Can you recall incidents in your life, when you simply yelled at someone – your family, friends or perhaps a stranger on a busy street? Your reaction took off the runway and into the clouds, and the next thing you know, the entire argument was completely uncalled for. You ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”, and the truth is, you weren’t. However, it does look like you were a victim of an “Amygdala Hijack.”
You, my dear friend, were hijacked.
In the simplest of words, the amygdala is the emotional part of our brain. We’ve two, one in each hemisphere; it is the “Headquarters of Emotions” – a place where emotions are remembered, given meaning to, and generated responses accordingly.
Daniel Goleman, who coined the term “Amygdala Hijack“, in his book “Emotional Intelligence“, refers to the amygdala as an ancient structure whose sole purpose of existence is to respond to threats, and protect us from danger. However, back in those days, threats included a lion encounter or getting injured by wild animals, and our amygdalas have been conditioned to respond to threats in a certain manner. This response fails to serve its purpose in the modern world, where threats are more subtle which is why we must learn how to tame the hijacking process.
But How Does the Hijacking Take Place?
In normal circumstances, information from our five senses is taken up to the processing station – the neocortex, followed by the amygdala for an emotionally appropriate response. However, the pipeline slightly differs when an individual encounters a threatening situation.
Think of our amygdalas as smoke detectors.
The stimuli from our eyes/ears travel immediately to the amygdala skipping the neocortex, and it sounds an alarm simultaneously. This alarm releases a cascade of chemicals & hormones into our system, preparing us to act according to the decisions of the amygdala. Your throat constricts, there’s a heat flush on your face, neck tightens and your jaw sets.
This is a survival mechanism that God blessed us with, which helps us react to things or move in action, before the neocortex – the rational brain, takes its own sweet time.
Logic is overridden with emotion.
Is Taming this Hijack Possible?
Yes. The answer lies in Mindfulness practices. Using these practices, you can prevent the shutting down of your frontal lobes, neocortex mainly; override your amygdala’s automatic emotional response and gain conscious control of your response in a particular situation.
It’s a skill that needs to be practised, it demands your willingness to stay present and aware of your feelings and surroundings.
- Count from 1 to 6, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This will not only calm you down but also switch on the neocortex that was previously shut down by the amygdala. Think of something positive while you count, and let the heat subside.
- Take some deep breaths. Attach your rush of emotions and thoughts to your deep breaths, and slow it down.
Once you’ve tamed your hijack, it’s time you identify the trigger and do some reasoning. Think about the situation, identify all your options carefully, and then draw some conclusions. Your neocortex will ensure that your response is the most logical & rational way to go about the situation you’ve encountered.
While taming this hijack is the ultimate goal, it is okay to not be successful at times. Reflect on what has happened, acknowledge the actions you took, and recognise what you could’ve done instead. Over time, not only will you have mastered your mindfulness techniques but also boosted your emotional intelligence!