Practical Solutions for Dealing with Amygdala Hijacks

Dr Mehmet Yildiz

The most noticeable symptoms of amygdala hijacks are experiencing strong, mixed, uncomfortable, and confusing emotions. Even though they may be challenging, there are some viable options to deal with this condition.
Photo by Alexis Mora Angulo on Unsplash

Our thoughts and biochemistry trigger emotions. Most of the time, we are not aware of emerging feelings. They seem to come from nowhere. Our thinking brain perceives situations much slower than our limbic system (emotional part) where the amygdala reside.

Amygdala hijacks have been researched intensively in the mental health literature. For example, the scientific journal Biological Psychiatry documented the amygdala activity within fear and anxiety context.

As pointed out by Harvard Business Review:

Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance, we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.

Amygdala hijacks happen so quickly that we get caught off guard.

Learning to address the symptoms and coping with amygdala hijacks may contribute to our emotional intelligence; thus to an enjoyable life.

Managing emotional triggers requires recognizing them first, then having a plan to address them. Emotional triggers may grow fast, intensify, and may cause amygdala hijacks.

Awareness of uncomfortable situations and understanding the triggering factors is a good starting point. The most uncomfortable emotions we experience from amygdala hijacks are anxiety and fear.

There is no mystery to anxiety and fear. They are emotions created by the amygdala, an embedded part of the emotional brain, a.k.a., the brain's limbic system.

The primary function of the amygdala is to maintain survival. Understanding the function of the amygdala is essential to cope with anxiety, fear and other uncomfortable emotions.

Fear and anxiety look similar to us, but they are two different emotions and conditions. Dangerous situations create fear. However, anxiety can occur without real life-threatening situations when no fear is associated. We can feel anxious without experiencing fear. Anxiety might occur when there is no real danger. Thus, it creates a paradoxical situation for human life.

There is a critical point to consider here. We need to understand the nature of the amygdala. It is not in our conscious control. This constraint of not being in our conscious control makes it paradoxical and difficult for our lives. It puts us in a vulnerable position of being controlled rather than controlling our emotions.

Amygdala is an alert system in the brain. It is not part of the cognitive system. This means that we cannot control the amygdala directly with our thoughts.

The common question is, knowing the amygdala is not part of our thinking brain, can we do anything about it? We cannot directly affect the amygdala with our thoughts. However, we can influence the amygdala with our conscious thinking. It is the concept of taming the amygdala.

The power of the amygdala is to notice threats before our thinking brain can see them. However, our thinking brain can also create alerts and an active amygdala. Our negative thoughts have the power to activate the amygdala.

The amygdala observes and senses the risky situations and perceptual dangers that may affect our survival. I am not referring to the real threat here. The possibilities are coded in the amygdala. Each person may have different amygdala codes based on prior learning and other life experiences.

The rigid amygdala codes include common survival threats such as a sudden noise, extreme physical pain and suffering.

The amygdala has strong and fast neural connections to our nervous system, endocrine system, and vital organs. It is essential to know that amygdala acts much faster than the neocortex does.

Our neocortex is a specific part of the cerebral cortex (thinking brain). The neocortex is the most recently evolved thinking part of the cortex.

We are only able to experience the symptoms after the amygdala is activated for many conditions and reasons. The neocortex can have no clue during the amygdala activation period. Our neocortex runs much slower than the amygdala. Thus, we don't have direct control over the amygdala.

On the other hand, our neocortex, which is part of our thinking brain, is within our control. By using the capabilities of the neocortex, we think, rationalize, plan, and execute actions.

Ironically, our valuable neocortex has no idea about the working mechanism of the amygdala. There is no direct connection between the neocortex and the amygdala. The amygdala overwrites the rules and has no time to wait for the neocortex to develop some solution. Our thinking brain only knows the amygdala generated alerts when our anxiety and fear symptoms start manifesting.

Therefore, it is not always possible to control our anxiety and fear when they are triggered. Without knowing this biological fact, anxiety and fear can be seen as mysteries. In reality, anxiety and fear are emotions generated by the activation of the amygdala alerts.

So what can we do?

I want to share my personal experience on the taming amygdala briefly.

Anxiety is a very complex human condition. I experienced mild anxiety. For excessive anxiety, medical professionals provide medication and other treatments.

I didn't need medication and did not want to use medicine for dealing with my mild anxiety. I tried to tame my overactive amygdala because I knew it was the root cause.

I learned that we could tame the overactive amygdala to some extent.

A well-known technique to tame the amygdala is gradual exposure to the anxiety creating conditions and situations. For example, if driving in heavy traffic creates anxiety for us, we may continue driving at least in a short period by being aware of the symptoms.

Being aware of these feelings and using our thinking brain to rationalize the situations can rewire the amygdala code.

The repetitive exposure approach can continuously rewire the amygdala by creating new neural pathways and reducing the over-activation in those conditions and situations.

Even though our thinking brain part cannot stop the amygdala from generating anxiety instantly, the repetitive exposure approach can be a powerful tool to tame the amygdala.

One practical way to use our thinking brain is observing our anxiety patterns, recording them, and addressing the symptoms with a mindfulness plan. This natural and straightforward approach can help rewrite the amygdala code for a preventative anxiety state.

The causes of anxiety can be illogical because our amygdala does not operate based on logic. The amygdala works on images, sounds, and biological reactions which can pose a risk or danger to our survival.

For example, a sudden scary sound or an appearance of a hazardous object out of our awareness can activate the amygdala instantly. As soon as the amygdala senses a dangerous situation, it releases neurotransmitters and potent hormones to run, fight, or freeze.

These high volumes of hormones in our bloodstream can be the root causes of our anxiety.

For example, excessive adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol in the bloodstream can be the leading causes of our anxiety. These hormones energize us to be alert, ready for running and fighting.

When we know the anxiety-producing hormones increase in our bloodstream, we can use our thinking brain to take the actions.

For example, physical exercise can burn excessive adrenaline and provide us with temporary relief. Therefore, physical activity, especially in aerobic form, can be an effective strategy to cope with anxiety to some extent.

Taking a few deep breaths and mindful muscle relaxation, especially with visualization techniques, can also help us reduce and balance these hormones, allowing us to deal with anxiety.

These practical techniques can help us to move from the run and fight mode to a stable state.

From my experience, the most useful technique was taming the amygdala by using the capabilities of my thinking brain. To this end, I used gradual exposure to the anxiety creating situations with mindfulness, positive self-talk, questioning the perceptions, and living in the moment with full attention and focus.

This practical coping technique is commonly used by CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) practitioners successfully. Many studies proved that the use of CBT could be as effective as anxiety medications. In my opinion, learning and practising CBT can be critical as it addresses the root causes, whereas medicine only addresses the symptoms.

Using these practical techniques, we can be our therapists for coping with anxiety to some extent.

Of course, anxiety is a broad, serious, and complex condition with many unknowns. Thus, chronic and overwhelming conditions certainly require assistance from medical professionals.

Knowing the root causes of amygdala hijacks and taming our amygdala can reduce the effects of symptoms.

Reducing effects can alleviate stress and increase the quality of our lives. With reduced anxiety, fear, and other uncomfortable emotions, we can taste sustainable joy and experience a healthy and meaningful life.

Thank you for reading my perspectives. I wish you a healthy and happy life.

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I write about important and valuable life lessons. My goal is to delight my readers. My content aims to inform and engage my readers. I'm a technologist, cognitive scientist, and postdoctoral researcher, with four decades of experience.


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