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What is an Amygdala Hijack?

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What Exactly is an Amygdala Hijack?

An amygdala hijack is any emotional response to a situation which is an over reaction. This occurs as the body enters a flight, freeze or flight mode. A person may say something that they later regret in the 'heat of the moment'. It is important to recognise the signs of an amygdala hijack to avoid flipping out, getting angry or doing something emotionally without thinking. There are ways in which we can retrain the brain to overcome our primitive over reactions to events which are not life threatening. The events in our world today which are likely to trigger an inappropriate amygdala hijacking often are associated with a perceived psychological stress instead of a life threatening situation. It is important when one is in a life threatening situation or in a situation where an individual is required to act quickly to use this natural mechanism of entering the flight or fight response.


Signs of the Amygdala Hijack

When your body enters the fight or flight response, cortisol and adrenaline are released in order to prepare your body for the situation. When you sense real danger and perceived danger in a situation the cortex of the brain shuts down. As a result it makes it difficult for you to think clearly and rationally in a given situation. The amygdala in the brain is triggered and in control of your response or actions in this scenario. In a genuine dangerous situation where you need to act quickly this can be beneficial to have this reflex action to respond to the threat. However, more often than not, many times the amygdala hijack response is triggered when there is deemed to be a perceived threat but there is none.

For example, you may be under pressure at work and snap out at a colleague for asking a question. This is simply classed as an over reaction as you could have dealt with the situation in a much better way. After you apologise to your colleague and cannot believe that you just did that. This little scenario described is a typical example of the amygdala hijack response.

There are some signs that you can potentially look out for which may aid you in scenarios where you need to act rationally and instead of in haste. Below is a list of common signs that you are about to have entered the amygdala hijack phase of emotional reasoning:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Racing heartbeat, you may feel on edge
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling as you are no longer in control of your thoughts - your mind is racing
  • Nausea
  • High blood pressure

Chronic stress has many harmful effects on the health of an individual. Chronic stress is known to effect short term memory and can also trigger more frequent amygdala hijacks. The fear circuit in the brain is easily activated when an individual is dealing with chronic stress.

There are other mental health conditions as well chronic stress that can increase the frequency of the amygdala hijack. These include the following:

  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder

Each of these mental health conditions can result in an increase in amygdala activation which ultimately results in more emotional responses such as fear and anxiety. A vicious cycle of anxiety can develop leading to a fear of a similar response happening in the future.

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For example, if somebody has a panic attack in a particular environment they may fear being in a similar environment in the future incase it results in a similar event. This can then lead to avoidance behaviours which can further justify these beliefs. In this scenario it is important to get professional help in order to find the underlying causes of such intense anxiety. If these types of issues go unresolved it may result in further limitations in one's life and cause symptoms of anxiety to increase.

How to Become Better at Dealing with Your Emotions?

The best scenario is to ensure that an amygdala hijack does not occur. In order to prevent and reduce the occurrence of the amygdala hijack it is beneficial to work on increasing your emotional intelligence. By increasing your emotional intelligence you can get better at controlling your own emotions as well being effective at deescalating challenging situations. This can be very important in both your personal and professional life as it an essential life skill. By paying attention to our own feelings and the feelings of others we are likely to have better mutual understanding with our work colleagues and even in our own personal relationships.

Other Useful Tips for Training Your Mind

  • Use the practice of mindfulness to help you create stronger connections in the brain making you more aware of your own emotions. This will give you some time to act before you do something you later regret or helps you avoid overreacting in situations.
  • Take slow deep breaths to calm down. This will help regulate the nervous system and will help your brain to think clearly.
  • Take a break. If you are feeling very stressed it is important to acknowledge this and do something to alleviate your stress. From my own personal opinion it is important to maintain a good work life balance.
  • Having a healthy balanced diet can have positive effects on our mental health as well as our physical health.
  • Make sure you get enough good quality sleep. Your brain will be able to function better when you have had a good night's rest.
  • Practise naming your emotions when you feel them. This can be a useful exercise to identify how we feel in the present moment.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Gupi


Gupi (author) on July 08, 2019:

Hi Pamela,

Thank you for sharing your feedback. I am glad you found my article interesting.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2019:

I was not familiar with this term, but certainly familiar with those symptoms. I no longer get upset, and not really mad about anything anymore. I remember getting mad when I was in my 20's and probably 30's, but life is too short to let things upset you to that degree. I think sleep is one of the most important things you mentioned, as when I was really tired I was more impatient. This is a very interesting article.

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