Amygdala Hijacking: The Science of Losing Your Cool

There are a number of physical experiences that come with getting angry or feeling frustrated or upset when we are in a situation that triggers us. If you have ever wondered what causes humans to respond negatively to a perceived threat, this blog might be a great place to begin. To understand what happens when we get angry or upset, we must first have a basic idea of how the brain functions.

Brain functioning

When your body experiences something (smell, taste, sound, or a feeling), that information enters the brain and first goes to the thalamus which acts as a directing place for the brain. In a normal situation, the thalamus sends the information to the neocortex (your “thinking brain) which is responsible for higher-level thinking such as logic, perception, and spatial reasoning. After the Neocortex, that information then goes to the Amygdala.

The Amygdala is your “emotional brain,” where we produce the emotional response associated with the stimuli we receive. The amygdala is also responsible for our fight or flight response when we perceive a threat. This is important for us because when we are in danger, our brain is programmed to make a split-second decision before the neocortex can overrule it to increase our chances of survival. The Amygdala releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and these cause your heart rate to elevate and boost your energy levels and prepare to respond.

Flaws of the Amygdala

Here is the problem: because our body is conditioned to respond to these biological threats, it can often respond the same way to symbolic threats, even if there is no actual physical threatpresent. For example: If you have ever gotten into a verbal conflict with a friend, or family member, you might notice an increase in heart rate, trembling, or even a stomachache even though there is no physical danger. Depending on your triggers and sensitivities, this emotional response can be unwarranted; and if you have ever found yourself in an argument and stepped over a line, said something you didn’t mean or felt as though you over reacted, you know this feeling. This is called an Amygdala hijack. An Amygdala hijack causes us to make those split-second emotional decisions because our brain sort of “short circuits,” bypassing the logical reasoning part of the brain and cuts right to emotion and action. The presence of chronic stress or mental health conditions such as PTSD, Social Anxiety disorder, panic disorder also might cause a person to respond more strongly in the amygdala. When this occurs, we see aresponse to a situation that seems inappropriate to the situation at hand. This loss of control and overreaction can leave a person feeling embarrassed and remorseful


So given this faulty metaphorical electric work in the brain, how do we stop this from happening? The answer is that we need to build emotional intelligence or our skill at understanding, recognizing and managing our emotions to better respond. Some great tips are to:

1. PAUSE: Take a moment and a deep breath and give your brain a moment to catch up.
2. Identify your triggers: What things tend to make you upset quickly?
3. Learn Self-Regulation: When someone pushes you to the limit, how do you calm down and continue to function in your day?
4. Seek out support: Sometimes it takes the support of a professional or just a non-judgmental third party to help you work through challenges. The team at Gateway to Solutions is available around the world for different kinds of therapy to support your strives to become your best self.


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