Vocational Careers | The Amygdala Hijack
Vocational Careers provides cutting edge leadership and specialised training (including Safety, Learning and Coaching) for professional and personal development based on Neuroscience research.
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The Amygdala Hijack


We have all had the experience of doing something in the heat of the moment that we regretted later. Our reaction flew out of the gate before we could catch it. It’s like our rational mind stopped and what came out not only surprised us but everyone else around. You end up saying “How could I do that, what could I have possibly been thinking?” Well in reality you weren’t thinking you were overwhelmed with an emotional reaction. You were hijacked.


In the corporate world a four second outburst can tarnish a leader’s career. It is what becomes chiseled in others mind about you. How does this happen and what can we do to prevent this loss of rational thought and reputation? A tool to gain more cognitive control will be presented and explained in this training module.


The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, his first book on the subject. The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, which regulates the fight or flight response. When threatened, it can respond irrationally. A rush of stress hormones floods the body before the prefrontal lobes (regulating executive function) can mediate this reaction.


The amygdala hijack is an immediate, overwhelming emotional response with a later realization that the response was inappropriately strong given the trigger. Daniel Goleman coined the term based on the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, which demonstrated that some emotional information travels directly from the thalamus to the amygdala without engaging the neocortex, or higher brain regions. This causes a strong emotional response that precedes more rational thought.


Under normal circumstances, you process information through your neocortex or “thinking brain” where logic occurs. The neocortex then routes the information to the amygdala, a small organ that lies deep in the center of your “emotional brain.” On occasion, there is a short circuit whereby the “thinking brain” is bypassed and signals are sent straight to the “emotional brain.” When this happens, you have an immediate, overwhelming emotional response disproportionate to the original event. The information is later relayed to higher brain regions that perform logic and decision-making processes, causing you to realize the inappropriateness of your original emotional response.
The amygdala hijack may leave you regretting your overwhelming emotional response to a situation. Knowing about the amygdala hijack allows you to prevent it by remaining aware of your emotions during potentially triggering events.


Another way to prevent amygdala hijacking is to use the 6–second rule. Waiting for just six seconds causes the brain chemicals that cause amygdala hijacking to diffuse away. Breathing deeply or focusing on a pleasant image helps to prevent your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction. Over time, you can change the way your brain responds to emotional triggers, preventing the amygdala hijacking response. To rewire your brain in this way, think carefully about the triggering situation after you tame your emotional reaction. Identify the trigger and determine a more appropriate response to use next time. Your amygdala learns from past experiences, allowing you to change the way in which you react to a similar situation in the future.


Learning Objectives:


At the end of this session, participants will be able to: (not limited to)

  • Describe an ‘amygdala hijack’
  • Discuss the results of an ‘amygdala hijack’
  • Outline the process of an ‘amygdala hijack’
  • List two methods of preventing an ‘amygdala hijack’