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The Amygdala Hijack: Re-learning Emotional Intelligence

How does the thinking brain cuts off from the emotional brain and reacts out of proportion when the situation appears too much (overwhelming, anger, fear, shame, guilt, hate,etc)

Before understanding the Amygdala Hijack, let’s briefly go through the structures involved in this process and their functions.

Amygdala- The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. The amygdala is considered to be part of the brain’s limbic system. It’s key to how we process strong emotions like fear and pleasure. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain.

This is our Emotional Brain. This is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (emotional memories). This survival mechanism of flight or fight, lets us react quickly to things before the rational brain has time to consider things over. However, these stored patterns of emotions can “freak-out” or “blow out of proportion” when a similar emotional response like fight, flight, freeze or fawn is generated for a not-so-similar situation like asking someone out, giving a pop-quiz, etc.

Frontal Lobes- The frontal lobes are the two large areas at the front of our brain- The Thinking Brain. They’re part of the cerebral cortex, which is a rational, and more advanced brain system. This is where thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning happen.

The frontal lobes also allow processing and thinking about our emotions to manage and determine a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from our frontal lobes is consciously controlled by we.

Mechanism- The stimuli received from the eyes or ears and goes immediately to thalamus and reaches to the amygdala before reaching the neocortex. When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes override the amygdala, and we respond in the most rational, appropriate way. However, when the threat is strong, the amygdala acts quickly automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response.

The fight-or-flight response was appropriate for early humans because of threats of physical harm. Today, there are far fewer physical threats, but there are a lot of psychological threats caused by the pressures and stresses of modern life. When stress makes, we feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated, often resulting in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreaction to the situation. This is also similar to the situation when we rethink and ask ourselves “what was I thinking?”. Well, we weren’t! That’s the whole point.

To sum it up, Amygdala Hijack is when we have an out of proportion, irrational response to a non-threatening stimulus. Without the involvement of frontal lobes, we don’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control our responses. This control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala or “the lid is flipped” as the pre-frontal cortex is no longer helping us to make sense of our emotions.


Any strong emotion, anxiety, anger, joy, or betrayal trips off the amygdala and impairs the prefrontal cortex’s working memory. The power of emotions overwhelms rationality. That is why when we are emotionally upset or stressed, we can’t think straight.

Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist has found an inverse relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When the amygdala is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. Our thinking power is disrupted and there are deficits in our problem solving, because the blood and oxygen are in the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex. It is like losing 10 to 15 IQ points temporarily, which explains “what was I thinking?” reaction to certain situations, So, we may be thinking but with less capacity and brain power.


Any symptom resulting from an amygdala hijack is the virtue of two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline- both released to prep our body for fight or flee. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that affects many of our body’s functions, including preparing it for the fight-or-flight response. The main job of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is to stimulate our body systems so they’re ready to respond to a threat.

Common symptoms of hijack may look like-

  • Heart rate: Might increase or decrease.

  • Lungs. Breathing speeds up to deliver more oxygen to your blood. In the freeze response, you might hold your breath or restrict breathing.

  • Eyes. Peripheral vision increases so you can notice your surroundings. Pupils dilate and let in more light, which helps us see better.

  • Ears. Ears “perk up” and hearing becomes sharper or reduce in freeze response.

  • Blood. Blood thickens, which increases clotting factors. This prepares your body for injury.

  • Skin. Skin might produce more sweat or get cold and/or goose bumps giving us a pale look.

  • Hands and feet. As blood flow increases to major muscles, your hands and feet might get cold.

  • Pain perception. Fight-or-flight temporarily reduces our perception of pain.

These are a few common symptoms observed but specific physiological reactions depend on how one usually responds to stress. We might also shift between fight-or-flight and freezing, but this is very difficult to control. Usually, our body will return to its natural state after 20 to 30 minutes.

However, long-term activation of the stress-response system and the subsequent over-exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all our body processes.

This puts one at an increased risk of various health problems including anxiety, constant tiredness, depression, digestive problems, weight & body image concerns, poor sleep patterns, poor emotional health, heart conditions, and/or memory and concentration impairment.


Knowing about the amygdala hijack mechanism allows us to prevent it by remaining aware of our emotions during potentially triggering events. Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) and its use to help manage our emotions and guide our behavior and thinking.

