It is likely that every one of us have experienced a time where we became so anxious or upset that any hope of a logical response flew out the window. As we sat in the aftermath of our reaction wondering how it even happened, the details of what transpired were probably hard to remember. That cluster of intense emotionality and reactive responses are referred to as the Amygdala Hijack.
What is an amygdala and what is its actual purpose?
Your brain actually has two amygdalae. They are almond shaped and are located near the back of the brain in the temporal lobe. Our amygdala played a very important in our ancestor’s lives. It was in this area of the brain where decision-making and motivation became linked to our species survival. Think of your amygdala as the fire alarm of your brain, notifying you of potential threat or alarm; which was crucial to surviving the food gathering and hunting days of old. When your internal fire alarm gets triggered, your body responds almost immediately and with these hormonal and physiological changes you prepare to fight or flee. Have you ever gotten out of the way of a moving car or crossed the street when you saw an unruly crowd ahead? This is evidence of your amygdala at work, those times in your life where you sensed danger seconds before an event occurred and responded; you can see how these basic responses could be lifesaving!
So, what’s the problem then?
There are three parts to the amygdala hijack. The first is a strong, emotional response. The second is the sudden onset of the response. The last part is the realization after the event that the response was not appropriate to the event. Therein lies the problem. Often what happens after an amygdala hijack is the feeling of embarrassment and shame. Original feelings of anger, sadness or fear are then compounded. Additionally, failure to control our emotions and our ability to respond appropriately can lead to our brain falsely identifying potential threats that do not exist and lead to continued amygdala hijacks.
Now what? How do we stop our emotional brain from overriding our logical brain?!
Sometimes it may feel impossible to stop these strong, emotional responses and although it can be challenging to retrain our brain, it is possible. Counselling can help to teach and guide you to control your reactions so that the immediate response is reduced while keeping the original emotion, just regulated.
Strategies to reduce the amygdala hijack include:
Breathe! As many of my clients can attest to, my favourite strategy is to square breathe. When we are able to regulate our breath, we can increase the amount of oxygen to our brain and body, which in turn reduces anxiety and supports rational thinking.
Face your fears. Often times how we think we will feel is much different than what we actually feel. Gently pushing through the anxious feelings can reduce the fear associated with people, places and things.
Reframe the situation. Being anxious, sad or angry can negatively impact how we look at a situation. Is there a positive way to look at things? What would you say to a friend? Look for alternative outcomes and notice how your perspective changes and how negative emotions subside.
Talk about it. When emotions get too strong there may be an inclination to shut down and isolate yourself. Do the opposite; talk to a trusted friend about what you are feeling and why you are feeling this way. Just talking out loud about how you are feeling can help our brain to process and diffuse the negative feelings attached.
Let go and accept. By accepting what is and learning to live in uncertainty, your amygdala acclimatizes to this new way of thinking and learns to calm. Fear loses its power through both exposure and acceptance.
Living in the survival mode of amygdala hijacks can negatively impact our ability to problem-solve, make decisions, and initiate and carry out plans. Moreover, chronic stress will lower confidence and your productivity levels, while decreasing your ability to create and sustain relationships. Counsellors at Calming Tree Counselling are here to help you navigate and decrease amygdala hijacks. With their support you will increase your capacity to navigate life’s challenges and manage difficult emotions so that you live a life that you control and not a life that controls you.