The technical definition
The amygdala hijack is an immediate, overwhelming emotional response with a later realization that the response was inappropriately strong given the trigger. Daniel Goleman coined the term based on the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, which demonstrated that some emotional information travels directly from the thalamus to the amygdala without engaging the neocortex, or higher brain regions. This causes a strong emotional response that precedes more rational thought.
Huh, what does that mean?
The amygdala hijack basically equates to “freaking out” or seriously overreacting to an event in your life.
Imagine you’ve been shopping all day with your 9-year old. At the end of the trip, you decide to go to the grocery store. As you walk through the produce section, your child says “Hey, look what I can do!” and begins juggling three apples. As you watch the apples fall to the floor you find yourself screaming and marching him out the door!
On the car ride home, you realize that your son was simply trying to demonstrate his new-found juggling abilities and that your angry response was unwarranted or at least out of proportion to the situation. You regret your hasty response and apologize for reacting so poorly while reiterating that he cannot juggle store produce in the future. The question is, why did you “freak out” in the first place? You had an amygdala hijack.
Under normal circumstances, you process information through your neocortex or “thinking brain” where logic occurs. The neocortex then routes the information to the amygdala, a small organ which lies deep in the center of your “emotional brain.” On occasion, there is a short circuit whereby the “thinking brain” is bypassed and signals are sent straight to the “emotional brain.” When this happens, you have an immediate, overwhelming emotional response disproportionate to the original event. The information is later relayed to higher brain regions that perform logic and decision-making processes, causing you to realize the inappropriateness of your original emotional response.
Why does this happen? Hundreds of thousands of years ago this type of immediate emotional response served a purpose. Imagine you were out collecting food for your family. Along the way, you found yourself face-to-face with a ravenous, four-legged creature that also happened to be out looking for a snack. In this situation, your brain would waste no time in rational thinking. Thanks to the amygdala hijack, you would bust be thrown into a flight or fight response, and hopefully survive to tell the story.
In modern life, of course, we are unlikely to encounter ravenous, blood-thirsty beasts. We are, however, almost certain to encounter drivers that cut us off, disrespectful colleagues, children that misbehave, and countless other situations that may very well lead to the occasional amygdala hijack.
How do I use this in my life?
The amygdala hijack may leave you regretting your overwhelming emotional response to a situation. Knowing about the amygdala hijack allows you to prevent it by remaining aware of your emotions during potentially triggering events. For example, if your daughter spills a container of juice onto your freshly scrubbed kitchen floor, think carefully about the stimulus that is triggering your angry response. Recognizing that your daughter’s action was a mistake that she likely feels sorry for prevents you from responding with overwhelming frustration.
Another way to prevent amygdala hijacking is to use the 6-second rule. Waiting for just six seconds causes the brain chemicals that cause amygdala hijacking to diffuse away. Breathing deeply or focusing on a pleasant image helps to prevent your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction.
Over time, you can change the way your brain responds to emotional triggers, preventing the amygdala hijacking response. To rewire your brain in this way, think carefully about the triggering situation after you tame your emotional reaction. Identify the trigger and determine a more appropriate response to use next time. Your amygdala learns from past experiences, allowing you to change the way in which you react to a similar situation in the future.
LeDoux, J. (2007). The Amygdala. Current Biology, 17(20), R868-R874