:
Controlling an Amygdala Hijack
Amygdala Hijacks are unavoidable, but succumbing to them isn’t. That is the reason I wrote this blog post. You see, for more years than I care to admit I let my emotions rule my actions. I would jump to anger and ride it out. I was a hothead, I had a bad temper, and often I was out of control. And I can tell you this; I’m much happier being in control of my emotions.
I used every method of controlling a hijack. I walked away, took deep breaths, and counted to 10. These all helped, but what worked best for me is when I read Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight (linked above). She introduced me to the idea of taking back control of your brain by reengaging it with open-ended questions. She also taught me to tell my brain, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
With the pressure and stress we all face in this modern world, it’s important to have a strategy of calm. Mediate, count, breath, think, do them all, but most of all, be aware of your triggers, do what’s best for you, and don’t feel alone. You’re not.
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