Amygdala hijack occurs when strong emotions “take over” the thinking part of your brain.
We’ve all had that moment where we look back and think “Why in the world did I do that?”
Amygdala hijack may happen when strong emotions, such as anger, fear, or even extreme excitement, make it difficult or impossible to think straight.
This mechanism can cause you to act in ways you later regret.
Have you ever experienced road rage? Or quit your job in the heat of the moment? That’s the amygdala hijack.
The amygdala is a collection of nuclei located deep in a part of the brain known as the temporal lobe. The term is Latin for “almond,” referring to the almond-like shape of the amygdala’s most prominent section.
While we often refer to it in the singular (amygdala), we actually have two amygdalae — one in each cerebral hemisphere.
The amygdala is part of the limbic system, a set of brain structures that help regulate our behavioral and emotional responses. And though it’s probably best known for its role in the fight, flight, or freeze response, it serves a variety of purposes.
The amygdala is involved in the following functions:
- detecting threats
- triggering a body response (e.g., pulling your hand off a hot stove)
- fear conditioning (e.g., being afraid to drive after getting in a car accident)
- processing positive emotions
- encoding emotional memories
The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence.” It refers to an intense emotional reaction that’s out of proportion to the circumstance.
Essentially, the rational brain is bypassed and signals are sent straight to the “emotional brain.” Later, the thinking part of your brain processes the information, and you may realize your reaction was over the top.
What happens in the brain?
An amygdala hijack occurs when any strong emotion — anger, fear, anxiety, or even extreme excitement — impairs the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in the frontal lobe that regulates rational thought.
Research from 2016 suggests an inverse relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. For instance, when the amygdala is activated, the prefrontal cortex is less activated. When emotions run high, the blood and oxygen flow to the amygdala rather than the prefrontal cortex, reducing our ability to think and solve problems.
While this process is helpful in an actual life-and-death situation, an amygdala hijack may also occur when your kid hits a baseball through the car window.
Having all of the blood run from the rational part of your brain won’t help the situation and may cause you to act in ways you later regret.
Here’s an example of what’s happening in the brain:
- A sensory stimulus — in this case, the sound of the ball crashing through the window — travels through your auditory nerve and converts from a sound wave to an electrical impulse in the brain.
- This signal travels to the thalamus (gray matter that helps relay sensory signals) and then to the amygdala before it reaches the brain’s cortex (the “thinking” brain).
- This survival mechanism allows us to react to danger before the rational brain has time to process it. So even before you’ve fully processed how the ball got through the window, you can feel your body gearing up for a dangerous situation.
Examples of amygdala hijack
Here are some more examples of an amygdala hijack:
- Your boss criticizes you in front of your coworkers. You’re so angry that you yell back and quit your job.
- A car swerves in your lane nearly causing an accident. You go into road rage and throw your smoothie in their window.
- You get a phone call that your loved one is in the emergency room, but you’re so distressed that you don’t hear the details.
- You win the lottery, and your excitement makes you scream and cause a scene in the convenience store.
- You lose a tennis match, and in your anger, you throw your racket across the court.
- You’ve been trying for 5 minutes to open a can, and you’re so angry and frustrated you slam it on the counter.
The amygdala hijack involves an intense and sudden emotional reaction, and when you reflect on it later, you often wonder why you acted that way.
Some signs of an amygdala hijack may include:
- increased blood pressure
- racing heart
- fast breathing
- tense muscles
It’s difficult, but an amygdala attack can be stopped if you make a significant effort to be conscious about what’s happening in the brain.
It helps to prepare in advance by practicing what you would do in various scenarios and even think about the potential consequences of losing control (like getting fired or losing a friend).
The next time you feel a surge of anger, try talking yourself through the situation instead of letting yourself automatically react to your intense emotions. Try paying close attention to your emotional and physical symptoms.
It also helps to remove yourself from the situation (if possible) and take deep breaths until you calm down. It may take some time and several tries to truly gain control of highly emotional situations.
In most cases, an amygdala attack can be prevented if there are no underlying mental health disorders. However, if severe anger is being triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or intermittent explosive disorder (IED), it’s important to seek professional help as treatment will be more complex.
You can also practice long-term prevention by engaging in regular calming practices. For instance, starting a regular meditation practice will naturally help your fight, flight, or freeze response become less reactive.
In a large brain scan study from 2018, researchers discovered that long-term meditators had reduced amygdala activation when they were shown images designed to invoke negative feelings.
The findings also showed that after just 8 weeks of meditation training, the brains of participants who were new to meditation showed an increase in connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that supports goal-tracking and self-regulation).
Practicing mindfulness — staying in the present moment without judgment — is another way to prepare for a potential amygdala attack.
We’ve all experienced an amygdala hijack at some point in our lives. But if you experience it more often than you would like, there are ways to deter it.
Consider starting a meditation practice to help calm your fight, fight, or freeze response. You can also practice mindfulness, or take up journaling on a daily basis.
Try planning ahead for the next time you might get overwhelmed with anger or anxiety. For instance, if you always get angry around a certain person, do your best to stay centered when they come around (or if possible, see them less often).