Lost your cool?  Blame it on “Amygdala Hijack”!

When do you lose your cool?

 

Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you regretted later? At one time or another, we all have lost our cool and behaved in a manner which is less than appropriate. We have often seen such incidents – a road rage, a verbal duel in a meeting, an argument with a spouse – we may have yelled, thrown stuff around, and said and done things which were totally out of line. Once we calm down we ask ourselves “How in the world did I do that?  What was I thinking?” Technically, you were not thinking at all!  You probably suffered from an “amygdala hijack”!

 

What is an “amygdala hijack”?

 

What is an “amygdala hijack”?  To understand it we have to learn about our brain and how it has evolved over thousands of years.  Inside our brains, we have two separate systems.  The first is the rational, logical, thinking system of the brain – called the cortex.  The other system is feeling, the emotional system of the brain called the limbic system.  Amygdala is a small almond shaped structure located deep inside our brain.  It is part of the limbic system that generates primal emotions like fear, anger, pleasure, and is responsible for our survival.

 

The brain receives the input signal from our senses – from what we see and hear.  This signal is first sent to amygdala before it reaches the cortex.  Amygdala is the brain’s threat detection system.  It constantly scans all incoming signals for any possibility of a threat to our survival.  It has also a hair trigger. Within a fraction of a second, it evokes the “fight or flight” response to get the body into action to either fight the threat or run away.  It secretes hormones like adrenaline that signals the heart to pump the blood faster.  Eyes widen to help us see better, muscles get tense to help us fight or run away.   It also diverts resources from all other non-essential biological processes like digestion and thinking so that all available resources could be directed to surviving the immediate threat.

 

Amygdala is essential for our survival

 

When our ancestors lived in caves and jungles, amygdala served us well and ensured our survival.  If our eyes saw some movement behind the tree it may be the wind moving the trees or it may be a dangerous animal lurking to hunt us down.  Amygdala always assumes the worst and reacts immediately, even before the signal reaches neo-cortex – the thinking part of the brain.  Amygdala’s hair trigger response gives us a head start to either fight or run away.  The hair trigger also generates many false alarms.  But in a jungle environment, it is better to be safe than sorry – or else we may have ended up as some animal’s lunch!

 

The bored amygdala generates many false alarms

 

In our modern day life, we seldom face a life threatening situations.  Barring some real emergencies like a fire in the building, or an auto accident, we live in a safe environment.  But the amygdala is still doing its job and still has the hair trigger.  Instead of real dangers, it often reacts to perceived or imagined psychological threats.

 

Your thinking brain is bypassed during amygdala hijack

 

Daniel Goleman, author of the book, Emotional Intelligence coined the term “amygdala hijack” to refer to an immediate and overwhelming emotional reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus because it triggers a deeper emotional threat.  In simple terms, it is over-reacting and freaking out to a rather ordinary situation.  Before the signal reaches the cortex (the thinking, logical part of the brain), the amygdala perceives a threat.   It shuts down the non-essential thinking brain and prepares the body for fight or flight!  When the hijack is over, the thinking brain resumes it functioning, and we come back to our senses. So when you lose your cool – you can blame it on amygdala hijack!

 

How do you stop yourself from being hijacked by your amygdala?  What tools or techniques do you use to stay calm?  Share your ideas in the comments section.

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