EI refers to recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions and recognizing, understanding, and influencing those of other people. With EI we do not allow our brain to react with the stored patterned of emotional reactions but, effectively identifying which emotion and action need to be used in certain situations for a conducive reaction.

How can we do that? Here are a few strategies to get you started on improving your emotional intelligence and teaching your amygdala to dance!

Step 1: Trigger Awareness Identifying the stimulus caused by the amygdala hijack can help one differentiate between varied stimuli, and facilitate thinking it through by keep the cortex involved. One may gradually notice certain patterns that triggers us, how we are feeling and how we get in our way. Eg: “What just happened that’s triggered/upset me?”

Step 2: Physical Awareness 6-sec rule to wait, check, go! It takes approximately 6 seconds for the hormones to dissipate in the brain. In these 6 seconds, after one need be more mindful (be present in the moment with self), take 6 deep breaths, and think about your sensory needs. If we are unable to apply this in the moment, make sure to check in later with yourself and understand what happened. Eg: “I am/was feeling what, where, and how intensely (mild, moderate, overwhelming)”

Step 3: Emotional Awareness Emotional Audit check to identify and learn about your emotions and feelings. Name it to tame it- attach a word to your feelings! Eg: “I am feeling what (angry/upset/embarrassed/etc) and how intensely (mild, moderate, overwhelming)”

Step 4: Impulse Awareness Emotional Audit check to identify and learn about your emotions and feelings. Name it to tame it- attach a word to your feelings! Eg: “I am feeling what (angry/upset/embarrassed/etc) and how intensely (mild, moderate, overwhelming)”

Step 5: Consequence Awareness Did you act on it or are you planning to act on it? Think about what happened/will happen if you acted/act on the impulse. Eg: “If I act ___, the immediate consequence will be ____ , consequence tomorrow will be ____ , and so on.“

Step 6: Personal Awareness Being too subjective? It is essential to gain an insight and understand if you are taking it too personally or deriving meaning in context which may not actually be relevant to you. Eg: “What I might be taking too personally which isn’t really meant the way it is  ____.”

Step 7: Reality Check Awareness Get a perspective, maybe? There can be more than one ways to deal with a problem. Try to get a different perspective and explnation of the situation. Eg: “An alaternate possible explanation for what happened could be ___.”

Step 8: Solution Awareness Is a perspective enough? Maybe not. Pause, reflect, think, plan. Try to plan a different solution besides your original impulse to the situation. Eg: “A better way to respond/react would be ___.”

Step 9: Benefit Awareness How could this help? Efforts to put yourself through an emotional & physical turmoil needs to have outcomes which are worth it. Think of the benefits you will be doing by choosing to respond differently. Eg: “If I choose to respond/react this way, the benefit to me will be ____.”

Step 10: Special Person Awareness Think beyond! If it is too overwhelming for you to even make yourself think right, try role playing in your mind with “your person”. Imagine having a conversation with someone who cares about you. Eg: “ If I still cant resist acting on my impulse ___ (say aloud your person’s name) is someone who still cares about me and who I can see is telling me ____.”

Seems too much work? Relax, I got you!

Emotional Audit is great way to make you work actively and mindfully. A tool that can help with both self-awareness and self-management is called the “Emotional Audit.” It is designed to ask strategic questions that can change the focus when a person is emotionally charged or about to get hijacked. Here’s what it should look like:

  • What am I thinking? (Basal ganglia- integrates feelings, thoughts and movements).

  • What am I feeling? (Basal ganglia- integrates feeling thoughts and movements) Temporal Lobes – emotional stability, name it to tame it – labelling affect.)

  • What do I want now? (Cerebellum – executive functions connect to Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), cognitive integration).

  • How am I getting in my way? (Prefrontal Cortex – learning from mistakes).

  • What do I need to do differently now? (Prefrontal Cortex – executive functioning planning goal setting, insight) (Anterior Cingulate Gyrus brain’s gear shifter– sees options go from idea to idea).

In the end, just remember, our brains are designed to privilege the amygdala; the more activated that neural basement, the less well the brain’s executive center, can operate.

I hope this guide helps you and your clients to face challenges- internal & external- in these perilous times.



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