What to do about Amygdala Hijacking

Today I have been thinking about "amygdala hijacking" - a funny sounding term that is actually far from funny!!  It can make a normally sane and steady person into a roaring dinosoar faster than you can say dinosaur!!!

Magical wikipedia (I think it is magic because when I was a student I had to ride my bike to the library to look up the encyclopedia!!) describes the origins of "amygdala hijack" as a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.

From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex (the "thinking brain"). If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus, i.e., if the record of experiences in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the Amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received. If, however, the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neo-cortex. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively.

So the amygdala can work faster than the rational part of our brains.  This does not mean we are powerless to stop it.  Firstly we need to recognise the signs which include heart rate increase; rapid breathing and you may feel hot and bothered as adrenaline rushes into your body to activate the flight, freeze or fight response.

Now if you are about to be mugged or you need to lift a car to save a baby or you have just come face to face with a grizzly bear - go ahead - your body is getting a clear signal to act - quickly.  But if you are reacting to a minor thing your partner has said or dirty dishwater in the sink your reaction comes from being triggered by a feeling that may actually have nothing to do with what is going on in the here and now but from something long ago - the brain finds it hard to tell time. The best thing you can do for you and your relationship is recognise that it is happening -  and learn how to recover your composure - quickly.

While it can take up to 20 minutes for the adrenalin to leave your body you can actually calm down much faster than that with practice. Here are some ideas for soothing yourself that you can call on when needed.

Relaxation techniques - there are many mp3's or apps available to guide you through meditation and relaxation exercises that can assist the process.  Some useful ones you can try yourself include.

  • deep breathing right from the diaphragm
  • working through each limb and muscle in your body and consciously relaxing it;
  • visualising your safe place or somewhere that brings you joy.

Sensory self-soothing techniques - go through each sense and find techniques that appeal to you.  As everyone is different what works for one may not work for another so it is important to put together your own list you can draw on.  Here are some ideas:

Touch:

  • bubble bath with scented oil;
  • hot or cool shower feel the water falling on your skin;
  • massage;
  • stretching/yoga;
  • pat an animal;
  • wear comfort clothes;
  • carry a soft piece of cloth or worry beads or smooth stones etc to feel and touch when you need to.

Hearing:

  • soothing music;
  • audio book;
  • white noise or tv in the background;
  • the sounds of nature - birds, ocean etc
  • water fountain

Sight:

  • make a collage;
  • carry soothing pictures with you and pull out when needed;
  • go to your favourite place and just enjoy;
  • art on your walls;
  • picture books/coffee table books.

Smell:

  • burn scented candles or incense;
  • wear cologne, perfume or scented oil that makes you feel good;
  • visit places that have your favourite aroma eg bakery; coffee shop; florist;
  • wander in a garden of scented plants;
  • bake;

Taste:

  • enjoy your favourite food;
  • treat yourself to a favourite sweet treat;
  • drink your favourite beverage;
  • suck on an ice cube;
  • eat a juicy piece of fruit.

Once you have recognised that the hijacking occurred and you have developed some strategies to deal with it, it is helpful to begin to remember the triggers so you can give your neocortex (thinking brain) a head start on the amygdala and ward off the hijack.

More on triggers later...

xxCatriona