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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Harris, PsyD

Understanding the Amygdala Hijack: Causes, Impact, and Treatment

Have you ever experienced a sudden and intense emotional reaction that seemed to take over your rational thinking? If so, you might have encountered what psychologists call an "amygdala hijack." This phenomenon occurs when our brain's emotional center, the amygdala, takes control of our thoughts and actions, often leading to feelings of panic or impulsive and irrational behavior.

Graphic of a brain

What is the Amygdala?

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure deep within the brain, and it plays a crucial role in processing emotions, particularly those related to fear and threat detection. When the amygdala perceives a potential threat, it can trigger a rapid and powerful physical and emotional hyperarousal response, known as the "fight, flight, freeze" response. This leads to a release of stress hormones and subsequent physical symptoms prepping you to respond such as increased heart rate, dilated pupils, hearing loss, flushed face, slowed digestion, shaking, and even loss of bladder control. This response is essential for our survival in dangerous situations, but it can become problematic when it's triggered inappropriately or excessively – the amygdala hijack.

Why do Amygdala Hijacks Happen?

  • Evolutionary heritage: Our ancestors needed the amygdala's quick response to threats in their dangerous environments – think of a large mountain lion lunging at you for their dinner – there is no time to slow down and process your options, you run or fight ... or you get eaten! While modern society is far less perilous, our amygdala still reacts to perceived threats, even if they aren't life-threatening.

  • Trauma and conditioning: Past traumatic experiences or ongoing stress can sensitize the amygdala, making it more prone to hijack our emotions in response to seemingly minor triggers.

  • Lack of emotion regulation skills: People who haven't developed effective emotional regulation techniques may be more susceptible to amygdala hijacks when confronted with challenging situations.

The Impact of Amygdala Hijacks

Amygdala hijacks can have significant consequences in various aspects of our lives:

  • Impaired decision-making: When the amygdala takes control, it can override rational thinking, leading to impulsive and often regrettable decisions.

  • Strained relationships: Frequent hijacks can strain relationships, as emotional outbursts and irrational behavior can damage trust and communication.

  • Chronic stress: Repeated amygdala hijacks can contribute to chronic stress, which can have detrimental effects on physical health. This can include chronic migraines, gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue.

  • Mental health issues: Prolonged exposure to amygdala hijacks can increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Treating Amygdala Hijacks with Therapy To help your emotions regulate back to a homeostatic rational place, you have to regulate your physical response. Essentially, you must help your body cue in to the fact that you are not in danger. Working on slowing down your heart rate and reducing muscle tensions through measures like diaphragmatic/belly breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, are great first steps to help you regain control of emotion center.

Therapy can be a highly effective way to manage and prevent amygdala hijacks. Here are a few therapeutic approaches that can help:

  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Mindfulness techniques can help individuals become more aware of their emotions and reactions, allowing them to respond to situations more thoughtfully rather than reactively.

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is effective for individuals struggling with intense emotions. It teaches skills for managing emotions and improving interpersonal relationships. In particular, Distress Tolerance skills can be used to help regulate Amygdala responses and reduce intense somatic responses.

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy: ERP targets specific triggers and the prevention of maladaptive responses to those trigger (e.g., avoidance or compulsions) by using specific exposures to help individuals learn that they can tolerate hyperarousal responses. Overtime the intensity of the arousal response will desensitize through the process of habituation.

  • Biofeedback: These techniques use real-time data on physiological responses to help individuals learn to voluntarily control their bodily reactions, including those triggered by the amygdala.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals recognize and challenge irrational thoughts and emotions. It teaches strategies for better emotional regulation and problem-solving.

Overall, amygdala hijacks are a common experience, and they can have a profound impact on our lives. However, with the right tools and techniques, we can learn to manage and prevent these emotional takeovers. Therapy, in its various forms, is an invaluable resource for individuals looking to understand and change their emotional responses. If you are interested in working with one of our therapists, please reach out here.

Recommended authors and readings to learn more about specific topics mentioned above:

  1. Amygdala Hijacks - Daniel Goleman

  2. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction - Jon Kabat-Zinn

  3. DBT - Marsha Linehan

  4. Biofeedback - Frank, D. L., Khorshid, L., Kiffer, J. F., Moravec, C. S., & McKee, M. G. (2010). Biofeedback in medicine: who, when, why and how?. Mental health in family medicine, 7(2), 85–91.

  5. ERP - Jonathan S. Abramowitz


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