Recently in a Video on my college website, I referred to “amygdala hijack” and was keen to explain that a little bit further. Particularly, I was keen to explain it in ways that we can all learn and apply for ourselves. Understanding neuroscience and some of the fundamental workings of our brain, such as this notion of amygdala hijack, can unlock pathways to greater mental well-being, emotional stability and psychological resilience. This “amygdala hijack” is a term that describes the overwhelming surge of emotions that can disable our rational thinking. I’m going to delve into what an amygdala hijack is, its implications, and do my best to provide scientifically-backed strategies to overcome and prevent it, with the aim of fostering better mental health and well-being.

Understanding Amygdala Hijack

The term “amygdala hijack” was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” It refers to a situation where the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain, overrides the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for rational thought and decision-making. This hijacking occurs in response to perceived threats, triggering an immediate emotional response before the rational brain can intervene. Basically, we react with strong emotions before we can think about what we are doing.

In evolutionary terms, this response was crucial for survival, enabling quick reactions to danger, and it clearly has a lot of usefulness and utility, especially if we are being chased by a bear. However, in modern society, where threats are often psychological rather than physical, an amygdala hijack can lead to inappropriate and disproportionate emotional reactions. Understanding and managing this process therefore becomes important for maintaining emotional balance and mental health.

The Science Behind Amygdala Hijack

The amygdala plays a pivotal role in processing emotions, particularly fear and aggression. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala sends distress signals to the hypothalamus, initiating the fight-or-flight response. This response floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol, preparing it to either confront or escape the threat. While this mechanism was advantageous in prehistoric times, in today’s world, it often leads to overreactions to non-life-threatening situations, such as conflicts at work or personal disagreements.

Research has shown that chronic exposure to stress can lead to a heightened state of amygdala activation, making individuals more susceptible to frequent amygdala hijacks. This can contribute to various mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and chronic stress disorders.

The Benefits of Overcoming Amygdala Hijack

Learning to manage and overcome amygdala hijacks has numerous benefits. It enables individuals to respond to stressful situations more calmly and rationally, improving interpersonal relationships and decision-making. It also reduces the risk of chronic stress and its associated health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and weakened immune function. By enhancing emotional regulation, individuals can achieve a greater sense of well-being and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

Strategies to Prevent and Defeat Amygdala Hijack

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation practices have been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of amygdala hijacks. By training the mind to stay present and observe thoughts and emotions without judgment, individuals can create a buffer between stimulus and response.

A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme showed decreased amygdala activation and increased connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, enhancing emotional regulation (Holzel et al., 2010).

  1. Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight response initiated by the amygdala. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and the 4-7-8 method can quickly reduce physiological arousal and bring a sense of calm.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology demonstrated that deep breathing exercises significantly reduced cortisol levels and improved mood, indicating their effectiveness in managing stress and preventing amygdala hijacks (Perciavalle et al., 2017).

  1. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy (CBH)

Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy is an evidence-based psychological treatment that helps individuals identify and challenge irrational thoughts and beliefs (among other things). By re-framing negative thought patterns, CBH can reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack.

Research has shown that CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) processes used within CBH can lead to structural changes in the brain, including increased prefrontal cortex activity and reduced amygdala reactivity, supporting its effectiveness in improving emotional regulation (Goldin et al., 2013).

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to reduce physical tension and stress. This practice can help calm the nervous system and prevent the onset of an amygdala hijack.

A study published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback found that PMR significantly reduced anxiety and physiological arousal, making it a valuable tool for managing stress and emotional reactions (Conrad & Roth, 2007).

  1. Regular Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise is a powerful tool for managing stress and reducing the risk of amygdala hijacks. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, which are natural mood elevators, and reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that regular aerobic exercise increased the volume of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, areas involved in emotional regulation and cognitive function, suggesting that exercise can enhance the brain’s resilience to stress (Erickson et al., 2011).

  1. Journaling and Expressive Writing

Journaling and expressive writing can help individuals process and make sense of their emotions, reducing the intensity of emotional reactions. Writing about stressful experiences can provide a sense of control and perspective, diminishing the impact of an amygdala hijack.

Research published in The Journal of Traumatic Stress found that expressive writing significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), highlighting its potential for emotional regulation (Smyth et al., 2008).

  1. Social Support and Connection

Maintaining strong social connections and seeking support from friends and family can buffer against the effects of stress and reduce the likelihood of amygdala hijacks. Social interactions provide emotional support, practical assistance, and a sense of belonging, all of which contribute to emotional well-being.

A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that individuals with strong social support networks had lower levels of stress and better mental health outcomes, emphasising the importance of social connections in managing stress (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Read this article for more on this topic: How to Connect Better With Others.

  1. Practising Self-Compassion

Practising self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding during times of stress or failure, rather than with self-criticism. Self-compassion can reduce the intensity of emotional reactions and enhance emotional resilience.

Research published in Self and Identity found that self-compassion was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression and greater emotional well-being, suggesting its potential for preventing amygdala hijacks (Neff, 2003). Read this excellent;ent article for more on this topic: How to Develop Self-Compassion.

  1. Sleep Hygiene

Adequate and quality sleep is crucial for maintaining emotional regulation and preventing amygdala hijacks. Poor sleep can heighten emotional reactivity and reduce the brain’s ability to manage stress.

A study published in Current Biology found that sleep deprivation significantly increased amygdala reactivity to negative stimuli, underscoring the importance of good sleep hygiene for emotional stability (Yoo et al., 2007).

Conclusion

The ability to manage and overcome an amygdala hijack is a vital skill for maintaining emotional balance and mental health. By incorporating strategies such as mindfulness, deep breathing, cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy, and regular exercise, individuals can enhance their emotional resilience and prevent the adverse effects of stress. These science-backed techniques provide practical tools for navigating life’s challenges with greater calm and clarity, leading to improved well-being and a more balanced life.

References


Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98(2), 310-357.

Conrad, A., & Roth, W. T. (2007). Muscle relaxation therapy for anxiety disorders: It works but how? Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 32(2), 143-147.

Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … & Kramer, A. F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(44), 157-163.

Goldin, P. R., Ziv, M., Jazaieri, H., Werner, K., Kraemer, H., Heimberg, R. G., & Gross, J. J. (2013). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder results in neural changes in emotion regulation and attentional control. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47(5), 653-662.

Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2010). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223-250.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 708.

Smyth, J. M., Hockemeyer, J. R., & Tulloch, H. (2008). Expressive writing and post‐traumatic stress disorder: Effects on trauma symptoms, mood states, and cortisol reactivity. The Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21(1), 79-85.

Yoo, S. S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F. A., & Walker, M. P. (2007). The human emotional brain without sleep—a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17(20), R877-R878.

By applying these evidence-based strategies, individuals can enhance their ability to manage stress and prevent amygdala hijacks, paving the way for a healthier and more balanced life.

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