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Emotional hijacking and Emotional regulation

Introduced by psychologist and author Dr. Daniel Goleman, the term emotional hijacking refers to the way strong emotions, such as fear and anger, can take control of your thoughts and behaviors. There is a key structure within the limbic system of the brain called the amygdala, which plays a crucial role in this process, which functions like a smoke detector. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure located deep within the brain's temporal lobe and is a key component of the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it triggers the body's fight-or-flight response by activating the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, causing the release of stress hormones.

This process happens very quickly, often before the rational part of the brain, the neocortex, has had a chance to respond.This rapid emotional reaction is known as an "amygdala hijack," or emotional hijack where the amygdala overrides the neocortex and takes control of the situation. An amygdala hijack is characterized by a strong emotional response, sudden onset, and post-episode realization that the reaction was inappropriate. For instance, you might overreact to hearing your partner’s annoyed tone of voice, getting interrupted during a conversation, or seeing your teenager roll their eyes when you ask them to clean their room. When you feel grounded and calm, these relatively minor events might have very little impact on you. However, when you feel more vulnerable, you’re more likely to resort to impulsive behaviors. During this hijack, the thinking brain becomes paralyzed, leading to a drop in IQ, inability to make complex decisions, loss of perspective, and compromised memory.

Regulating Amygdala Activation

While the amygdala's rapid response can be beneficial in true emergency situations, it can also lead to disproportionate emotional reactions in non-threatening circumstances. If you find yourself emotionally hijacked, you can learn to intervene. Train yourself to interrupt the emotional flooding long enough to regain a sense of equanimity. Let’s look at how:

Naming the emotion: Verbalizing the feeling can shift the brain back to the thinking, rational mode.

Changing the setting: Getting up and moving around reactivates the thinking parts of the brain.

Sharing the mental load: Discussing the feelings with a trusted person can split the mental burden and make the brain feel less threatened.


Try taking several slow, deep breaths to calm down your autonomic nervous system.

Give yourself a timeout, and walk away from the triggering situation. Take some time to regroup and ground yourself. Observe your mind. Explore what you are telling yourself about the situation, and ask yourself if this is really true. Often there is a need to be right. Can you let go of the urge to prove anything for the time being? Create a short phrase you can say to yourself when you sense that you are losing your cool. You can try saying, “It’s okay,” “Calm down,” or “Let it go.” Increase your awareness of the emotional impact you have on others. Think of the image of a boat’s wake on calm waters. What is the wake that you want to leave behind


Take a few minutes to review the previous section. Can you identify times that you have been emotionally hijacked? Look at some of the tools that can be used to slow down reactivity. Can you imagine implementing any of these into your life?

Thanks for reading.

At your service

with Love and Gratitude


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