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Controlling our emotions before they control us: Know about Amygdala Hijack

Jeevitha Ramesh


Imagine you have been out shopping all day with your 10-year old. After the trip, you decide to go to buy fruits. As you walk through the billing section, your child says, “Hey, look what I can do!” and begins juggling three apples. As you watch the apples fall to the ground you start screaming at him and marching him out the door!

On the way back home, you realize that your child was simply trying to show juggling abilities. But, for that small behaviour, your anger was not called for and seemed unreasonable to the situation. You may think, “why did I burst out?” or “why did I react so strongly?”. You did so because of an amygdala hijack!


The amygdala hijack is an instantaneous and strong emotional response with a later realization that the response was inappropriate. Daniel Goleman coined the term based on the work of the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, where he demonstrated that some of the emotional information can travel directly from the thalamus to the amygdala (emotional brain) without involving the neocortex (thinking brain). This can cause a strong emotional response that overtakes rational thought.


We now know that the emotional and thinking part of the brain is involved during amygdala hijack. Let's dive deep into understanding the particular regions of the brain involved in it.


Different parts of the brain perform different functions, like for example, the occipital lobe helps in visual perception, Wernicke's area helps in language comprehension and Broca's area in speech control, etc. Similarly, during amygdala hijack, two regions of the brain are involved. One is the amygdala which is an almond-shaped structure present near the base of the brain. It is because of amygdala that we are able to process strong emotions like fear and pleasure. It does not involve any logical or rational reasoning. Another is the frontal lobe, a region present in front of the brain where cognitive abilities like thinking, reasoning, decision-making, logical response, and planning take place. This lobe allows us to process our emotions and think about them. Thanks to the frontal lobe, we can consciously control our responses to any situation!



Brain image showing regions of the amygdala and frontal lobe


Along with the amygdala and frontal lobe, the fight or flight response is also involved in the process of amygdala hijack. Fight or flight response happens automatically during a physical danger (like dogs chasing or when a snake is in front of you). Such a response allows us to react quickly without thinking.


Let's see how the amygdala, frontal lobe, and the flight and fight responses are involved in the way we react to the situation with an example.


Consider you are a project manager, and you have more than twenty members working with you for the project. The deadline to finish the project is nearing, and one of the team members has forgotten to complete an important assignment, necessary for the project submission. Here, you may end up screaming at them because of the immediately activated fight-or-flight response from the amygdala due to the stressful situation. Or you may also control your anger and address your colleague politely and ask them to work on it immediately.


The second response arises when the brain’s frontal lobe starts processing the information to determine the intensity of the problem through logic. When the threat is very mild, the frontal lobe (thinking part of the brain) overtakes the amygdala, and you respond to the situation most rationally and appropriately (pause and react). If the threat is serious, the amygdala acts immediately (emotional brain); it overpowers the frontal lobe, automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response like bursting out on teammates and making you act aggressively.


Later, the information is sent back to neocortex regions where logic and decision-making happens.





Region of thinking and emotional brain


Once the information goes back to the thinking part of the brain, it may leave us regretting our overwhelming emotional response to a situation. Just like the situation given in the starting of this blog!


So far, we have understood about amygdala hijack, brain regions involved and its process. Now we will look at the signs and symptoms of it.


The symptoms of amygdala hijack can be due to the effects of the two stress hormones:

  • Cortisol

  • It is a steroid hormone that affects many of the body's functions, including preparing it for the fight-or-flight response.

  • Adrenaline

  • It is also called epinephrine; it stimulates body systems, so they’re ready to respond to a threat.


Both hormones are released from adrenal glands to prepare our body to flee or fight. They do several things that are important for our survival, including:

  • relaxes airways, opening them up for more oxygen

  • increases the blood flow to muscles for maximum speed and strength

  • improves blood sugar for more energy

  • dilate pupils to enhance vision

  • Increases heartbeat


Symptoms of amygdala hijack can be eased or avoided by identifying what triggers it. When we feel the symptoms of amygdala hijack starting, we can pause for a moment and notice what triggered it. For example, anything that affects emotional, physical, or mental status can be a trigger. When we feel threatened or stressed, pausing for a moment and looking for behaviours or reactions and simultaneous physical changes can help control symptoms of the amygdala hijack.


A good way to do this is with mindfulness. This indicates remaining in the present and being attentive to what we are feeling and thinking. Here we should not judge or name the situation as good or bad rather we should only focus on the current moment, not on forthcoming tasks or past troubles.


Mindfulness needs practice, but it can be performed at any time. When we are waiting in the car or going for a walk, we can take time to focus on what we are thinking and feeling and what is happening around us.


Another way to stay calm is by focusing on breathing. Focusing on how air is moving in and out of our body or how we inhale and exhale can help in relaxation. Along with this, meditation can also make our body and mind relax. This can help us cope with the immediate stressors logically. We can stop the shutdown of our frontal lobes, override the automatic response of our amygdala, and consciously control our response by using these techniques .


The modern world has many situations that can cause stress. We may experience anxiety or stress when we see things on the news or social media, like dangerous events or natural disasters. Our amygdala can respond to this stress as if it is a physical threat to us. It can take control of the brain and trigger a fight-or-flight response. We can overcome an amygdala hijack by practicing breathing, slowing down, and focusing on thoughts. This allows our frontal cortex to regain control. We can then choose the most reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation. Practicing these techniques regularly can help prepare us for stressful situations.








References


  • Cowan CSM, et al. (2018). Gutsy moves: The amygdala is a critical node in microbiota to brain signalling. DOI: 10.1002/bies.201700172

  • Goleman D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

  • Nadler, Relly. "What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-04-15.

  • Freedman, Joshua. "Hijacking of the Amygdala" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 22, 2009. Retrieved 2010-04-06.

  • Sah P. (2017). Fear, anxiety, and the amygdala. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron. 2017.09.013

  • Understanding the stress response. (2018). health.harvard.edu /staying healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

  • Wright A. (n.d.). Chapter 6: Limbic system: Amygdala. Neuroscience Online.nba.uth.tmc.edu/neuroscience/m/s4/chapter06.html

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