What is the amygdala hijack? And how you can control it.

Written by: Chelsea Pottenger | May 31, 2019

You’re probably aware of the fight-or-flight response. It’s an ancient structure in our brains that has helped us as humans survive through the ages. A sabre tooth tiger is nearby, your brains jump into action sending us into battle, or running for safety. 

Today though, our threats are often subtler and less physical – think, less sharp-toothed predator, more sharp-toothed deadline – but still a very real chemical response on
the brain.

When you perceive potential threat, the hypothalamus sends signals to the cortex and amygdala. If the amygdala senses the danger is real, it kicks off the fight-or-flight response, before the cortex has a chance to overrule it. Your body’s sympathetic nervous systems is activated, your limbic system gets hijacked and the body and brain lose communication. 

Biologically, your body is preparing to fight; the release of adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. 

The release of the stress hormone cortisol means your ability to problem solve and concentrate is reduced. 

When your pre-frontal cortex is not talking to the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of your brain, you may behave in a way that is emotional and inappropriately excessive given the situation. An example of this could be road rage, or an abrupt or aggressive email to a client, or yelling at your children excessively. None are productive, all are potentially damaging.

This is where the amygdala hijack can be dangerous to us, and why controlling the amygdala hijack is linked to emotional intelligence. 

David, a Sales Director of a leading digital marketing firm, receives a phone call from his client saying that the deadline for the marketing proposal is now due this afternoon instead of next week.

How does David respond? How does his body respond? What physiological changes are happening? David may experience his heart rate increasing, his skin tone turning pale, his muscles tensing, and a knot in his stomach.

This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously, converting these physiological symptoms and emotions into a feeling, such as fear, anxiety, anger.

If David’s limbic system is overburdened and stressed, he may respond irrationally and say something to his client in a momentary regrettable distraction.

What could David do to control his amygdala hijack?

Neuroscientists have taught us so many important lessons about the brain, and how to keep the mind calm, such as:
• Meditation
• Mindful Living
• Diaphragmatic Breathing
• Positive Emotion

In David’s situation, taking a moment to stop, focus on his breathing to calm his mind, maybe even take a walk and get a drink of water, or use a phone app for a short meditation, before he hits ‘send’ on his email may prevent damaging his relationship with his client with an aggressive or poorly worded email. It takes just 90 seconds to diffuse away the chemicals that cause the amygdala hijack.
A lot of damage can be done in 90 seconds.

Importantly, by introducing these practices – meditation, mindful living, diaphragmatic breathing and positive emotion – into your routine, you can lessen the impact of the amygdala highjack and have a more enriched life. 


Chelsea Pottenger is founder and director of EQ Consulting, which delivers cognitive tools to recharge our brains in the corporate sector. 

Learn more about recharging your brain at eqconsultingco.com and eqminds.com


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