Our brain is a fine tuned machine, efficiently utilizing different processes to match external demands. During emergencies, the order of information processing shifts, body functions change, and we move into protective mode. This state is known for its reactive responses of fight, flee, and freeze. The amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as an emotional processor, hijacks thinking processes during crisis. Daniel Goleman coined the term ’emotional hijacking’ to describe this emergency reactive state in his best selling book emotional intelligence.
The Amygdala Hijack
The amygdala regulates the flight or fight response. When we sense imminent danger, drawing from surrounding circumstances, our system releases adrenaline into our bodies to prepare for battle with the perceived danger.
During emotional hijacking, the hormonal changes flowing through our blood disable the higher cortex of the brain, preventing rational decisions while hastening our ability to respond quickly. Daniel Goleman explains it this way, “a center in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda” (2012, Kindle Location 536).
The hijacking happens in an instant, quickly flooding our system with energy “before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had a chance to glimpse fully what is happening, let alone decide if it is a good idea” (Kindle location 553). T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “a raised voice, a shadow, an uncomfortable question, a critical remark, unexpected change, or a crazed man with a ninja sword move the body through physiological changes. Depending on the immediacy and severity of the information, the heart speeds, blood flows, and complex cognitive appraisal are suspended” (2014).
Goleman explains that a threat or “endangerment can be signaled not just by an outright physical threat but also, as is more often the case, by a symbolic threat to self-esteem or dignity: being treated unjustly or rudely, being insulted or demeaned, being frustrated in pursuing an important goal. These perceptions act as the instigating trigger for a limbic surge that has a dual effect on the brain. One part of that surge is a release of catecholamines, which generate a quick, episodic rush of energy, enough for “one course of vigorous action…” (2012, Kindle location 1,351).
Hijacking a Necessary Survival Mechanism
The process has evolutionary purposes. Some threats demand immediate reactions, requiring drastic defenses before our logical brain has time to compute. We can jump out of the way of the speeding truck without calculating all the consequences. Our long range goals momentarily lose their priority in the instant of extreme threats.
Problematic Emotional Hijacking
Life and learning sometimes interfere. We adopt emergency reactions to events that present little or no immediate threat. In these cases, our emotional reaction may needlessly interfere with values and long term goals, like when we yell at a lover, or lash out at a supervisor.
Our amygdala is poked into action, hijacks our better judgment, and we create a mess in need of repair.
Two Events Occur During Emotional Hijacking
Two internal events occur, creating the neural hijacking:
- Triggering of the Amygdala
- Shutting Down of Neocortical Processes that usually mediate emotional responses
Overwhelming Our Normal Ability to Process
Daniel Siegel suggests that for the hijacking to occur the stimuli must create a sufficiently aroused state that moves us beyond our window of tolerance. Siegel explains that when this occurs “a flood of energy may bombard the mind and take over a number of processes, ranging from rational thinking to social behavior” (2001, Kindle location 6,494). By improving our skills to tolerate frustration and regulate emotion, we expand our window of tolerance, providing a protection from hair trigger explosions into emotionally hijacked states with little provocation.
Hijacking is not always the result of a single event. We deplete regulating energy from multiple sources. Our regulating compacity tires and our window of tolerance shrinks. In these cases, we easily are hijacked and emotions may have greater intensity. “When the body is already in a state of edginess,…, and something triggers an emotional hijacking, the subsequent emotion, whether anger or anxiety, is of especially great intensity” (Goleman, 2012, Kindle location 1,378).
Preventing Unnecessary Emotional Hijacking
We may never completely tame our emotional system, nor should we want to. The lost benefits of emotional sensitivity to our environment should outweigh the occasional damage of an overactive system. Emotional detachment removes us from the bountiful somatic intelligence stored within our bodies.
There are biological and physical ailments that prevent our ability to draw upon emotion. People suffering from alexithymia or autism struggle to relate to others. Other times, significant early trauma may create a defensive detachment from the wisdom of emotion. Usually, managing emotional arousal is less of a problem than navigating life without the guidance of emotion.
We can mediate unnecessary and inappropriate emotional reactions, preventing incidences of emotional hijacking that significantly damage our futures. Here are a few ways we can regulate and limit hijacking:
Mindfully observing ourselves can provide essential information for growth. Reflection is a powerful tool. We can identify environmental triggers and our contributing actions leading up to a hijacking. By using this knowledge, we can devise plans for better reactions. Accordingly, we may detect rising emotion before an all-out hijacking, giving us opportunity to intervene, soothe our system, and implement a wiser course of action.
When safe to do so, we can direct attention away from the object arousing our system. This can be done mentally or through physically removing ourselves from a situation. We like to solve problems. Problem solving is an honorable goal. However, we must accept emotional limitations, heeding inner messages of an impending hijack.
Create Safer Environments
No matter what kind of personal work we engage in, if our environment is fraught with stress, we will weaken our ability to cope with challenges. We must rid ourselves of toxic environments whenever possible. Resilience relies on emotionally safe places to rejuvenate, building strength to navigate the unavoidable challenges that inevitably will occur.
How we perceive the world is how we emotionally experience the world. If we interpret mundane and ordinary occurrences as dangerous, they threaten and activate reactionary responses just as if they were really threatening.
In relationships, often couples tire of each other and their interpretations of the other changes. John Gottman refers to this new interpretation style as negative sentiment override. We arouse emotions through interpretation of experience, and these interpretation can send of twirling into another emotional hijacking, pulling us into another emotional black hole where we have no control, saying and doing things that destroy an already ailing relationship.
Another excellent technique for soothing emotional experience is identifying feeling and giving it a label. The idea behind naming emotions is that by labeling the feeling with words gives us a handle on the experience. As we practice naming emotions, we should expand our emotional vocabulary so we can describe feeling states more granularly. Generally, the more our thinking brain can understand the emotion, the greater the ability for it to help regulate. This practice is know as emotional differentiation.
Goleman, Daniel (2012). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 1st edition.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2014) Emotional Overload. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2014. Accessed 5-11-2022.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2001). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; First edition.