Has an unruly cluster of cells taken over your brain? If you find yourself repeatedly feeling overwhelmed by emotions, overreacting, and feeling guilty about your actions, it’s likely so.
Has an unruly cluster of cells taken over your brain?
If you find yourself repeatedly feeling overwhelmed by emotions, overreacting, and feeling guilty about your actions, it’s likely so.
The amygdala is a small area in your brain that processes emotions and helps you avoid danger. But in these days of constant, chronic stress, our amygdalas might be doing more harm than good.
The good news is that you don’t have to live at the mercy of your amygdala. Here, we’ll learn more about the tricky amygdala hijack, why it happens, and what you can do to take back control of your emotions and behaviors.
What is the Amygdala Hijack?
The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. It describes what happens when the amygdala takes control of your brain and prevents you from reacting appropriately to the stressors in your life.
To better understand the amygdala hijack, it helps to get to know the “players.”
The Amygdala: Emotional Brain
The amygdala is a tiny collection of cells at the base of the brain. As part of the limbic system, it’s responsible for giving emotions meaning, memory, and associations. When you feel threatened, fearful, angry, or anxious, the amygdala is what sets the fight-or-flight response in motion.
The Frontal Lobes: Thinking Brain
The frontal lobes (and the prefrontal cortex) are two areas at the front of your brain that manage rational thinking, logic, planning, and decision-making. Here, we make decisions based on reason, rather than emotion. Where the base of the brain (where the amygdala sits) is more primitive and automatic, the frontal lobes are more advanced and controllable.
What Happens During an Amygdala Hijack?
Before we look at the amygdala hijack, let’s first take a look at what happens during a healthy response to stress:
- You are threatened by something - this could be an actual danger or a workplace annoyance.
- Your amygdala signals danger and tries to activate the flight-or-flight response.
- Your prefrontal cortex processes the threat and determines whether or not it is truly a danger.
- You make a logical decision and respond reasonably to the threat.
Let’s say the situation is mild. Your thinking brain will take over and the amygdala quiets. But, when the threat is strong, the amygdala has the advantage. You don’t have time to “think it through” - you need to act and survive!
This is lifesaving when there really is a danger, but that happens rarely in our modern lives (thankfully!). Unfortunately, the amygdala hasn’t caught on. When we feel strong anger or fear during our normal days, the amygdala overrides (or hijacks) your logical brain and triggers the full flight-or-fight response. As a result, we overreact.
What Does an Amygdala Hijack Feel Like?
The amygdala hijack often feels like anxiety, because most of the symptoms are caused by the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
As you shift into a state of fight-or-flight, your body prepares for action by shunting blood away from your organs and into your muscles, increasing your breath and heart rate, and increasing your blood sugar for more energy. These are the common symptoms of an amygdala hijack:
- You feel confused, cloudy-headed, or your brain goes “blank.”
Sometimes stress clarifies your thoughts. Your brain works better under pressure to solve a problem or escape danger quickly and efficiently. But during an amygdala hijack, everything falters because your thinking brain has lost control. You feel foggy or can’t think straight. Your memory goes out the door and you don’t feel like yourself.
- You get sweaty palms or a rapid heartbeat even with mild stressors.
Sweaty palms and an increased heart rate are pretty common reactions to stress and completely normal. But when it happens even with the “little things,” it could mean your amygdala is in overdrive.
- You overreact, then feel guilty later.
When your amygdala is in control, everything feels like a threat. Because the emotional brain is in charge, you experience things more intensely than your rational brain might. This causes you to overreact to people and situations, have outbursts, then regret your actions later.
How to Prevent the Amygdala Hijack and Restore Your Calm
We’ve all experienced an amygdala hijack at some point in our lives. Thankfully, you can learn to tame your amygdala and keep your cool.
Let’s look at some easy tips for preventing the amygdala hijack and strengthening your emotional intelligence!
- Take a Breath
Your breath is your most valuable weapon against an amygdala hijack. During an amygdala hijack, your breathing will naturally become more shallow as your body prepares to act. By intentionally breathing slower and deeper, you will gradually turn down the dial on your stress response and take back control of your mind.
The 4-7-8 breath is one of the best breathing exercises to turn to in a heated moment. Breathe in for four counts, hold for seven counts, then breathe out for eight counts. The extended out-breath has been proven to reduce blood pressure and heart rate. Within moments, you’ll feel less controlled by emotions and your frontal lobes will take back control.
See it in action here!
- Label Your Emotions
It sounds silly, but labeling what you’re feeling is an incredibly powerful way to take back your control during an amygdala hijack. Because the emotional brain has taken over, we’re not thinking clearly, or experiencing the situation as it truly is. By labeling what’s happening and what we’re feeling, you can shift your brain from reaction (emotional, fight-or-flight) to reflection (thinking, calm).
- What triggered you?
- What exact emotion(s) are you feeling?
Answering these questions instantly removes the emotional brain from the river’s seat and puts you back into your thinking brain.
Even better, write it down! Writing further engages your thinking brain and seeing your problems on paper makes them feel smaller and more manageable.
- Get Acupuncture
Want to keep your amygdala from running the show in the first place? Acupuncture can help. Acupuncture is one of the best ways to rewire your brain for calm, rather than chaos.
Studies show that regular acupuncture treatment effectively modulates the amygdala, keeping it balanced and under control. Women who received acupuncture showed improved regulation of their amygdala and limbic systems, as well as antidepressant benefits.
At Calm San Diego, we’ve seen some pretty amazing results from acupuncture, too. After a course of about 10 acupuncture treatments, our patients consistently report feeling much more in control of their minds. They experience fewer amygdala hijacks and are confident that they will be able to choose how they react to stressful situations.
- Start a Mindfulness Habit
Creating a daily mindfulness habit is essential to preventing the amygdala hijack. Not to mention, mindfulness is a proven method for reducing overall stress and anxiety naturally.
Whether you choose to try meditation, go for mindful walks, or practice small doses of mindfulness as you do your shopping, this simple practice will serve as a daily reminder that you are always in control.
Stumped on how to start - or maintain - your mindfulness practice? Not to worry! We’ll equip you with all the simple tools and strategies you need to make the most of mindfulness.
Want to Un-Hijack Your Brain? We Can Help
Exhausted by the stress-reaction-guilt cycle? Believe me, you are not alone!
But you don’t have to be controlled by your emotional brain. Acupuncture and other therapies can help you take your power back - and we’re here to help you do just that! In fact, our expertise lies in helping you take back control of your mind and body the natural (and research-backed!) way.
Schedule your free consultation at Calm San Diego and to learn exactly how you can rewire your brain for calm.