Amygdala Hijack. Losing your thinking mind!
One of amygdala’s main functions is to prevent us from threats. It is an ancient structure that is developed for basic survival mechanism. Hadley (2010) claimed that either physical (less likely in this era) or psychological threats will activate the amygdala. Threats in this context refers to anything that might impact on our “well being” such as fear, anger or harm.
In low to moderate stress level, the prefrontal cortex calms amygdala down and consider the pros and cons of the intended behavior. However, with extreme stimulus the activation of the amygdala shuts off the prefrontal cortex function. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where conscious control and decision making processes occur. Hence, when amygdala perceive stimulus as a threat, the conscious part of the brain automatically gets turned off. The following response is purely controlled by the amygdala hence the name “amygdala hijack”.
Amygdala hijack is known to be an evolutionary response to the environment where there is no time for rational thinking. Actions must be done to protect yourself from harm immediately resulting in “unthinkingly” or impulsive behaviours. Hadley (2010) proposed that up to 75% of the conscious reasoning is lost during the hijack. This conclusion was backed up by another paper by Peters (2011) who claimed that the energy sent to prefrontal cortex is greatly reduced during the hijack. Moreover, only 5% of the brain is devoted to the “present” situation whereas the rest is occupied with the past or future hassles.
During the amygdala hijack, the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis is stimulated causing the release of cortisol and adrenaline which activates the fight/flight response. A classical increase of heart rate, shallow faster breathing and dilation of pupil are reported. These symptoms are generally presented in physical and not emotional threats (Bruno, 2011).
An interesting lecture by Daniel Goleman claimed that amygdala takes over the “Right” side of the prefrontal cortex during the hijack while the left side of the prefrontal cortex usually have inhibitors for “depressogenic thoughts” . The extreme take over on either left or right side would result in severe depression or emotionless behaviours correspondingly. He also mentioned that a fair bit of information from our senses goes to the amygdala which in turn creates emotional based memories.
Here is an example of an amygdala hijack:
One opposing counsel (“Fred”) was particularly nasty. Bob had been litigating against Fred for just over a year, and he had recognized that Fred’s strategy was to make him angry. So, each time he had to interact with Fred, he braced himself and prepared for something outlandish. But there was one particular tactic that really drove Bob over the edge. The tactic itself doesn’t matter — let’s say it was being accused of unprofessional conduct — and each time Fred would use this tactic, Bob would become enraged. To his credit, he was able to manage that anger reasonably well, but enough was revealed that Fred knew he’d found the “right” weapon.
All Fred had to do was use a few choice words, and Bob would become ballistic. He described a tingling sensation throughout his body, the awareness that his blood pressure had spiked, and great difficulty with remaining engaged on the topic at hand.
When one experiences an amygdala hijack, the amygdala overtakes the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain) and there’s little or no ability to rely on intelligence or reasoning. The effect is that energy is drawn exclusively into the hijack. The immediate result of a hijack is a decrease in working memory. Adrenaline is released and will be present and effective for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that will take 3-4 hours to clear.
Randy Chittum, an executive coach on the faculty of Georgetown’s leadership coaching program, has recommended the following steps to deal with an amygdala hijack:
Stop. Stop whatever you’re doing. Bob’s strategy was to put the call on hold or to step out of the room for a minute; if that was impossible, he would go silent for a moment and identify for himself what had just happened. (“Ah, Fred just said again that I’m unprofessional.”) This step keeps the neocortex engaged and can prevent the amygdala’s takeover.
Oxygenate. Breathe deeply, with intention and purpose. This step also keeps the neocortex
Strengthen appreciation. It’s difficult to have two emotional experiences at the same time, and appreciation counters the hijack. While it’s especially effective to appreciate the source of the hijack (i.e., for Bob to appreciate Fred as a person, to appreciate his zealous representation of his
client, etc.), any appreciation of anything will be helpful. Not surprisingly, Bob found it difficult to appreciate Fred, so he would instead think about his family and bask in his appreciation of his wife and children.
Survey the landscape. After the hijack, spend some time exploring what happened and why. Recognizing the trigger will allow you to avoid being triggered in the future. After a recognizing that Fred tended to trot out the accusation of unprofessional conduct when he didn’t get an extension or some other accommodation, Bob was prepared. He knew that his work had been successful when Fred one day expressed his surprise at Bob’s lack of professionalism, and Bob was able to laugh and respond, “Come on, Fred, we both know that isn’t true and isn’t the point. Feel free to make your motion, but I can’t consent to another delay in this case.”